In1970, the club still in the Connie Mack Stadium dungeon — with many of the Faithful paying "street insurance" to keep their tires and batteries — the future of the Phillies sprouted like crocus buds through melting March ice.
A shortstop 155 pounds soaking wet and an outfielder who looked like an overfed lumberjack — a Bull in a china shop — were surrounded by a mixture of players destined for retirement, dead-end futures and trade bait. Two years later, Rick Wise, arguably the team's best pitcher, was traded to St. Louis for a tall, sort of oddball and grumpy left-hander, with a slider that not only dropped off the table but off the roof. In what became the most successful Phillies trade ever, Lefty later strolled into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In '73, a third baseman named Michael Jack Schmidt — you can add him to Cooperstown, too, along with his 548 home runs — was added to the team. They also brought up home-grown youngster RHP Dick Ruthven and although the team finished last, the crocus was sprouting.
What followed was an infusion of youth and careful trading that paid off when the team captured the NL East in '76, '77 and '78, but did not get to what Chase Utley calls The Stage (World Series) until — thanks to Bill Giles — after Pete Rose's '79 arrival. They won it all in '80.
Let's face it, it didn't happen overnight.
Three years later — with a mixture of aged youngsters from 1980 and veterans from the Big Red Machine — they got back to The Stage, but lost in five to Baltimore.
Ten years after that came the aberration.
Out of nowhere a rowdy, stick together against all odds bunch with a nutball closer, carefree first baseman, a man's man catcher and leader, and a host of cowboys seemingly from an earlier era, began to win. They took Philly by storm; then lost it all in game six to a crafty right-handed hitter — spoiling Lenny Dykstra's three-run shot in the seventh — who hammered an inside fastball and deposited it in the left-field seats in the bottom of the ninth. Carter's walk-off homer ended what was truly an amazing season, aberration or no.
The team then went to sleep for the next 14 years.
Another infusion of youth shook-up the Faithful: J-Roll in '01; Utley in '03; Ryan Howard in '05; and Series MVP Cole Hamels and Carlos Ruiz in '06. In '07 the team lost to the Colorado Rockies in the NLDS. It traded for "lights out" Brad Lidge and the lumber — and the city — came alive.
The 2008 season was magical and another Stage performance in '09, losing to the Yankees. Then the wheels came off. Howard hurt in '10, Utley's knees, Doc retired, five hole hitter Jason Werth — who they never replaced — took the money and left. Just like that, the magic was gone. Puffffff, gone in an eye blink of time.
Bloated with high, long-term deals — some, the worst in baseball history — downloaded the club to losing seasons for the next three years, and forced the trade of the handsome and talented left-hander, Cole Hamels. After trading away youth for those past Stage appearances — remember the Four Aces? — it was youth the Phillies desperately needed.
In dealing Hamels the Phillies got five quality (?) minor league prospects: catcher Jorge Alfaro (Reading); outfielder Nick Williams (Lehigh Valley); right-hander Jake Thompson (Phillies); right-hander Jerad Eickhoff (Phillies) and righty Alec Asher (suspended 80 days on June 16). The question mark goes next to quality because the jury is still out on that one.
They traded Ken Giles and to get Vince Velasquez (Phillies); Brett Oberholtzer (designated for assignment to clear waivers); Mark Appel (season-ending injury); and Thomas Eshelman (Reading). The club traded Jimmy Rollins for right-hander Zach Eflin (Phillies). They traded Chase Utley for utility player Darnell Sweeney (Lehigh Valley) and pitcher John Richy (Clearwater); traded Ben Revere for right-handers Jimmy Cordero (Reading) and Albert Tirando (Lakewood).
Seemingly, with a young rotation of Aaron Nola (DL), Jack Thompson, Zach Eflin (DL), Jerad Eickhoff, and Vince Velasquez, the future is looking up. Williams and top Phillies prospect shortstop J.P Crawford will possibly come to the Show by season's end. The crocus once again is starting to sprout.
But here's the thing. Is the crocus really sprouting, or do we just think it is?
None of these young players guarantee anything. There are more question marks than hope. Are the Phillies on the road back to Utley's Stage? Projected ace Aaron Nola, with what could be a sore arm (elbow strain) after pitching 111 innings, is DL'd and could be shut down for the season.
Fifties star Robin Roberts pitched 226 innings in his first full season, Cole Hamels 183. Former first-round draft pick Mark Appel (Houston) is again done for the season, after suffering first a shoulder strain, then needed elbow surgery. Is that why Houston gave him up? Eickhoff has struggled, he's 7-12, 2-3, the last five games.
Now rookie Zach Eflin is DL'd, apparently with the same knee condition that cut Chase Utley's numbers in half. Velasquez has been up and down, typical, no doubt, for a 24 year old pitcher, but why then was he mentioned in trade talks with Texas?
Has third-baseman Maikel Franco lived up to expectations? There are huge question marks about Tommy Joseph, Cody Asche, Tyler Goedell, and yes, even the All-Star Odubel Herrera, who seems to go in and out of slumps faster than Kathleen Kane. I think it is legitimate to question whether or not Herrera can hit left-handed pitching.
If three or four of these kids don't play as expected, this team could be in trouble for the next five or six years.
Lookit, an injury here, a breakdown there, a free agent signing goes bust, a trade backfires, and the team is right back where it was in 2015, a 99 loss season. The club hired a brainy, young GM good at juggling numbers to cut down on personnel mistakes. Sure, let's see how that works. You can juggle numbers all you want, but if they can't play.....?
Injuries are accumulating; batting averages are down; pitchers are getting hammered. One thing is for sure, however: the team drops the last of its big salaries — Howard and Ruiz — which gives them some payroll wiggle room. If the youth movement doesn't pan out, maybe the club can buy its way to the top.
Youth movements take time and patience. I get it.
There is hope for 2018. Or 2020. Just don't bet the mortgage on it.