Sunday, July 28, 2013

Not Everyone Ages Gracefully - Just Ask The Phillies

Photo by Howard Smith/USA Today

Prior to the 2007 campaign, Phillies’ shortstop Jimmy Rollins declared his squad “the team to beat” in the National League East.  Rollins made his claim mere months after the Mets won the division by a dozen games and finished with the best regular season record in the National League.

Rollins’ statement proved to be prophetic, as the Phillies took home the 2007 NL East flag on the season’s final day.  Philadelphia’s successful run atop the division lasted half a decade, with the team winning five NL East crowns, two National League pennants and the 2008 World Series championship.

But in 2012, everything came crashing down for the Phillies.  Philadelphia missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006, finishing the year with an 81-81 record, their worst full-season showing since they went 80-81 in 2002.

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard combined to miss 170 games for the Phillies.  Rollins and Shane Victorino (who was traded to Los Angeles prior to the trade deadline) hit .250 and .261, respectively.  Cliff Lee won one more game all year than R.A. Dickey won in the month of June alone.  And Roy Halladay finished the year with his highest ERA since 2000.

Why did the Phillies fail last year while teams like the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants didn’t?  It’s all in the birth certificates.

When the Phillies began their run of excellence in 2007, the core of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino and Cole Hamels were all in their 20s.  They were either already in their prime (which usually begins around age 27) or about to enter their most productive years.

But once 2012 rolled around, the same players who helped the Phillies achieve sustained greatness not seen in the city of Brotherly Love since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had all entered their early-to-mid 30s.  In addition, Philadelphia added pieces to the team in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee who were supposed to keep the team atop the NL East standings for years to come.  Halladay and Lee started off well in Philly but both suffered through subpar seasons in 2012.  Not coincidentally, both Halladay and Lee were in their mid-thirties in 2012.

To acquire the pieces that were supposed to complement the core that’s been in place since 2007, the Phillies have parted ways with a number of prospects – prospects that could have been the Rollinses, Utleys and Howards of the next generation.  Putting it simply, the Phillies are old and they’re not getting any younger.  (Welcome aboard, Michael Young!  You’ll fit right in!)

The Mets were also an old team in 2006.  Pedro Martinez and Orlando “The Dookie” Hernandez were in their mid-to-late 30s as October rolled around.  Cliff Floyd was just two months away from turning 34.  Neither player got to experience that month the way Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner did, as Martinez and Hernandez were both disabled for the Mets’ shorter-than-expected playoff run and Floyd should have been disabled.  (And for the record, Delgado, Lo Duca and Wagner were also well into their 30s, while Beltran was six months away from blowing out 30 candles on his cake.)

In 2007 and 2008, the Mets’ thirty-somethings continued to get older and had a new forty-something to share disabled list war stories with in Moises Alou.  Not surprisingly, the aging veterans on the Mets were lapped by the much younger Jimmy Rollins and the rest of his "team to beat" in both seasons.

Now it’s 2013.  The defending World Series champion Giants have young stars at many key positions.  Players like Buster Posey, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Pablo Sandoval (and don’t forget Tim Lincecum) are all in their 20s and hope to lead the Giants to more titles.  The Washington Nationals, who won a league-high 98 games in 2012, are even younger than the Giants, with the under-30 core of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond all contributing in 2013.  And the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles are using youth to make another postseason push after surprising all of baseball in 2012.

The Mets are trying to shed their old man image that led to heartbreak and disappointment in 2006, 2007 and 2008.  Players like Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud are either currently contributing to the team’s success or waiting in the wings to contribute.  As the team gets younger, the brighter future promised to us by the front office is getting closer and closer to the horizon.

The Phillies fielded a young team in 2007 that became a five-year dynasty in the NL East.  But Philadelphia did not replenish their youth when their core players began to show signs of getting older and becoming more fragile.  Instead, they gave multi-year deals to their fading stars (five years to Ryan Howard, three years to Jimmy Rollins) and acquired players who are now closer to retirement than they are to their arbitration years (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, Michael Young).

Matt Harvey faced Roy Halladay at Citizens Bank Park back on April 8, and there was no question who the better pitcher was.  Halladay might have been a part of the Phillies’ past successes, but success has now passed him by.  Meanwhile, Harvey is pitching the way Halladay used to pitch before his age caught up to him.

Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige once said “don’t look back – something might be gaining on you.”  The Phillies have looked back, and all they see is a youthful Mets squad that's gunning to pass them and stay ahead of them for years to come.  (The Phillies have currently lost eight consecutive games and are just a game and a half ahead of the Mets in the standings.)  The Mets don’t have any reason to look behind them.  Their road to a successful future is right in front of them.  And they intend to drive down that road long after the Phillies have run out of gas.

Not everyone ages gracefully.  The Mets learned that the hard way in 2006, 2007 and 2008.  The Phillies are finding that out for themselves right now.

No comments: