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Phillies Andy MacPhail right not to spend money on roster

Phillies President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail

Andy MacPhail has just begun his third off-season as President of Baseball Operations with the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

First hired by the Phillies as an assistant to Pat Gillick in June 2015, MacPhail has been an inside observer to the workings of the team as it finished with 63, 71, and 66 wins over the last three seasons.

Going back even further, the Phillies and their fans have now suffered through five consecutive losing campaigns. Not just barely losing, where your team is competitive. The Phillies best finish in that stretch was 16 games below the .500 mark.

It has been a long, dark period made even less palatable by the fact that it followed the greatest decade in franchise history. From 2001-11, the Phillies fielded just one loser, and that 2002 team finished just a game below the .500 mark.

Most fans, though frustrated, understood the circumstances that led to this current losing stretch. Our heroes of the previous decade pretty much all aged out together. Injuries cut short a few careers. A few poor decisions exacerbated matters.

The reality was that the Phillies needed to rebuild their farm system, developing a group of players who could form the next core of a winning ball club. That was going to take a few years.

Well, a few years have passed. The Phillies have indeed rebuilt that farm system. In the opinions of most respected evaluators, they have indeed developed a core group capable of special things in the coming years.

Despite the final standings, a number of those young players stepped up big in the 2017 season. The club played 23-19 ball over the last month and a half of the season as more of the kids were moved into prominent roles.

So when MacPhail sat down in front of the press in early October to discuss the Phillies off-season strategy, hope was in the air. It appears that “rebuilding” is over, or nearing completion.

Many fans and scribes believe that with just a couple of key additions, especially in the pitching rotation, the Phillies might even be able to push for a 2018 Wildcard playoff berth. Was the hierarchy of the team on board, ready to make a real push to start winning again?

My philosophy hasn’t changed,” MacPhail said per Ryan Lawrence of The Philly Voice. “There are times when you’re going to have to dive into that pool and just take a risk. But it’s not my favorite place to be. We get inundated with stories across the game about how everybody is looking for starting pitching. Just get two quality starters, and we’ll be all set. Well, you might as well look for a unicorn at the same time. It’s tough. You don’t want to be paying for past performance.”

The cumulative message in MacPhail’s presser was that the Phillies are going to be spending money this off-season, just not on immediate improvements to the roster. Instead, there will be improvements to the ballpark and to the behind-the-scenes organization, such as the analytics staff.

Lawrence also reported in his piece, however, that according to MacPhail, principal owner John Middleton is not necessarily on board.

When asked how Middleton and the ownership group responded to the idea of not spending on roster improvements, MacPhail stated: They did not react extraordinarily well in the beginning. Ultimately, they’re OK with it with one proviso: that if an opportunity presents itself, we do not exclude it. They understand the program.

Since the press conference, MacPhail’s statements and position have met with a mostly negative reaction from that frustrated fan base. It has also prompted some criticism from those in the press.

Jack McCaffery of the Delaware County Daily Times was perhaps the most direct. McCaffery called the team president’s message “nonsense”, and characterized as “unacceptable” his position to spend on the park but not on the players. McCaffery opened his piece as follows:

“With the chance to use the Phillies’ slight, late-season, youth-driven improvement to inspire renewed fan excitement, Andy MacPhail instead made a recent retreat to the organization’s most humiliating modern-era moment.
Though the team president didn’t reprise the classic Bill Giles lament that he is running a small-market operation, MacPhail projected an identical message.”

While I may not be at the ballpark on a daily basis, I don’t need to be in order to have an educated, informed opinion on the Phillies roster and their organizational decision-making process.

As a Phillies fan for 47 seasons now, I have seen many ups and downs. There have been two glorious World Series titles, five National League pennants, 11 NL East crowns on the good side of the ledger.

More than half (24) have been losing seasons on the other side. This year’s team was the 12th Phillies ball club that I watched through a season in which they finished at least 20 games below that .500 mark.

As well as anyone, I understand the frustration. However, I don’t join in what I see now as a somewhat misguided rush to win in the short term. I want to win for the long term. I want another decade run, at least.

MacPhail was specifically alluding to the current off-season crop of available free agents when he spoke of keeping Middleton’s wallet closed for now.

That current crop includes a pair of arms that would be categorized by many as “aces”, #1 starter-level arms. Those would be Yu Darvish and Jake Arreita.

Beyond that, there are a number of interesting arms of various levels, all proven big league starter types. These include C.C. Sabathia, John Lackey, Francisco Liriano, Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, and former Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson.

Luring one of the two aces here by overpaying them, something that would most certainly need to happen in order to get them to choose the last-place Phillies over a contender, and adding one or two of the second-tier arms would absolutely improve the odds of a 2018 postseason run.

However, you aren’t getting either of those aces on a one-year contract. You aren’t even likely to get them on a three-year deal. You’re probably talking about a five year contract, minimum. Arrieta made $16.5 million and Darvish made $11 million this year. You can bet on them seeking, and likely getting, a five-year deal worth a total of $100 million or more.

Both pitchers are now 31 years old. Arrieta will turn 32 before the 2018 season opens. That is far from old in the real world. But you are committing big chunks of your budget to either arm through the 2022 campaign. MacPhail is not willing to do that, and I believe that he is right.

Spending $100 million or more on baseball players already in their 30’s is a fool’s contract in the modern game. It might work out once in awhile. But the vast majority of the time, you will be lucky to get a couple of good years before being saddled with three or more years of a contract albatross hanging around your club’s neck.

In a revealing piece on this topic back in 2013, Jonah Keri for Grantland told us to “beware the $100 million MLB man.”

if you want to avoid making a $240 million mistake you’ll regret for a decade, the answer’s simple: Assemble a bottomless well of homegrown talent and hire a GM with enough clout to talk his billionaire boss out of doing anything rash.

If the Phillies were already a proven contender, and they had plenty of budget room, maybe things are different. But that is not the case. This young group still has to prove that they are for real over the length of a full season.

MacPhail believes, and I am not sure that he is wrong, that the Phillies will not repeat the recent losing campaigns in 2018, even without a big outlay of cash to free agents.

If the youngsters are as good as we all believe them to be, if those last six or seven winning weeks were not an aberration, then 2018 will indeed be much more exciting.

And if that does indeed turn out to be the case, if the Phillies are hanging around the .500 mark at mid-season, there is nothing to preclude them going after a big ticket arm and/or bat as next year’s trade deadline approaches.

There is one interesting case that appears could meet the Middleton proviso of being able to pursue an opportunity. That would be the case of Japanese phenom Shohei Otani.

Otani is just 23 years old. He has been compared to Babe Ruth, and called “the world’s best player who isn’t in the majors.” It has been said that Otani has “the kind of extraordinary talent that could change the sport” due to his outstanding performances as both a pitcher and hitter.

The Phillies would be joined by at least a dozen other clubs in Major League Baseball in bidding on the young wunderkind. But the fact is that based on age and position, he perfectly fits what the club should be looking for at this time. He is that “opportunity presenting itself” of which Middleton speaks.

Short of a successful Otani bid, I am on board with the Phillies heading into the 2018 season with their current crop of youngsters. I believe they will be much better next year, that it will prove to be the real beginning of a step forward.

I also believe that the Phillies are on the verge of spending big. Not now. Not this off-season. But perhaps at that 2018 trade deadline. Certainly no later than next off-season.

I do not believe that MacPhail is dooming Phillies fans to a repeat of 2013-17 any longer. The kids are here, and they are good. MacPhail and I, and you as well if you are honest, believe they are ready to shine. If they do, then they will get help. It’s almost time. Almost.

Tampa Bay Rays successfully transition Alex Colome to the closer role

Colome (L) leads the American League in Saves
Way back on July 28, 2000 the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays completed a trade with the Oakland Athletics. The D-Rays sent away a pair of arms in Jim Mecir and Todd Belitz, and in return received a Double A right-hander named Jesus Colome.
Colome had a big arm, with pitches clocked at over 100 miles per hour. He made his big league debut with Tampa in June of 2011 as a reliever, beginning what would be a 10-year career in Major League Baseball.
Colome left via free agency, signing with the New York Yankees. He would end up pitching again in the big leagues with the Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers, and Seattle Mariners. Jesus retired following the 2010 season at age 32, but would show up for a 2012 stint in the Mexican League.
A year later, the Rays would debut another Colome at the big league level. This one was Alex Colome, the nephew of Jesus. The younger Colome had signed out of the Dominican Republic as an 18-year old in March of 2007.

DEVELOPMENT AS A STARTING PITCHER

Alex would be developed as a starter by the Tampa organization. He put himself on the prospect map by going 7-4 over 15 starts with Low A Hudson Valley in 2009. Colome registered a 1.66 ERA, allowing just 46 hits over 76 innings while striking out 94 batters.
By 2013, a year after Jesus wrapped his pro career in Mexico, a 24-year old Alex was making his big league debut, still as a starting pitcher.
At that point, the Rays rotation was loaded. It featured 27-year old lefty David Price, winner of the AL Cy Young Award the previous season, and 26-year old righty Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year.
Youngsters Matt MooreAlex CobbChris ArcherDrew SmylyNate Karns and Jake Odorizzi were all aged 25 or younger. All had either debuted in Major League Baseball or were knocking on the door.
Colome would receive three starts in the 2014 season, but the Rays brain trust was already contemplating a switch to the bullpen. His two relief outings that year, however, yielded poor results. Colome surrendered six earned runs on seven hits over five innings.
On May 1, 2015, Colome was promoted again to Tampa, and immediately inserted into the Rays rotation. He received 13 starts over the next two months, putting together a 3-4 record with a 4.70 ERA. He allowed 73 hits over 69 innings with just a 44/24 K:BB ratio.

SWITCH TO THE BULLPEN CLICKS

With Archer, Odorizzi, Karns, Moore, and Smyly, as well as 25-year old Erasmo Ramirez around to handle the starting load, it was again decided to switch Colome to the bullpen. Again he struggled over his first couple of outings.
But then something clicked. From July 17 through the end of the 2015 season, Colome made 28 relief appearances, allowing just 30 hits over 37.1 innings with a 2.17 ERA. He struck out 42 batters and walked just seven in that time, allowing just a .229 Batting Average Against.
Colome had found the role that would prove to be his meal ticket. The following year of 2016 saw Colome become a member of the American League All-Star Team for the first time.
Taking over as the Rays closer in mid-April, he would register 37 Saves with a 1.91 ERA over 57 games that year. He also had an overpowering 71/15 K:BB ratio over 56.2 innings in which he allowed just 43 hits.
In the spring, Colome was part of the Dominican bullpen during the World Baseball Classic. He made five appearances, allowing two runs on two hits over 4.1 innings while striking out five.
This year has been another successful one out of the Rays pen for the now 28-year old. His 43 Saves lead the AL by a wide margin. His ERA is up at 3.02, and his K/9 has dropped from last year’s 11.3 to the 8.0 mark this season. But much of that comes from a poor late-June, early July stretch.
Since July 6, Colome has saved 21 games over 25 appearances. He has surrendered just four earned runs in 25.1 innings pitched, for a 1.42 ERA. His Batting Average Against is a miniscule .187 in that time, and he has 22/6 K:BB mark.

FUTURE BRIGHT FOR RAYS AND THEIR CLOSER

Colome is likely about to realize the fruits of his successful transition to the closer role. After making just over a half-million dollars in each of the last three seasons, he will be arbitration-eligible for the first time this coming off-season.
Rays manager Kevin Cash is happy to have Colome to turn to at the end of games when Tampa has a lead.
“He’s a special player,” Cash said recently per Marc Topkin for the Tampa Bay Times
“What he does to close out ballgames, whether it’s 7-8-9 (hitters) or the teeth of the lineup, the way he buys into whatever we ask him to do makes it really easy to manage guys like that. That team-first concept, he really sets a tone. The way we used him early in the year (over multiple innings), there aren’t many closers that are too keen on that idea. Alex was, what do I need to do. I’m glad he’s having the season he’s having.”

The Rays were in playoff contention for much of this season. Despite playing poorly since early August, they remained in the AL Wildcard race until recently. Tampa Bay hasn’t been to the postseason since 2013. Colome’s development as a reliable closer is one more piece to their future contending puzzle.

Rays of Hope During Hot Spring in Tampa Bay

To say that the 2016 season was rough for the Tampa Bay Rays and their fans would be an understatement. The club’s 68-94 last place finish in the AL East was their worst in nearly a decade.
From 2008, the year that a talented, young Rays club won the franchise lone American League pennant, through 2013, Tampa Bay won 90 or more games in five of six seasons.
But it has now been three straight losing campaigns in west-central Florida. And most prognosticators had the team again finishing at the bottom of the standings.
But the Rays are off to an encouraging 9-9 start here in the early weeks of the 2017 season. It hasn’t been any one particular thing either.
Under third year manager Kevin Cash, there has been real improvement across all facets of the game. Those improvements added up to a winning record after the Rays swept the Detroit Tigers earlier this week for the first time since 2010. A loss last night to Houston dropped the club back to the .500 mark.

LONGO GETTING HELP ACROSS THE LINEUP

During their glory years, the most important player in the everyday lineup was third baseman Evan Longoria. Now a 31-year old veteran, Longo is still on board, and still a major offensive threat. The three-time AL All-Star has a half-dozen extra-base hits, including three home runs, and has driven in 10 runs.
Right fielder Steven Souza also has three homers. The 28-year old leads the club with 15 RBI and a .343/.429/.582 slash line.
The other two outfield positions feature speed to burn. In left field, Mallex Smith has taken over. The 24-year old was flipped back in January from the Atlanta Braves to the Seattle Mariners, who then shipped him to Tampa for lefty pitcher Drew Smyly.
Smith has gotten off solidly with a .273 average and .360 on-base percentage. He is second on the club with three stolen bases, but has missed the last eight games with a hamstring strain. He has been running lightly, and the club hopes to get him back soon.
Leading the Rays in swipes is Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who has four. The 27-year old is hitting .294 with a .385 OBP thus far in 2017.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the everyday lineup has been first baseman Logan Morrison. Once a highly rated prospect in the Marlins organization, Morrison has mostly disappointed over his first seven seasons.
But now in his second year in Tampa, the 29-year old is tied with DH Corey Dickerson for the team lead with four home runs. Morrison is also second on the team with a dozen RBI. For his part, Dickerson is hitting for a .317/.358/.603 slash.

RAYS PITCHING HAS ALSO BEEN STRONG

On the mound, 28-year old Chris Archer has stepped up to become a legitimate ace after helping lead the U.S. to a World Baseball Classic championship in March.
Archer is 2-0 with a 1.71 FIP and 117 ERA+ mark. Over his first four starts, Archer has allowed 25 hits in 25.1 innings with a 27/8 K:BB mark.
Alex Cobb appears to finally be all the way back from Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss the entire 2015 season and most of last year. Cobb has an 18/4 K:BB across his first 24 innings, and three of his four starts have been encouraging.
24-year old Blake Snell had a strong rookie campaign a year ago, and the lefty is off to another solid start. He has allowed just 12 hits over his first 16.1 innings across three starts.
Matt Andriese was supposed to be the big question mark in the rotation as the fifth starter. But thus far, the 27-year old has done his part. Andriese has a 14/5 K:BB in allowing 16 hits over 16 innings in his three starts.
Jake Odorizzi was supposed to be the breakout pitcher in the rotation. But the 27-year old is currently wrapping up a stint on the 10-day DL with a hamstring issue.
Odorizzi is due to throw a bullpen session on Saturday, and the Rays hope to have the talented right-hander back soon. he did get on the mound for three starts in which he allowed just 10 hits over 13 innings.
Alex Colome took over as the closer a year ago. The now 28-year old is off to a strong start as well. He has allowed just two hits over six innings thus far. He also has not walked a batter across his first half-dozen appearances, and has registered three saves.
The bullpen setting up Colome has been mostly effective as well. Erasmo RamirezTommy Hunter, and Jumbo Diaz have led the way, with Ramirez stepping into the rotation to fill-in while Odorizzi recovers.

RETURNING PLAYERS COULD BOOST CLUB FURTHER

Management likes what it sees of the renewed fight in their ball club. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times recently quoted general manager Erik Neander:
“The makeup and chemistry is showing signs of being a real strength. There is a chip, an edge, a selflessness, a greater purpose behind how these guys compete together. … It’s an easy group to root for.”
Tampa should get better in the coming weeks. Odorizzi could be back on the mound and Smith back in the lineup soon. The Rays are also looking forward to the return of shortstop Matt Duffy, who had off-season surgery on his left heel. Duffy is slowly progressing, and should be back in May.
The Rays have fashioned their .500 start thanks largely to a strong home mark. The team is 8-3 at the sparsely populate Trop, while just 1-6 on the road. They’ll have to figure those road woes out in a hurry if they expect to stay competitive, as the club heads out on an eight-game road trip next week.
While it is way too early to get overly excited about the team possibly contending this season, the start has been fun. Tampa is showing that they can beat you a number of ways. Now it’s up to Cash and his players to keep things moving forward as the warm feelings of spring turn into a long, hot summer.