Commentary

Learning from the mistakes of 1997

1001-448frAndrew McCutchen. J.D. Martinez. Mike Trout. Potentially high-priced outfielders the Phillies could nab in a trade.

Yoenis Cespedes. Jose Bautista. Matt Holliday. Potentially high-priced outfielders the Phillies could sign as a free agent.

Some sound tempting. Why not fill a glaring hole today that could pay off years from now? Why not throw a bone to fans waiting for the next great Phillies team?

For those who believe making a big trade or signing a big free agent could simply bolt the Phils into contention, let me remind you of the 1997 Phillies.

***

Well, let’s start with 1996. The 1996 Philadelphia Phillies stunk.

Finishing 67-95, the Phils were dead last in the National League East, 29 games behind the division-winning Braves but amazingly 14 games better than the atrocious Tigers. Still, in any measure, the 1996 Phillies stunk.

On August 1, 1996, the Phillies played a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals. And the lineups for that twi-night affair showed just how bad the Phillies were playing that season.

For one, they were a shell of the 1993 National League champions that rocked Veterans Stadium just three years before. Darren Daulton and Lenny Dykstra would be lost early in the year to injuries, the latter effectively ending his career. The only pieces of that 1993 team in the starting lineups for the doubleheader were shortstop Kevin Stocker, outfielder Jim Eisenreich and second baseman Mickey Morandini.

The meat of the order regularly featured post-1993 coverups Gregg Jefferies, Todd Zeile and Benito Santiago, all acquired as “big names” to keep a few devoted fans interested in an otherwise aging and flawed team. Other holes weren’t so easily filled: Game one of the doubleheader also featured starting roles for David Doster and Manny Martinez.

But there were other interesting names in the lineups that evening, including outfielder Ricky Otero, catcher Mike Lieberthal, pitcher Mike Mimbs, and two players making their major league debuts that night: shortstop Desi Relaford and third baseman Scott Rolen.

Pitcher Bronson Heflin, who would enter the second game – a 7-1 loss – also made his debut that evening. In all, 15 players made their major league debuts with the Phillies in 1996 – most in the majors – with eight of the debuts occurring on or after August 1. And only four of the 15 debuting players were older than 24. These men joined young talent trying to establish itself with the Phillies as the season dragged to its close.

And yet …

***

Wendell Magee Jr. was one of those 15 players who debuted in 1996. He first appeared on August 16, going hitless in his one plate appearance against the Giants. A top-10 team prospect, Magee was expected to grow into a starting corner outfielder. His .204 average and two home runs in 151 plate appearances didn’t quite tell a good story that year, but expectations were still relatively high for the 24-year-old.

Mike Grace, another top team prospect, debuted in 1995 at age 25, but he returned in 1996 as part of the opening day rotation. He pitched eight innings in a 3-1 win to open his campaign, and on June 2 was flashing a 3.49 ERA with 49 strikeouts and 16 walks when he left the game early because of a shoulder injury. He’d miss the rest of the 1996 season, but he was still a bright hope for 1997.

There was Ricky Bottalico, the hard-throwing reliever who made an instant impact as a rookie in 1995, and Mike Lieberthal, the highly touted catching prospect who was taking on backup duty with a .253 average in 1996.

The team’s No. 2 prospect, catcher Bobby Estalella, was figured to be a better hitter than Lieberthal. After displaying outrageous power at every level, Estalella was promoted to the big leagues at age 21, making his debut on September 17 against Florida. In 18 plate appearances Estalella hit .353 with two home runs. Hopes were high for the catcher.

But none of these kids made as much noise as Scott Rolen, the third baseman from Indiana who was drafted in the second round of the 1993 draft. Rolen impressed immediately upon his arrival in the Phils’ farm system, hitting .300 at nearly every level, showing superb plate discipline, adding some power and flashing an elite glove. No Phils third baseman looked so good since Mike Schmidt. Rolen was quickly considered an impossible-to-miss future stud, and the obvious heart of the next great Phillies team.

Rolen would get the opening day start at third base in 1997. Everyone knew that. And Magee was penciled in to start the season in center field. Estalella still needed seasoning, but Lieberthal was ready to assume the starting catcher spot. And while ace Curt Schilling would get the ball as opening day starter, young arms Calvin Maduro and Mike Mimbs were set to take rotation spots, with Grace certainly finding his way back into the group once recovered from his shoulder injury.

The 1997 Phillies were probably not going to compete for a division title. But prospects were emerging. The future was slowly becoming brighter.

And yet …

***

The Phillies had plenty of problems in the 1990s. They scouted poorly and drafted poorly. They low-balled players and never dug deep into their pockets. They played in a cement hole of a stadium, where the turf would boil near 200 degrees in the early August sun.

And, maybe most noticeable – even more noticeable than disgusting Veterans Stadium – was the dreck on the field headed by “big name” veterans brought in to keep the fans happy. That was the problem. Gregg Jefferies. Todd Zeile. Benito Santiago. Sure they had decent years here and there, and sure we cheered when Zeile or Santiago clocked a home run into the vast Veterans Stadium wilderness, but seriously, what kind of crap was this?

Twenty years ago Sunday, the Phillies would trade Toby Borland and Ricardo Jordan to the Mets for first baseman Rico Brogna, a 26-year-old needing a change of scenery after a rough 1996 season. Later in the offseason they would sign 34-year-old starter Mark Portugal to a two-year, $4.7 million contract, then 33-year-old starter Mark Leiter, whose ERA dropped below 4.00 only once in his career and yet earned a two-year, $3.9 million contract. Finally, and notoriously, the Phils would sign 34-year-old outfielder Danny Tartabull to a laughable one-year, $2 million contract.

The problem wasn’t necessarily trading for and signing these guys, but that they’d start Brogna at first base, Leiter in the rotation and Tartabull in right field (Portugal started the season on the disabled list, but he would’ve started, too). Brogna, Leiter and Tartabull were three of the lowest-risk, lowest-value pickups of the offseason, and yet the Phils stunted their rebuild to put them in everyday positions.

Brogna put in a couple seasons with the Phils, while Leiter led the National League in losses in 1997. Tartabull? We know that story – 11 plate appearances and a career-ending injury.

Magee was given just 126 plate appearances and failed. He was supplanted by Midre Cummings, who at 25 played a solid center field and showed great patience at the plate. The Phils released him in spring training 1998. Magee was gone by 1999.

Grace returned to the rotation and put up a 3.46 ERA to close out 1997. He struggled to start 1998, however, and soon found himself in the minor leagues, then the bullpen, then out of baseball.

Bottalico continued to pitch well, showing that the only thing the Phils seemed to do well was develop relievers.

Other pitchers would come and go. Maduro and Mimbs failed to live up to expectations and were soon jettisoned, showing the Phils had no patience for developing young arms. Prospect Garrett Stephenson pitched well after being called up, but six bad starts ended his time in Philly in 1998.

Back at the plate Rolen thrived, winning Rookie of the Year with a .283/.377/.469 line. And Lieberthal hung in enough to earn a starting job in 1998. Stocker soon became superb hitter Bobby Abreu, while prospect Marlon Anderson made it to the show in 1998. But Brogna remained. Jefferies remained. Both languished.

***

The Phillies of the 1990s took half measures. They developed prospects but threw them away quickly, favoring instead mediocre talent that established itself in other places before coming to Philly on discount deals.  And, look, most of those prospects didn’t perform well. Some, like pitcher Matt Beech, were given ample opportunities, but many, like Magee, Grace, Maduro and Mimbs, never truly had the chance to improve.

And instead of simply trotting out the prospects and young players, giving them real opportunities, the Phils tossed retreads in the bin repeatedly. How many days and nights did we spend with the shell of Gregg Jefferies? Or the halfway decent Derrick May? What was the deal with Tony Barron? Did we really need Mark Leiter?

This is why Yoenis Cespedes won’t work right now. It’s why Andrew McCutchen isn’t a great idea. Maybe they remain good to great players for the next three to five years, or maybe they’re Todd Zeile and Danny Tartabull, sketches of decent ballplayers taking up valuable space on a team that should be playing young talent as much as possible.

We’re okay with Howie Kendrick. And we’re okay with the return of Jeremy Hellickson. Those are small, measured contracts filling obvious holes. But don’t be okay with the flashy name. Don’t give into competing now when the future could be amazing with a little patience.

Remember the past. It’s a good way to stay sane when the Phillies continue to play like they did in the 1990s.

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