Everyone has a different formula for how to build a baseball team.
But in the classic sense, the five most important roster spots, the ones you almost never are going to win a championship without, are above-average 3-4-5 hitters and legitimate No. 1 and 2 starters. You can make up for deficits and scrap together above-average production in other places, but you’re almost always exposed when you get into the playoffs without those five things.
In any one season, there are only about 10 teams that have that basic, five-part franchise-building block. Of those 10 teams, the ones that fill out the rest of their roster best in the secondary positions are usually the ones that run the postseason. Elite postseason teams are the ones that get extraordinary production from those secondary positions – a leadoff guy who blasts 30 home runs while still reaching base 40 percent of the time, a closer that converts 45 saves in 46 chances, you get the idea – and consistent production from those five building blocks.
In 1992 the Phillies had that 3-4-5-1-2 punch. They just had nothing else. When we watched those last-place Phils that won all of 70 games, we probably should have seen the magical 1993 run right around the corner. We were just blinded by the “nothing else” of the roster to see how close the Phillies really were to contention.
And really, they had nothing else. At all.
They had Lenny Dykstra, but he only played half the year before going on to have one of the most prolific seasons in Phillies history in 1993. At this point, we don’t care how he stayed healthy in 1993, we just know that he did. Now try these names on for size: Dale Sveum, Stan Javier, Joe Millette, old Dale Murphy and cooked Wally Backman. As a high schooler in Scranton, I was going to two or three Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons games a week in 1992 hoping guys like Julio Peguero (we had a fan club) and Steve Scarsone (I can still hear his walk-up introduction, “Steeeeeeeeve Scarrrrrrr-sone”) could be answers, or at least contributors. Yeah, that never happened, but the Phillies trotted both of them out there in 1992.
But that 1992 lineup core – especially when Dykstra was healthy – was fun to watch. The John Kruk-Darren Daulton-Dave Hollins 3-4-5 middle of the order seemed like they spent the whole summer on base, with Kruk placing third in the National League in on-base percentage. They came in second in the National League in runs, finishing only seven runs behind the Pirates for the league lead despite having a minus-31 run differential. Long before “Moneyball” ever came around, that core of the lineup made a conscious effort to get on base as much as it could to make a pitcher work, get a starter out of a game and feast on the weaker parts of a team’s bullpen. We now know it was 1992 when they came up with that idea and made it an almost mandatory practice for the rest of the lineup. Maybe even more important, that was the year each of those three took on different, necessary clubhouse roles of leader (Daulton), comic relief (Kruk) and enforcer (Hollins), which would define the 1993 Phillies. They developed a chemistry we may not have seen in any other Philadelphia team before or since, and started to grow it in 1992.
The core’s vision didn’t come to complete fruition in 1992, but when the lineup got healthy and the front office made some of the savviest, low-key, offseason moves in the history of the franchise heading into 1993 … well, we just should have seen it coming.
The additions to the 1993 team didn’t end with the lineup. The Phillies had the legitimate No. 1 and No. 2 (or 1A and 1B) starters at the top of the rotation with Terry Mulholland and Curt Schilling, but not much else. Schilling was a castoff from two organizations who found himself in Philly in 1992 and then proceeded on to a potentially Hall of Fame career. That 1992 season wasn’t his most dominant, but it certainly looked like he would be a star. It sounded that way too, since Schilling would tell you all about it if you asked him.
Mulholland continued his ascent in 1992, which saw him trending better every year since he came over from the Giants in 1989. He lead the league in complete games (12), but what was really fun about Mulholland in ’92 was that this was the year he took the entire National League by surprise by breaking out his famous “step-off” pick-off move. The still-popular move for lefty pitchers may have been invented by others, but Mulholland perfected it that year, picking off 15 base runners, the fifth-highest season total ever for a pitcher (also, only two runners successfully stole off Mulholland in just seven attempts that season). Incidentally, Steve Carlton holds the second- and third-highest pick-off totals for a season, but it just wasn’t nearly as fun watching him slowly deceive runners with his delivery versus Mulholland just straight punking anyone who dared take more than two steps off first on him. The word got out, because in 14 more major league seasons, he never caught more than five base runners napping in any season. But every time he embarrassed those runners in 1992, we all laughed and pointed Nelson Muntz-style, wondering when they would learn.
The rest of the rotation and bullpen, other than Mitch Williams, were either junk, hurt or merely starting to develop. Tommy Greene made just 12 starts after tossing a no-hitter and throwing 207 innings the year before. Former first-round pick Kyle Abbott, the jewel of the trade that shipped out Von Hayes, went 1-14 and was probably worse than his record indicated, if that’s possible. Forgettable names like Don Robinson, Barry Jones, Cliff Brantley and Brad Brink all saw time in either the rotation and the bullpen (or both) in 1992. None of them would see any significant time in 1993. Wally Ritchie – who I’ll never forgive for blowing the save in the the fifth game of the best-of-five International League Governor’s Cup for the Red Barons later that year – also was frustratingly in the mix. In fact, Williams was the only member of the 1992 bullpen who saw any significant time in 1993, with the Phillies shipping out the dregs and bringing in key cogs such as Larry Andersen, David West and Roger Mason.
But even with all those names we wince at now, that 1992 Phillies team should be the proof for every fan base that when general managers say, “We’re only a couple moves away,” they actually may not be jerking us around. Sometimes we just can’t see it, even though the most important building blocks are there.
They were certainly there for the 1992 Phillies.