This week we’re looking at the big storylines setting up the Phillies 2018 season. Over the next few days we’ll look closely at Gabe Kapler, Vince Velasquez, Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco, but today, it’s about hope in the face of what we’re used to as Philly fans (yes, even though the Eagles won the Super Bowl).
On July 28, 2010, I sat in my office and eagerly watched MLB.tv as the Phillies hosted the Diamondbacks. The Phils were 54-46, and Citizens Bank Park was full of course, as the team was en route to breaking the National League record for consecutive sellouts. They were in second place in the NL East but about to rip off a 62-game run where they won 43, outpacing the rest of baseball by a full three games. And here, emerging for the first time into all of this joy, was the newest member of the team, outfielder Domonic Brown.
If you ask anyone who watched that game, and that moment, he or she would’ve told you the same thing.
Roy Halladay had dispatched all six Diamondbacks he had faced. Then Jayson Werth led off the second inning by doubling against Edwin Jackson. That brought Brown to the plate, and the crowd stood in unison, clapping and cheering on this 22-year-old newcomer who finished off a .327/.391/.589 run between Reading and Lehigh Valley. Brown had just been ranked the top prospect in baseball, per Baseball America, with No. 2 being Mike Trout. And here he was, stepping to the plate at Citizens Bank Park amid a throng of giddy onlookers paying to watch the two-time defending National League champions.
On a 1-1 count, Brown locked in and connected with a Jackson pitch, serving it deep to right field. The fans stood in anticipation. I held my breath. The ball just missed clearing the fence as Brown slid in with a double in his first major league at bat. I shrieked. “He’s gonna be good. Oh man he’s gonna be good.”
In July, we’ll have seen eight years since that moment.
The Phillies used to deliver nightly moments of elation. If it wasn’t Brown’s first major league hit, it was Werth digging a ball out of the dirt and taking it to the upper deck. Or it was Halladay slicing away at helpless hitters over eight innings. Or it was Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt or Brett Myers. Maybe it was a Ryan Howard home run or Jimmy Rollins triple. Maybe Shane Victorino stole a bag and pissed off the opposing team, or Aaron Rowand bashed his face into a fence. Maybe it was Pat Burrell defiantly slamming a ball into the left field deck, or it was Carlos Ruiz coming up with that clutch hit that sent the crowd to a frenzy. Of course, maybe it was Chase Utley doing all the little things he did to help the Phillies win.
Whoever and however, it was nightly. We were spoiled rotten for five years, a prize for surviving through the dead late 1980s, stolen 1990s and crushing early 2000s. We put our hearts out there for Kevin Gross and Jeff Stone, Kevin Stocker and Brandon Duckworth. We were let down, rejected and never fulfilled. Instead we got Ron Gant past his prime, Dale Murphy past his prime, Danny Tartabull past his prime and Gregg Jefferies past his prime. We saw last-place finishes and teams that made runs just a little too late. Then 2007 happened.
By 2010 we were thirsty for the next thrill, and in came Domonic Brown to send us on a fantastic voyage.
I don’t know how to calibrate myself for 2018. I think we’re all expecting it to be exciting, since last year’s Phillies closed on a 12-7 mark, and young players like Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro helped fuel those final weeks. But I’m not convinced of anything. I can’t be. I’m a Philadelphia sports fan.
I thought this was the right plan for the Phillies. They had to trade Rollins and Utley, then they had to trade Hamels. They had to endure a few years of nearly unwatchable baseball in order to come out the other side. The farm system by 2012 was a wasteland, only getting worse by 2013. They hadn’t drafted well, their best international signings were still two years from making real impacts at the major league level, and the trades they made between 2009 and ’11 depleted them of depth necessary to make deals later. The payroll was too high and full of bad signings, and the Howard extension symbolized a crutch keeping them from tearing everything apart sooner.
So I stood by the beginning of the rebuild in 2014 and ’15, welcoming Zach Eflin, Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta, Jerad Eichkoff, Jake Thompson, Williams and Alfaro to the fold and hoping they’d prove successful within a few years. I stood by Ryne Sandberg and the 99-loss season of 2015, then I stood by the change of course with Pete Mackanin. I stood by the hiring of Andy MacPhail, the firing of Ruben Amaro Jr. and the introduction of Matt Klentak as general manager. I stood by a full analytics revolution at Citizens Bank Park and a better season in 2016. I recommended the Phils sign Michael Saunders and Pat Neshek; one failed miserably while the other worked. And when the 66-win Phillies moved on from Mackanin and brought in Gabe Kapler, I felt the change of pace made a lot of sense. Santana? Sounds good. No big pitching addition before spring training? That’s fine.
Now plenty of people are optimistic, blowing past those 75 wins and talking about possibly challenging for a surprise wild card berth. I’d like to stand by this, but I’m not convinced.
I’m not convinced that Hoskins won’t stumble, like the guy who couldn’t hit a ball out of the infield after Sept. 14. I’m not convinced that Alfaro’s going to improve the strikeout rate, that Williams won’t be exposed as yet another free swinging Philadelphia outfielder, that Crawford’s bat won’t show up with the plate discipline and defense.
Even though I see Hoskins’ approach is fantastic, that Alfaro has absurd power, that Williams seems to know how and when to attack, and that Crawford is already a plus defender with plus patience, I’m not convinced.
Then there’s the pitching staff. If Nick Pivetta changes this. If Vince Velasquez does that. If Aaron Nola stays healthy. Data will show you that all of these things are easily possible, and yet I can’t bring myself to be confident about any of it. Because it’s always the other team that has the breakout player. It’s always the Phillies that ends up with the lost talent, the failed prospect and the dashed hopes. No matter what information my brain consumes, that’s what my heart tells me, because my heart has been stolen too many times.
On June 5, 2013, I listened to the Phillies game while driving around with my then girlfriend, soon to be wife. The Phils weren’t drawing sellouts anymore, but the crowd at Citizens Bank Park watched a team claw back to .500 at 30-30, and they did it thanks in part to Domonic Brown. In a furious seventh inning the Phils scored five runs – breaking a 1-1 tie – and capping it with a two-run Brown home run. It was Brown’s 18th home run, which led the National League.
As Brown rounded the bases and I stopped the car, I shrieked like a baby: “I told everyone! I told everyone! F**k yes, Dom Brown!”
I was one of Brown’s biggest boosters, never wavering as he struggled in his first few seasons, in part – I was convinced – because the Phils jerked him around while giving the free-swinging, happy-go-dopey Hunter Pence a regular role in 2011. This felt like redemption. It felt like justification. It felt incredible.
That was just about it for Brown, who would hit just three more homers in June as his numbers slowly fell. By the end of the season Brown was at a rather OK .272/.324/.494 with 27 home runs. He was bad again in 2014 and gone after 2015.
I’ve been thirsty ever since. It’s possible we’re finally seeing the next good team really take shape in Philadelphia, and I do believe it’s probably real. But I’m not convinced.
I’m standing by Kapler and extremely interested to see how he continues to change the Phillies. I’m standing by the young players. I’m standing by analytics. I always have, I always will. But I’m a Philadelphia sports fan, and it’s always eating me alive.