It takes 25 men to win a championship in baseball, making it a difficult sport in which to build a champion. In basketball, you can acquire a couple superstars in one offseason and win the title — look at the Boston Celtics. In hockey, you can probably afford a few weak pieces, long as your goaltender is scorching hot in the postseason. And in football, while it takes dozens of men to build a team, a couple big names can turn the tide instantly.
But baseball is taxing, grueling and testy. You not only need a strong base, but a perfect blend of reinforcements and complementary pieces. Because you never know when those pieces might have to perform like stars.
The 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies are a perfect example of this philosophy. And credit two very distinct and different men for their success — Ed Wade and Pat Gillick.
Ed Wade’s Team
As much as we can laud Gillick, it starts with Wade. The shrewd-faced general manager from 1998 to 2005 engineered the formation of one of baseball’s best — if not the best — foundations of young talent.
The first two discoveries were big-hitting Pat Burrell and toolsy shortstop Jimmy Rollins. First, realize that if JD Drew signed with the Phillies, there’d be no Burrell, and Drew would’ve been gone by now. So next time Drew is in the area, thank him for never coming to Philly. Instead, we got a man who quickly fell into his comfort zone — 30 HR, 100 RBI, .260 AVG. That’s not bad for eight seasons.
Rollins was a long work in progress, but showed signs of being a capable floor leader and five-way player. As always, young speedsters develop power as they hit their mid 20s, and Rollins did just that. Once he materialized into a superior five-way guy, he became the veteran backbone of the foundation.
Suitable help for Burrell and Rollins didn’t come for a while. Gifted as he was, Bobby Abreu wasn’t a superstar-caliber player. He never fit with the expectations and structure of the team. And Wade probably knew that, opting for Jim Thome to be the star. But Thome was a little too old, a little too banged up.
Luckily, Wade’s team drafted a few stars in the making. Chase Utley wasn’t a sure thing, but soon became that as he rose through the minor leagues. A classic all-effort, slick-hitting guy, Utley provided a perfect contrast to Burrell. Meanwhile, Ryan Howard was young and brutally powerful — a perfect contrast to Rollins.
In 2002, Wade and Co. rolled the dice on oft-injured left-hander Cole Hamels. With amazing stuff, including a first-class changeup, Hamels was looked at as the arm of the future. With him was 1999 first rounder Brett Myers, whose power lifted him into the big leagues, and Ryan Madson, who quietly moved up boasting an arsenal of pitches, but two very good ones — a blazing fastball and a flattening changeup.
Wade’s crew also saw promise in Panamanian catcher Carlos Ruiz, snatching him in 1998. And they grabbed Rule V player Shane Victorino in 2005, then held onto him when the Dodgers didn’t want him back.
By 2006, most of these players were in the big leagues, hitting their strides. But Wade couldn’t give them apt reinforcements. The Thome deal never worked out as they planned, nor did the trade for voiltale closer Billy Wagner. Misguided signings and acquisitions included David Bell, Kevin Milwood, Eric Milton, Jon Lieber, Ugeth Urbina and Cory Lidle. Some were large investments, some were late grasps during a playoff race. With Wade, the bad acquisitions outweighed the good, but he clearly assembled a foundation of players worthy of a championship.
King Of The Village
Wade was fired amid much fanfare in late 2005. Most thought of him as incompetent and unable to finish the deed. His replacement was Pat Gillick, an old baseball guy who boasted the most connections in the game. His track record showed two world championships and big playoff years. At the time the move didn’t taste great, but in retrospect, Gillick was the perfect guy at the perfect time.
Already armed with Wade’s bounty of young talent, Gillick had a nine-man foundation that was already producing at the big-league level, or close to it. His job was to use his fat Rolodex add 16 roster spots suitable to win a championship. He probably laughed at that challenge.
His first move was to trade Thome to the White Sox for a couple prospects and Aaron Rowand. With the move, he wanted to secure Howard as the regular first baseman, bring in a few trading chips for the future, and add a clubhouse guy who could help bring a winning culture. He accomplished all three. Howard became the majors’ most-feared hitter, Daniel Hagwood and Gio Gonzalez were flipped later, and Rowand — while never contributing to a world title — was a key cog in getting the team to the playoffs — and thus getting their feet wet — while establishing a loose clubhouse associated with winning.
The 2006 Phillies — a group of Wade’s foundation, failed acquisitions and Gillick’s early additions (including reliever Tom Gordon) — toiled near the basement by July. At that point, Gillick uttered what may become one of the most famous statements in Philadelphia sports history:
To paraphrase: “This team won’t be a world title contender until probably 2008.”
At the time it was shocking. A perennial Wild Card contender wasn’t a championship-caliber team? Gillick saw the foundation a year or two from really establishing itself, and knew he couldn’t get the right reinforcements right away. The farm system wasn’t strong enough; the players available wouldn’t fit.
With that knowledge, Gillick traded Abreu to the Yankees for a collection of unflattering players. The trade was widely criticized at the time, and while the Phils didn’t get apt value in return, the move changed the culture of the clubhouse — suddenly the focus of the team wasn’t Abreu, but the young players and the foundation established in the early part of the decade. Moreover, it allowed Rule V pickup Shane Victorino to earn a starting job — one he’d never let go of.
The field team responded with a run toward the playoffs. To boost them, Gillick pulled off an absolute doozy, acquiring veteran lefty Jamie Moyer for a couple guys you’ve never heard about since. Moyer helped the team down the stretch, but would become more valuable in time — 2008 was a banner year for him, while his teaching paid off dividends with Hamels and other Phillie pitchers.
The 2006 Phillies shrunk at the end, so Gillick continued assembling a team he thought would win a championship. The offseason brought in last-gasp infielder Greg Dobbs, first-round bust Jayson Werth and a few others, including pitcher Freddy Garcia, pitcher Adam Eaton and third baseman Wes Helms, giant missteps that hung over Gillick like an albatross. But the former two would prove to be huge keys to a championship.
In 2007, Wade’s nine stars and a growing group of Gillick’s picks stumbled early. To help boost a beleaguered bullpen, Gillick added lefty reliever JC Romero from Boston. Given a role pretty quickly, Romero thrived as his comfort level grew. He, Gordon and Myers solidified a bullpen that helped bring the Phils a division title, their first since 1993. But a quick exit from the postseason ended championship hopes. Still, one thing became certain: Gillick’s assertion about 2008 was becoming truer.
Magic In 2008
The heavy nine and a couple positive plays from 2007 combined for the new campaign. At this point Gillick and Wade had assembled 15 of the 25 pieces. They lost Rowand to free agency and, to fill the hole, grabbed former star slugger Geoff Jenkins. He became a key character guy, though his bat never materialized. Luckily, Werth picked him up there.
The Phils also lost their patience with Helms and bid farewell to defensive third-bagger Abraham Nunez, taking Pedro Feliz from the market with a Jenkins-like deal. These two moves put the franchise over the $100 million mark in payroll, a mark that seemed associated with championship challengers.
Pitcher Chad Durbin was also added, at first as a fifth-starter candidate. But he quickly became a sterling swing man for the bullpen, becoming comfortable in his role, like Romero before him. Gillick also added So Taguchi, a veteran clutch hitter, on the cheap.
But the big offseason move was an enormous gamble. Gillick traded two minor 2007 players — Michael Bourn and Geoff Geary — and a power prospect — Mike Costanzo — for damaged closer Brad Lidge and utility infielder Eric Bruntlett. At the time it felt like a good trade, but nobody could envision trading a couple small pieces from 2007 for the best closer in baseball. Nobody.
The 2008 team meshed well enough and followed Gillick’s assertion, stalking out to a National League East lead early in the season. Obvious holes remained, so Gillick swung a few hot prospects for pitcher Joe Blanton, picked up lefty reliever Scott Eyre and power bat Matt Stairs. They also promoted top-shelf pitching prospect JA Happ. As this 25-man unit stormed through September and into the playoffs again, the goal was evident: Win the World Series.
And they did.
Building a baseball champion is a winding process. Sometimes you think you have all the pieces, but most times you’re wrong. The Phillies ended 2007 with 15 of its championship pieces in place. Ten of them came from Ed Wade, who found the best players through the draft and held onto them. Gillick added the other five, then blew past the $100 million mark to fill the final 10 pieces. Some additions weren’t glorious or special, but all were integral to the franchise’s second championship.
It took the Phillies 11 years to build a champion. It started with Pat Burrell and ended with Matt Stairs. In between there were dozens, hundreds of players. Almost all of them fell through. But in the end, there were 25 good enough to win a world championship.