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On Booing Jayson Werth, Forest Fires, and the Brian Clough Approach

“The age of miracles,
The age of sound,

Well there’s a golden age,
Comin’ round, comin’ round, comin’ round.”

-“Golden Age,” TV on the Radio, 2008.

I think I’m falling into a trap where a post that starts with an epigraph identifies potential profundity in what follows. Either that or I want everyone to be aware that I’m so hip and with it that I can quote songs by cool underground bands that haven’t been particularly cool or underground in several years.

Neither is this post truly about booing Jayson Werth. I’m puzzled by why someone with even a modicum of intelligence and empathy who’s paid attention at all to the situation would hold Werth’s signing with Washington against him. A friend of mine who’s a huge Werth fan sent me a text message during last night’s game, apoplectic about the Phillies fans in Washington who were booing Werth and holding signs calling him a mercenary or worse, all the while cheering Cliff Lee, who took a richer contract, per year, than did Werth.

The fact is that Washington offered Werth a contract that, based on his age, past performance, and other offers available, the Phillies would have to be crazy to match and Werth himself would have to be crazy to turn down. Likewise, Lee was willing to sign for well below market value, and the Phillies would have been crazy not to sign him. There ought not to be any normative value to that chain of events, and I’m not sure what people are thinking when they make normative statements about it.

The fact is, also, that I’m absolutely sick and tired of talking about Jayson Werth, who, as a former Phillies outfielder, is only marginally more relevant to the Phillies in 2011 and beyond than other former Phillies outfielders, such as Jason Michaels or Michael Bourn. Or Sliding Billy Hamilton. So let’s move on past the SEO-friendly title.

I’ve already made clear how I feel about booing former Phillie stars, and how blessed we’ve been to watch this particular vintage of Phillies baseball, but I’d like to revisit Werth’s departure as an example of sport’s equivalent of recycling: the Brian Clough approach.

Brian Clough was an English soccer manager from the mid-60s to the early 1990s who specialized in making small clubs overachieve. He twice won the English First Division (now the Premier League), twice won back to back League Cup (now Carling Cup) titles, and won back-to-back European Cup (now UEFA Champions League) titles, all with clubs that now reside in the second tier of English soccer.

He achieved this success buy employing a proto-Moneyball strategy of acquiring undervalued (and ideally younger) players, developing them, and selling them at the peak of their value, then using the profits to finance the acquisition of still younger and better players. I’ve discussed him before in this space, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. The key to long-term success in sports is not, as it turns out, hanging onto your star players. It is, rather, the opposite: getting rid of your star players at the right time and rebuilding gradually and incrementally.

There’s that oft-cited axiom about forests and how they need to burn down periodically in order to grow. Or something like that–ecology was never my strong suit. The point is, without continued and managed roster turnover, a team grows old, expensive, and stagnant, and will eventually collapse.

The best examples of this phenomenon in baseball are, unsurprisingly, the three teams that have had sustained success in the past two decades: the Yankees, Braves, and Red Sox. Let’s look at all three teams at the start of their recent runs (1995 for the Yankees, 1991 for the Braves, and 2003 for the Red Sox), at an intermediate point (2001 for the Yankees, 1999 for the Braves, and 2007 for the Red Sox), and at an endpoint (2009 for the Yankees, 2005 for the Braves, and 2011 for the Red Sox) to see how they’ve changed.

Yankees Team 1995 Yankees 2001 2009
C Mike Stanley Jorge Posada Jorge Posada
1B Don Mattingly Tino Martinez Mark Teixeira
2B Pat Kelly Alfonso Soriano Robinson Cano
3B Wade Boggs Scott Brosius Alex Rodriguez
SS Tony Fernandez Derek Jeter Derek Jeter
LF Luis Polonia Chuck Knoblauch Johnny Damon
CF Bernie Williams Bernie Williams Melky Cabrera
RF Paul O’Neill Paul O’Neill Nick Swisher
DH/UTIL Ruben Sierra David Justice Hideki Matsui
SP1 Jack McDowell Mike Mussina CC Sabathia
SP2 Andy Pettitte Roger Clemens A.J. Burnett
SP3 Sterling Hitchcock Andy Pettitte Andy Pettitte
SP4 David Cone Ted Lilly Joba Chamberlain
SP5 Scott Kamieniecki Orlando Hernandez Sergio Mitre
CL John Wetteland Mariano Rivera Mariano Rivera

First of all, I’ll absolutely admit to playing the Arbitrary Endpoints Game here. Second, yes, any team is going to undergo a major roster overhaul every six to eight years. My point is, the Yankees, in 1995, had enough foresight to say, “If we want to contend in 2009, we’ve got to be aware of the shelf life of a major league player and make plans to replace him.” If the Yankees had clung to Ruben Sierra the way the Phillies might have clung to Jayson Werth, they’d have been in big trouble. (And if you think I’m being unfair, Jayson Werth through age 31: .272/.367/.481. Sierra through age 31: .269/.318/.451. But for 25 walks a year, they’re not wholly dissimilar players.)

As a result, the Yankees kept three starters from 1995 to 2001: Pettitte, Williams, and O’Neill, and for starters from 2001 to 2009: Pettitte, Jeter, Posada, and Rivera. Though maybe this illustrates that the secret to winning in the long-term is to bring up four perennial all-stars from the minors at the same time, then spend $200 million a year to sand out the rough edges. So let’s move on to the Braves.

Braves Team 1991 1999 2005
C Greg Olson Eddie Perez Johnny Estrada
1B Sid Bream Ryan Klesko Adam LaRoche
2B Jeff Treadway/Mark Lemke Bret Boone Marcus Giles
3B Terry Pendleton Walt Weiss Rafael Furcal
SS Rafael Belliard/Jeff Blauser Chipper Jones Chipper Jones
LF Lonnie Smith Gerald Williams Kelly Johnson
CF Ron Gant Andruw Jones Andruw Jones
RF David Justice Brian Jordan Jeff Francoeur
DH/UTIL Otis Nixon Javy Lopez Ryan Langerhans
SP1 Tom Glavine Tom Glavine John Smoltz
SP2 Charlie Leibrandt Kevin Millwood Horacio Ramirez
SP3 John Smoltz Greg Maddux Tim Hudson
SP4 Steve Avery John Smoltz John Thomson
SP5 Pete Smith Odalis Perez Kyle Davies
CL Juan Berenguer/Alejandro Pena John Rocker Chris Reitsma

Two holdovers from 1991 to 1999 (Glavine and Smoltz), and only three from 1999 to 2005, their last division title (Smoltz and the Joneses). One of the beautiful things about this team was how seamlessly Mark Lemke turned into Brett Boone turned into Quilvio Veras turned into Marcus Giles, and so on. The Braves drafted Chipper Jones in 1990, made the World Series in 1991 with two future Hall of Fame pitchers, aged 24 and 25, signed a third 26-year-old future Hall of Famer in December 1992, and just sort of put it on cruise control from there. This was the 1985 Toyota Corolla of baseball teams–it just ran, inexorably, for 15 years, and all you needed to do was change the oil and spark plugs every so often.

Red Sox Team 2003 2007 2011
C Jason Varitek Jason Varitek Jarrod Saltalamacchia
1B Kevin Millar Kevin Youkilis Adrian Gonzalez
2B Todd Walker Dustin Pedroia Dustin Pedroia
3B Bill Mueller Julio Lugo Kevin Youkilis
SS Nomar Garciaparra Mike Lowell Marco Scutaro
LF Manny Ramirez Manny Ramirez Carl Crawford
CF Johnny Damon Coco Crisp Jacoby Ellsbury
RF Trot Nixon J.D. Drew J.D. Drew
DH/UTIL David Ortiz David Ortiz David Ortiz
SP1 Pedro Martinez Josh Beckett Jon Lester
SP2 Derek Lowe Curt Schilling Josh Beckett
SP3 Tim Wakefield Daisuke Matsuzaka Clay Buchholz
SP4 John Burkett Tim Wakefield John Lackey
SP5 Casey Fossum Julian Tavarez Daisuke Matsuzaka
CL Byung-Hyun Kim Jonathan Papelbon Jonathan Papelbon

This was a much shorter-term project than the first two, but the overhaul is staggering year-to-year, particularly considering that Dice-K, Papelbon, Ortiz, and Drew are all on their way out. The Red Sox were not afraid to rid themselves of popular and effective players when their value had peaked: Pedro, Nomar, Manny, and Keith Foulke come to mind. The key, once again, is bringing up that great class of minor leaguers to replace the outgoing veterans who got the team to the top in the first place. It could be the case that in 2015, an outfield of Brown/James/Singleton has made us all forget the Victorino/Rowand/Burrell or Werth/Victorino/Ibanez outfields that brought the Phillies to prominence.

The Phillies are actually not doing as bad a job of this as you might think. Last night’s stellar (and it’s hard to overstate the difficulty of pitching a complete game and striking out 12 batters in 100 pitches or less) performance by Cliff Lee registered a game score of 92, tied for third-highest by a Phillie since 2000, behind only the no-hitters of Roy Halladay and Kevin Millwood. Since 2000, a Phillies starter has registered a game score of 80 or higher 63 times. Rather than the list reading “Hamels/Myers/Wolf” repeated over and over, 20 different pitchers are on the list, led by Hamels’ 11.

Or how about this: amazingly enough, the Phillies have had at least three players earn at least one MVP vote every single year since 2004. And it hasn’t been Howard/Utley/Rollins each time either. Since 2004, no fewer than twelve Phillies have earned at least one MVP vote: Jimmy Rollins, Jim Thome, Bobby Abreu, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Aaron Rowand, Brad Lidge, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Roy Halladay, and Carlos Ruiz.

I guess the point in all of this is that getting rid of Thome, Rowand, and Werth was the right move. The same would be true for Bobby Abreu if they’d gotten anything of value for him. And if Brad Lidge and Jimmy Rollins walk in free agency this winter, so be it. If, in 2014 they can cash in Cliff Lee in a trade for the next incarnation of Buster Posey, it must be done. The point is not what a player’s accomplished in the past–it’s about his perceived value now and what he can do in the future.

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