It’s difficult to explain to folks who didn’t watch the early 90’s Phillies squads how simultaneously exciting yet disappointing those teams were. Aside from an exciting-but-never-a-threat second place finish in 1986, the late 80’s Phillies squads were a mix of decent young players like Von Hayes and Juan Samuel, aging veterans like Greg Gross, Lance Parrish, and Mike Schmidt, and a pitching staff led by Shane Rawley and Don Carman with Steve Bedrosian and Kent Tekulve in the bullpen. General Manager Lee Thomas took over as the club’s general manager from Woody Woodward in June 1988 and began to shape the roster rather quickly.
Thomas’ first move was a rather subtle one: Thomas dealt Luis Aguayo, a sometimes-starting shortstop, for Amalio Carreno, a pitcher that would appear in three games for the Phillies in 1991, on July 15, 1988. In his first offseason steering the Phillies’ ship, Thomas would trade Shane Rawley to Minnesota for Tom Nieto, Eric Bullock, and Tom Herr, a move that allowed the Phillies to experiment with Samuel in center field by playing the former All-Star Herr at second and indirectly allowing the Phillies to trade Samuel for Roger McDowell and Lenny Dykstra.
Up next on Thomas’ winter to-do list was to reshape the entire outfield, trading Phil Bradley to Baltimore for reliever Gordon Dillard and starter Ken Howell, who would lead the team with 12 wins and a 3.44 ERA in 1989, and Milt Thompson to St. Louis for back-up catcher Steve Lake and reserve outfielder Curt Ford. Trading Bradley was a win, while the Thompson trade was a bust. It was likely the only major blemish on Thomas’ record.
Soon, everything Thomas would touch turned to gold, even if it was a few years later. The Phillies would acquire John Kruk and Randy Ready from San Diego for Chris James on June 2 and Dykstra and McDowell from the Mets for Samuel on June 18, 1989. No player was untouchable, not even 1987 Cy Young winner Steve Bedrosian; Bedrosian would be dealt for Dennis Cook, Charlie Hayes, and Terry Mulholland on June 18. In December 1989, the Phils selected Sil Capusano and Dave Hollins away from the Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres respectively in the Rule 5 draft. The Phillies, finally, had a plan.
The Phillies would go from 67 wins in 1989 to 77 in 1990 to 78 in 1991. Younger talent like Darren Daulton, Dykstra, and Kruk were hitting their strides while unexpected contributions from veterans Dickie Thon and Dale Murphy in 1991 boosted their record. Not satisfied with third and fourth place finishes, Thomas pulled the trigger on the best trade of his tenure, sending then 24-year old, full-of-promise Jason Grimsely to Baltimore for the suddenly 25-year old journeyman Curt Schilling.
Schilling once had been one of the best pitching prospects in baseball; Schilling was drafted as a 19-year old flamethrower out of Yavapai College in the second round of the January 1986 Amateur Draft. Schilling was durable and successful in the minor leagues and earned his first taste of Major League action in 1988 with the Orioles, who he was traded to with Brady Anderson for Mike Boddicker. Oops.
The 6’5” Arizonan righty would be a part of another lopsided deal in 1991; after gaining little traction as a reliever with the Orioles, the orange birds would package him with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch and send him to Houston for outfielder Glenn Davis. Despite switching from the AL to the NL, Schilling’s ERA would jump by 1.27 points and would be dealt in the offseason in the third lopsided trade of his young career, this time landing in Philadelphia for Grimsley.
Schilling became the star of perhaps one of the most frustrating Phillies clubs in recent memory. The 1992 Phillies had all the makings of a team that was ready to turn the corner and compete with the Pirates for the NL East crown. Instead, a second wave of young, home-grown and acquired talent the Phillies were relying on to make the jump to the Majors, including shortstop Juan Bell, outfielder Ruben Amaro, and pitchers Kyle Abbott, Ben Rivera, Andy Ashby, Mike Williams, and Tommy Greene didn’t make the jump as expected. That didn’t mean that Schilling was affected: Schilling went 14-11 with a 2.35 ERA, leading the team in wins and ERA while leading the NL in WHIP as a swing man that started 26 games and appeared in 16 more. The 1992 Phillies would win just 70 games but it was clear they had something special in Schilling.
1993 would be quite a year for Schilling and the Phillies. Schilling would win a career-high 16 games but would see his ERA rise by 1.67 points while his WHIP remained low, his walk rate decreased, and his K/9 IP increased. The wins piled up for Schilling and the rest of the Phillies, as the Fightins won 97 games, ended the Pirates brief run as the class of the NL East, and vanquished the Braves in the NLCS to win the National League pennant.
It was in the 1993 NLCS that Schilling would begin his run as one of the all-time great postseason pitchers. Schilling would strikeout 19 Braves in 16 innings allowing just three earned runs earning the NLCS MVP despite not earning a decision. And, when the spotlight was shining the brightest, Schilling threw a complete game shutout in Game 5 of the 1993 World Series with the Phillies down 3-1 in the series against a historically offensively-gifted Toronto Blue Jays less than a day after the Jays plated 15.
We all know how the 1993 World Series ended and any mention of Joe Carter’s homer would just be another painful reminder of the result. The Phillies were seemingly never the same. Schilling wasn’t either, but in a completely different, much better way. Schilling would become one of the NL’s best pitchers: from 1996 through 1999, Schilling won 56 games with a 3.22 with 38 complete games with a WHIP of 1.088 for a team that had a winning percentage of 44.12% in that span. Schilling was the ace the Phillies needed, not the one they deserved.
Schilling’s stats are eye-popping, both in Phillies’ history but also against his contemporary NL pitchers. Among Phillies, Schilling ranks third among Phillies starters in K/9 IP, only behind Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Schilling ranks sixth in Phillies history in wins, seventh in starts, eighth in IP, 37th in ERA among starters, and fourth in strikeouts. From 1992 through 2000, Schilling ranked second only to Greg Maddux in FanGraphs’ version of WAR among NL pitchers, ranking sixth in starts, third in IP, 22 in K/9 IP, first in total strikeouts, and second in complete games and shutouts.
Schilling desired to play for a winner and was dealt to Arizona on July 26, 2000 for Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee, and Vincente Padilla in what amounted to be, you guessed it, the fourth lopsided deal that Schilling was involved in. When it was all said and done, Schilling was a three-time All-Star as a Phillie and only their third NLCS MVP, ever. Schilling would win three World Series rings, one with Arizona and a pair with Boston, earning six total All-Star births and a World Series MVP win in 2001.
As for Grimsley, well, he was one of the first Major Leaguers to admit he was using performance-enhancing drugs. Grimsley never filled the promise of becoming a top-flight starter but did spend 15 seasons in the Majors, going to the World Series in 1995 with Cleveland and winning a pair of World Series rings with the Yankees in 1999 and 2000. After the trade, Grimsley posted a 4.84 ERA, going 37-46 primarily in a relief role for six different clubs.
Schilling’s acquisition by General Manager Lee Thomas led directly to the Phillies fifth NL pennant and gave them arguably the second-best pitcher in the National League for parts of nine seasons. Even though Grimsley displayed similar longevity to Schilling, Schilling is a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher that was acquired for a career long reliever. Not a bad deal.