Tag Archives: Chase Utley

Aaron Nola, The Symbolism of Facing the Rays, and the Concept of Hope on a Random Tuesday Night

(Picture via nola.com — Kinda makes you think)

I used to have this — for lack of a better term let’s call it a — ‘talent.’

You could name a random date between the months of April-October, and for an approximately seven-year span from 2006-2012, I could tell you what the Phillies did on said date. Not just whether they won or lost but final score, opponent, winning and losing pitchers, how runs were scored — everything.

Friends of mine who knew about it would tell friends of theirs. It wasn’t totally unusual to walk into a room and be suddenly greeted with:

“September 26, 2008.”

Let me think for a second. They beat the Nationals, 8-4. Wait, maybe it was 7-4, dammit, no, it was definitely 8-4. Joe Blanton got the win. Ryan Howard hit a three-run homer to center field in the first inning that Lastings Milledge leaped at the wall for but couldn’t bring back. Charlie Manuel got ejected in the top of the ninth inning just for the hell of it, and the Phillies put themselves in position to clinch their second consecutive NL East title the following day.

I think this whole thing started somewhere around May 12, 2006, when a then 22-year old Cole Hamels made his Major League debut on a Friday night against the Cincinnati Reds. Five shutout innings with only one hit allowed. I don’t recall ever being asked that date, but I wish I had.

Recently that ‘talent’ or whatever you want to call it has evaporated some. Name a random date from 2006-2012, and I’ll be very rusty trying to come up with the answer. Name one between 2013-2015, and I likely won’t know it. Combine less accessibility to games on TV along with the Phillies recent slide, and it had to end at some point. Shelling out money for MLB.TV to watch a team that is going to flirt with a franchise record for losses just isn’t that tempting.

I can count on less than two hands how many Phillies game I have watched so far in their hellacious first half of the season that left them with the worst record in baseball at the All-Star break. Tonight though, I’ll get one closer to double digits when Aaron Nola steps on the mound at Citizens Bank Park and throws his first pitch in the majors shortly after 7 p.m.

Hope is a beautiful thing, and tonight it comes in the form of a 22-year old right-handed pitcher who skyrocketed through the Phillies minor league system to the tune of a 2.57 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning after being drafted out of LSU last summer, leaving the team’s much-maligned front office almost no choice but to call him up to the show.

How Nola fares specifically tonight in his first start is arguably irrelevant in the long run. He won’t save the Phillies from 100 losses and the worst record in baseball this season, not with his perceived innings limit and the other eight players in the starting lineup with him. He won’t rescue them from the baseball hell that a laundry list of miscalculated personnel decisions has subjected them to for next season or two. He won’t automatically make them a contender again.

No, not even close. Nola won’t single-handedly do any of that, but perhaps it is fitting that his initial taste of major league baseball comes against the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that rarely visits Citizens Bank Park but was here for a six-day stretch when baseball in Philadelphia was at its happiest over the past three and a half decades.

Hamels pitched like an ace that he would ultimately become. Chase Utley deposited a ball in the right field seats. Brad Lidge fell to his knees in celebration, and it rained a lot, so much that a mostly likable bunch of Rays players and coaches who played in the 2008 World Series decided to complain about Mother Nature among other things nearly seven years later.

Nola’s arm will not make that scene any more recent, but it can make the current mess a bit less painful and create the notion that better days are ahead even if they aren’t yet visible.

It won’t bring back the rally towels, and the scoreboard watching in late September, and the magical October nights when more than 45,000 fans rocked a ballpark to its core, but should those one day return over the next decade, Nola will likely be a driving force behind it.

Hope.

For such a short word, it’s a really powerful one, driving decisions that without it would make little to no sense, like being excited to watch a 33-62 baseball team in a bar on a random Tuesday night.

July 21, 2015.

Nine years from now, if I remember one thing from this nightmarish season, it will be whatever happens tonight.

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Why I’m not Buying the Cole Hamels Trade Rumors

Cole Hamels dominated the Mets at Citi Field earlier tonight.

The first three words of that aforementioned sentence are not exactly surprising. Hamels has been absolutely owning opponents since the beginning of June, posting a 1.58 ERA over that span.

The fourth and fifth words are a bit more shocking. Hamels rarely ‘dominates the Mets.’ He entered the contest with a 7-14 record and a career 4.53 ERA against them. One would need to take a time machine back to August 14, 2006 — his first career start against the Mets — to find the last time he tossed a scoreless outing against them.

They normally give him fits, but tonight, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Hamels is completely locked in, and during one of the greatest stretches of his career, there is some speculation that it was his final start in Phillies pinstripes with the trade deadline set for Thursday at 4 p.m.

Nope. I’m not buying it.

I’m not beleiving it because if the Phillies were to trade their 30-year old ace, they literally might not be able to field a rotation next season.

I had this in my head for a few days, but the graphic at the top of the page that appeared on Phillies Pregame Live should tell the story. Out of all the pitchers that currently comprise the team’s rotation, Hamels is the only one who really has a good chance to return.

Cliff Lee is about to turn 36 and coming off an elbow injury that cost him two months of his season. If that never happened, it’s likely that he would be dealt, and it is still widely believed that the Phillies will look to move him in the winter once he reestablishes value.

A.J. Burnett could be traded although a 2015 contract option complicates that. He may also simply retire, something he nearly did last winter.

Meanwhile, Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez are both free agents once the season ends.

Now, you could certainly think that the two of them won’t be missed, but a club still needs bodies to take the ball every fifth day. One of the biggest issues is the lack of starting pitching depth in the organization, and this exercise brings that problem to the forefront.

Jesse Biddle’s future is up in the air after a rough patch in the minors led to some time off. Aaron Nola won’t be ready and nor should he be. Jason Marquis and Sean O’Sullivan are two veteran names in the system right now — You start to get the idea of how serious this is.

Aside from a few attractive names at the top, the starting pitching market for free agents is pretty weak.

If Hamels were to be traded, you are essentially looking at an Opening Day rotation of Lee and four number 5 starters (David Buchanan likely being one of them).

The team most linked to Hamels has been the Dodgers with Joc Pedersen, Corey Seager, and Julio Urias the reported players. This would be a haul for the Phillies in theory as all three are currently rated as Top 20 MLB prospects, but only Urias is a pitcher out of that trio.

Due to an unwillingness to waive no-trade clauses among other things, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins figure to be here next season, which means that the Phillies — delusional or not — will enter the year with some intention of trying to win.

As flawed as Ruben Amaro’s stuck in the mud approach might be, it stands a much better chance that the Phillies catch lightning in a bottle with Hamels in the rotation than without him.

David Murphy kinda, sorta argued the opposite yesterday in the Philadelphia Daily News. I’m not buying it when considering the uncertainty that comes with the return in just about any deal here.

While trying to look at this logically, I’ll admit that I’m not completely unbiased when it comes to the issue at hand. I wrote about Hamels and how I hoped he would be here for years to come just three months ago.

Coming up on 39 hours to go though, I am confident that I will get my wish because regardless of the offer, the alternative will not just weaken the Phillies five-man rotation next season, it could essentially leave them without one.

A Conversation with a AAA Tow Truck Driver from Exactly Three Years Ago

For as much as baseball fans enjoy waxing poetic about how unpredictable the sport can be, many will also concede that if one attends enough games, you’ve just about seen it all.

Maybe now and then you’re blessed with a no-hitter or some hot shot prospect making his debut, but things start to blend together for the most part.

At least I thought that was the case on July 22nd, 2011 — three years ago today. In a rather predictable regular season, it was one of the most ordinary Phillies games I have ever attended. until it suddenly wasn’t. In the blink of an eye on a scorching mid-summer night, things changed drastically, producing one of the most memorable conversations I have ever been a part of.

On the three-year anniversary of this event, I have decided to transcribe and reflect upon what happened that night.

As I alluded to earlier, the big detail that I recall from the early portion of this day is how painstakingly hot it was. I was working as a camp counselor at the time and spent practically all of the workday outside. Thermometers eclipsed triple digits. Heat warnings ran rampant on the east coast, and several temperature records were broken.

To show that I’m not making any of this up, here’s a douchey tweet about it.

Phillies Game Tweet

I was heading to the game with my friend Steve and one of his friends. Steve and I were high school friends, and we had kept in touch through our first two years of college. Steve was driving; remember this detail for later.

The Phillies were in the midst of a historic regular season, and Citizens Bank Park was the place to be on summer nights, but on this particular Friday evening, 45,383 folks were just trying to avoid falling victim to heat exhaustion and dehydration.

The ESPN box score records the first pitch temperature as 98 degrees. Usual ballpark favorites like cheesesteaks and crab fries only made you more thirsty, and if you didn’t have a bottle of water within arm’s reach at all times, you were doing it wrong.

The game itself was about as cut and dry as you could get for the 2011 Phillies. Cole Hamels, the only player whose performance has not dipped from three years ago, tossed eight dominant innings, only allowing one run. Chase Utley had two hits as an aging but still kinda formidable lineup produced three runs. Ryan Madson retired three straight Padres in the ninth, and everyone joined Harry Kalas in singing “High Hopes.”

The game lasted less than two and a half hours, but five minutes into the return trip, it became clear that we wouldn’t be getting home anytime soon. Steve’s car had all the signs of a vehicle about to break down — Overheated engine, unable to go faster than 40 mph, steering wheel about to lock.

Here is an Internet picture of I-95 in Philadelphia. This was not our exact location, but it will do to convey what we had to pull off.

I 95

The car on the far left might as well have been us. We figured we had less than a minute to get across four lanes of oncoming traffic and reach the safety of a shoulder. Steve obviously had the hard part of operating a car on its last leg. I was sitting in the back left seat behind him, so my job essentially was to verify that it was clear for him to switch lanes without getting smashed.

I’m normally a somewhat upbeat person, but as we proceeded through this 30-second challenge, I think I said to myself once or twice ‘We’re gonna die.’ 

Thankfully we didn’t die. Steve made it. A similar thing had happened to me with a different friend two years prior at an Eagles game, but having already experienced it once made it no less scary.

We tried the typical let the engine cool down and start up the car 10 minutes later strategy. No dice. Steve called for a AAA driver to tow the car and also get us close enough to home where someone could pick us up.

Forty minutes later, the tow truck came lumbering down I-95. The sun had long since set, but temperatures still hovered in the 80’s, and we were just excited to feel some air conditioning again.

Our driver was a hulking man with a shaved head wearing a T-shirt that looked like it could burst at the seams. He said his name was “Chris” as we boarded the car. It wasn’t a real friendly introduction but certainly not standoffish either.

The best way I can describe Chris is to say that while you might not be best friends with him, he was the type of guy you want to like you because if shit goes down, he could probably take out two or three people at once without much effort. You want Chris on your side.

Chris noticed the three of us wearing Phillies shirts, and this is where things got interesting.

“You kids coming from the game?” he asked. Typically I’m pretty shy in these situations, but for some reason I was the one to answer.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“They win?” Chris asked.

“Yep, 3-1.”

“Good shit. Hamels look good?”

“He did. Ten strikeouts over eight innings. Looked real sharp.”

“Nice. I was trying to watch before my shift. Looked like he was pitching a decent game.”

I kinda gave a casual head nod. At this point, Chris had been driving for a few minutes, and I figured the rest of the ride would pretty much feature silence.

Chris had other ideas though. Soon after, he asked if we had been alive for the 1993 season. Had I been a few years older, that World Series loss to the Blue Jays would have been my first sense of sports pain and not the Flyers getting swept by Detroit in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals, but we explained to him that while we remember watching, we were too young to really understand the magnitude of it at the time.

Take it away, Chris.

Phillies man, they’ll break your heart, man. I remember in 93, I was pumping gas in North Philly. We had a little TV set up outside there. I saw Mitchie-Poo give up the home run. It crushed my soul, man. I didn’t watch another game for 10 years after that. 

We transitioned to talking about the then current Phillies. Hunter Pence was the name on everyone’s mind with the trade deadline a week away and the team in need of a corner outfield upgrade, but Chris had other ideas.

I think if we trade for a guy like Coghlan, could be a real sweet move. Guy like that would pop 15-20 home runs in this bandbox of a park. 

Chris Coghlan was in the midst of a -.5 WAR season with the Marlins. The most home runs he has ever hit in a year is nine. At the time of this conversation, he was actually in Triple-A, trying to work out of a rough patch. Aside from sharing a first name, I’m not sure what could have possibly attracted Chris to the idea of trading for Coghlan, but he was passionate about it.

Last but certainly not least came one of the greatest lines I have ever witnessed. The topic shifted to Ryan Howard who was slashing a pedestrian .245/.341/.448 with 18 home runs. Three years later, the Phillies would yearn for anything close to these numbers.

Chris was ready.

Howard’s gotta shoot up a little bit, man. Not enough to get caught, just a little bit. Look guys, I’m 36-years old, I’m in the best shape of my life. I bench 350 every day. Pay me 20 million. I’ll pop a few pills and hit 30 home runs for ’em. Pay me 20 million. 

By now, we were less than a minute away from where Chris would be dropping us off, and perhaps that was a good thing because other than to all laugh together along with Chris, we had no good response ready for something like that.

Here is another tweet to show this actually happened and that I haven’t just drawn the whole thing up in my wildest imagination.

Phillies Game Tweet 2

I highly doubt Chris remembers this conversation as vividly as I do. Hell, he probably doesn’t remember it at all, and that’s okay.

One of the beauties of baseball is that it can hold friendships together as life begins to change and sometimes — even if it only lasts 25 minutes — introduce new people from different walks of the world into your life.

Chris’ opinions weren’t necessarily informed, but they were the perfect combination of humorous and outlandish to make us forget that we had previously been stranded on the side of I-95 without a way of getting home during one of the hottest of summer nights.

Rock on, Chris.

Despite one-bloody-nil, Roy Halladay’s arm falling off, Charlie Manuel being fired, and the ongoing malaise of the last two and a half years, I hope you’re still watching ball — and entertaining some college kids after their car breaks down on a major interstate.

It is Time for Ruben Amaro to Act Like a GM Instead of a Fan

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat:

Ruben Amaro is not as bad of a general manager as you think he is.

Sports may be a “show me/what have you done for me lately?” business, but in order to evaluate the job performance of the Phillies GM since he inherited the gig in November 2008 fairly and in a non-scorching take manner, we need to look at the big picture and remember 2009-2011.

It may feel like eons ago now, but Amaro once turned a 92-win team into a 93-win team. He then followed that up overseeing a squad that won 97 games before topping out with 102 victories in 2011.

Appreciate that number for a second while allowing the next paragraph to sink in.

Since then, no team in Major League Baseball has finished the regular season with more than 98 wins. The last National League club other than those 2011 Phillies to reach the 100-win mark goes all the way back to the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals.

During the aforementioned time frame, there was no shortage of good moves made by Amaro. Even though he was a drag on the lineup by the time his contract expired after 2011, replacing Pat Burrell with Raul Ibanez proved to be the right call. The Cliff Lee trade in July 2009 was highway robbery.

By not giving into J.P. Ricciardi’s outrageous asking price for Roy Halladay, Amaro essentially got the Blue Jays GM fired at the end of the season. Two months later, he got his man anyway. Not one player moved in either of those deals has gone on to have any type of successful MLB career.

While they weren’t the slam dunk trades that Lee and Halladay were, he essentially got Ed Wade fired for the Roy Oswalt and the Hunter Pence deals too.

Trading Cliff Lee to the Mariners on the day Halladay was acquired proved to be a disaster, but Amaro had way more hits than misses during that three-year span.

Travel back to December 14, 2010 when Lee spurned the Yankees and came back to Philadelphia. I guarantee that I could go back and find a ton of tweets from everyone talking about what a great job Amaro was doing as a general manager.

I’m not going to do that because it’s a waste of everyone’s time. I’m not the baseball Twitter police, and this is a blog post, not some in-depth investigative piece, but if you can honestly tell me that you never believed Amaro was a good GM between 2009 and 2011, reach out to me. I’ll take your word for it, but I’ll also be incredibly surprised.

The problem obviously is despite the increase in regular season wins each year, the Phillies never hoisted the World Series trophy again. Those 2009, 2010, and 2011 squads were not without their flaws, but they were certainly capable of winning 11 games in October.

I often wonder how differently Amaro might be perceived had they won again. If Cole Hamels was his typical self against the Yankees, if Ryan Howard lifted the bat off his shoulder when facing Brian Wilson, if Cliff Lee — one of the greatest big-game pitchers of this generation — had just protected a 4-0 lead against the Cardinals. The trophy case would be more crowded, and Amaro would have one to call his own.

In many ways, the odds were stacked against Amaro to sustain the success of 2008. The Phillies were on top of the baseball world, and aside from the 1998-2000 Yankees and 1992-1993 Blue Jays, teams don’t repeat. Furthermore, Amaro had inherited the keys from one of the best ever in Pat Gillick.

The architect behind the aforementioned Blue Jays repeat, he always left a team better than he found it, and teams always got worse once he decided to move on. Even though he’s now 76 years old, I’m honestly surprised no struggling club has tried to lure him with a lucrative offer to work his magic one more time.

What Amaro did during his first three years was impressive, but as the final result got worse each year, a troubling theme sticks out.

Just about all of the good decisions were big-name moves. When handed a very good team, Amaro has no trouble adding another piece come late July, but when the foundation begins to leak as it did in 2012 and 2013, he doesn’t know how to fix it.

It’s kinda like a driver who knows how to operate the vehicle but is awful with directions. He can fly down I-95 no problem, but once he gets off at the exit for Center City and has to navigate downtown Philadelphia streets, he’s lost and just praying the GPS gets him to his destination.

More to the headline, he begins behaving like a nostalgic fan instead of remembering that his actual job is to make smart baseball decisions that might annoy your 2008 apologists who believe everyone is above reproach because they delivered a championship a half decade ago.

When the tables are turned and Amaro is the seller, he’s either getting fleeced with the July 2012 Hunter Pence trade to the Giants, curling up into a ball and doing nothing last summer, and last but certainly not least, doubling down on old players who are now a shell of their former selves, but Amaro remembers the good ole days and dammit, he’s not loosening his grip no matter how hard the game pulls.

Not all of these individual moves are bad ones. Chase Utley is still sabermetrically one of the best players in the game. The contract extension handed to him last July looks alright.

A lot of Phillies fans have this confirmation bias at work whenever Amaro does anything. It goes something like:

I think Ruben Amaro sucks, and I can rattle off past decisions he’s made that sucked, so I’m going to look for any reason possible to say this particular move sucks because I think Ruben Amaro sucks. 

That’s not the case. Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett — while certainly playing into the old narrative — have been very good signings.

The real issue is that Amaro has inspired no confidence that he has a any type of long-term vision and is simply trying to catch lightning in a bottle as the lid gets tighter and tighter.

A spontaneous go with the flow and let the chips fall where they may lifestyle can be fun, but when running a sports franchise, you need a blueprint.

As the crowds at Citizens Bank Park get smaller and the calls for his head get louder, it’s somewhat understandable from a human nature standpoint that Amaro doesn’t want to undergo a full rebuilding process considering his contract only runs through the 2015 season.

That reasoning is good enough in late May. No one blows it up 47 games into a season, however that won’t be good enough come late July.

Between now and then, the Phillies ownership needs to approach Amaro with a loaded yet valid question:

WHAT’S YOUR PLAN? 

If Amaro presents a realistic strategy, he should be given ownership’s blessing and promised that his job is secure through the length of his deal.

A franchise cannot be completely turned around in a year, but there will be signs to determine whether or not progress is being made when evaluating Amaro’s future.

I’m not paid a hefty salary to come up with a plan, and I haven’t really begun studying prospects that I would want back in trades, but let’s start with Cliff Lee — one of my favorite athletes of all time. If this injury is just a minor blip and Lee is back and effective, he’s the type of player who could bring you back a couple of guys that go on to be future franchise cornerstones.

Jonathan Papelbon is pitching well enough that a contending team would be willing to overlook the salary and give a decent return. Jimmy Rollins — if willing to waive his no-trade clause — is having a good enough season to fetch something back. The list goes on with similar players like this.

The one wildcard here is Utley. CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury has a solid piece on just that topic today where he advocates for pulling the trigger if the right offer comes along. Salisbury, in my opinion, is the best on the Phillies beat, and 10 months ago, I would have completely agreed with him, but now I’m not so sure. Even at age 35, Utley looks like a guy you could rebuild a team around.

Either way, the worst thing that can possibly happen in two months is a repeat of last year where Amaro sits on his hands and does nothing — Another year of prolonging the inevitable as the wheels spin but the car remains stuck in mud.

If ownership is convinced that he has no plan after speaking with him, then it’s time for them to move on rather than accepting the status quo.

Amaro has shown in the past that he can be a competent general manager.

Quite simply, it is time for Ruben Amaro to do his job, and if he won’t, it is time for the Phillies to find someone else who will.