Saturday, August 20, 2011

All the Right Pieces

Every so often, a group of players comes together to make a championship team. It’s not always the best players that win championships, but a certain combination of talent and personalities that works well together and complements each other.
The Philadelphia Phillies are a case in point. This team has finished first in their division in each of the last four seasons; won the National League Division Series the past three years; the NL Championship Series two of the last three years; and won the World Series in 2008. This is one of the finest teams in baseball, yet the team continues to look for ways to be more successful now and in the future.
Leaders of teams of this caliber don’t rest on their laurels; they don’t sit back, smoke cigars and congratulate themselves on putting together a great team. Leaders such as Philadelphia General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. are continually looking to tweak and upgrade the team whenever possible. They are looking for puzzle pieces that will blend together to make a complete picture - hopefully a World Series winning picture – not just for now, but for the future as well.
Teams acquire players by several means, including drafting amateur players, via trades, and by signing free agents. Ideally, a team builds from within – that is, drafted players progress through the minor leagues and to the big club. Homegrown players are not nearly as expensive to acquire as are free agents or by trading. Not every need can be filled (at least quickly) by promoting players from the minors though, necessitating trades with other major league teams. The most expensive method is by bidding for and signing free agents – usually veterans with proven major league experience and talent.
A look at the current key players on the Phillies shows that Amaro and previous Philadelphia GM’s Pat Gillick and to some extent, Ed Wade, have done this well. Although all three were at one time or another criticized for player moves (especially Wade as the current GM of the Houston Astros), it’s difficult to argue that the 2011 Phillies are one of baseball’s best teams.
The majority of current Phillies’ key players were drafted as amateurs and progressed through the farm system: Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, and Ryan Madson. Utley and Hamels were first round picks; Rollins was taken in the 2nd round, Worley the 3rd, Howard 5th, and Madson was a 9th round pick. Carlos Ruiz and Antonio Bastardo were both signed as amateur free agents, and then were developed through the farm system.
Shane Victorino was acquired via a minor league trade, spending some time in the Phillies farm system before sticking with the Phillies in 2006. Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay and Hunter Pence are more recent acquisitions, all coming to the Phillies in trades. John Mayberry, Jr. was also acquired in a minor league trade in 2008.
Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco, and Cliff Lee were all signed as free agents, with Lee being the most expensive such addition to the team.
 With the most recent acquisition – right fielder Hunter Pence - it would appear that the Phillies have found all of the important puzzle pieces that will make them successful for years to come. Pence added a spark to an already good team, and gave the Phils something they didn’t already have – a good hitter in the fifth spot in the batting order.
The Phils have been able to accomplish these moves without giving away too much. No team wants to give away key players, nor do they want to trade top minor league prospects – players who are expected to progress though the development years and be ready to step in when veterans retire or move on. A successful general manager realizes that a team must be maintained and tweaked – it’s a process of continually seeking puzzle pieces that fit where needed, and replacing worn pieces before they become a problem.
The Phillies are clearly planning for the day when veterans such as Howard, Rollins, and Utley begin to fade as everyday players. Young players such as Pence and John Mayberry, Jr. have been acquired not only to help the team now – these players represent the Phillies of the future. In the next few years, Amaro will acquire/promote players who are being groomed to replace the aging veterans. A successful GM realizes that this is a piecemeal progression – one cannot wait until players such as Utley and Howard are no longer able to contribute daily.
Any competent general manager should operate this way; one would assume that anyone rising to the position would already understand how the puzzle works. That doesn’t always seem to be the case though – some GM’s wait until their starting players have lost whatever qualities they once had that set them apart from their peers. Some player’s skills fade slowly, while others lose their edge seemingly over night. If this happens, the team in question suddenly goes from a contender to a group of players who no longer have what it takes to be competitive. A GM who allows this to happen will not be employed for long.
Amaro clearly understands the process – he won’t wait until his top players are no longer playing at a competitive level. He has already begun the process of acquiring new pieces to his puzzle – pieces that will keep his Phillies winning now and in contention for many years to come.

© 2011 LTM

No comments:

Post a Comment