MLB in the 2000s: How the Phillies Became a Powerhouse

Jarrad SaffrenCorrespondent ISeptember 22, 2011

MLB in the 2000s: How the Phillies Became a Powerhouse

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    To a casual Phillies fan, it was Jimmy Rollins’ mouth that ignited the seismic shift in the team’s cultural landscape.  But, like Pearl Harbor and the Boston Tea Party before it, Rollins’ prophetic 2007 “team to beat” proclamation was the poster moment in an ascension that was boiling beneath the surface for almost a decade.  

    The exact starting point is hard to put a finger on.  Some point to the hiring of Charlie Manuel in 2005.  Others to the firing of Ed Wade in 2005.  A select few will point to the opening of Citizens Bank Park in 2004. 

    A prominent majority point to the ascension of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard into once-in-a-generation centerpieces of a championship core. 

    In reality, the ascension began long before Manuel could even locate Philadelphia on a map.  Long before Wade became the John Stockton of deadline deals.  And long before Utley and Howard had ever stepped on a big league field.   

    In 16 of 17 seasons between 1984 and 2000, the Phillies never came within 15 (yes, 15!) games of making the playoffs. 

    Between 2001 and 2006, the Phillies teased their fans with annual September playoff pushes that fell tantalizingly short.

     In 2003, they lost seven of their final eight games to turn a half-game Wild Card lead over the Marlins on September 19 into a six-game deficit when the regular season dust had settled.  In 2005, the Phils closed the season on a four-game winning streak to fall just a game shy of the Wild Card winning Astros

    The kicker?  Charlie Manuel’s club went 0-6 against Houston including a momentum-shifting three-game sweep at the beginning of September marked by a pair of Billy Wagner blown saves.  In 2006, a 36-22 finish wasn’t enough to overcome a 49-55 start. 

    The Phils fell three games shy of the LA Dodgers, who happened to be the only team with a batter record over the final two months, which was three games better (39-19) for that matter.  In total, the Phillies finished second in the division four times and second in the Wild Card race three times, missing the playoffs by three games or fewer on three separate occasions. 

    By the mid 2000s, it became clear Ed Wade, Mike Arbuckle and co. had developed one of the most talented homegrown rosters in baseball.  The Phils just never had the collective gumption to do more than just compete for a playoff spot and hope for the best. That is until Rollins grew tired of the hollow expectations. 

    But everyone knows about the five-year ascension from playoff contender (2006) to championship contender (2008) to unbridled powerhouse (present day).  Heck, even Mark Grace is on the Phillies' bandwagon at this point. 

    People just forget about the first half of that ascension.  The half that saw the Phillies develop into an on-the-brink playoff contender in the first place.  The half that began in the NL East cellar before cavernous crowds at a beaten-to-shreds football stadium.  

    To say the Phillies have come a long way is an understatement.  There rise to power is an intriguing baseball tale that falls somewhere between Moneyball (cheap franchise that makes it big) and the modern day Red Sox (big market team that realizes they’re in a big market). 

    Casual fans simply don’t realize how they got there and where they came from.  But even casual fans deserve an education.  So hop off the bandwagon for a second, kids, and get your pencils and notebooks out. 

    The die-hards are about to give a history lesson.  As the Phillies get set to embark on another thrill ride of a post-season, let's take a look back at the 12 most important steps in there perfect-storm ascension from also-ran to powerhouse.  

1994 and 1998: Hiring of Mike Arbuckle and Ed Wade

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    Contrary to popular belief, you don't build a champion by buying a team of All-Stars. In the mid-90s, the Phillies could barely afford peanut vendors, let alone All-Stars.

    Their financial situation was similar to the one faced by teams like the Pirates, Royals and Rays throughout the new millennium. Just like the Rays, the Phillies capitalized on their perennial wealth of quality draft picks to build a rich farm system.

    As the head of scouting and development, Arbuckle gets most of the credit for finding stars like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Ryan Madsen. But as the general manager, Wade always pulled the final trigger on draft day.

    Wade may be the worst in-season general manager in history. But he's still responsible for putting together the most successful nucleus of players in the game today. Game 3 of the 2010 NLDS against the Reds was the record-breaking 33rd consecutive post-season game that Rollins, Utley, Howard, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz started together.

    All five were drafted by the Arbuckle-Wade connection. Call it luck. Call it an eye for talent. Call it whatever you want. Phillies fans are just happy Wade never had the inner strength to trade Ryan Howard when Jim Thome was blocking his path to the majors.     

2001 Season: Bowa Lights a Fire

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    By the end of Larry Bowa's four-year managerial tenure in 2004, most of the Phillies' players had tuned out his bombastic, tirade-prone style of leadership.

    But in 2001, Bowa's fiery personality was the perfect jolt for a ball club marked by sleeping talent and future potential.

    Spearheaded by a powerful lineup featuring established All-Stars Bobby Abreu and Scott Rolen, young slugger Pat Burrell, and a dynamic rookie leadoff man in Rollins, the upstart Phils raced to a six and a half game lead over mighty Atlanta in late May.

    Naturally, they faded back to Earth and eventually finished two games behind the Braves in a race that came down to a late September showdown at Turner Field.

    The result was disappointing. It also set the tone for a frustrating six-year trend of falling just short of the postseason.

    But in the late 1990s, the Phillies were about as relevant as the Sixers are now. And the 2001 season reminded Philadelphia just how compelling baseball could be.

    If there's a concrete beginning to the Phillies ascension, this is it.     

2003: Thome Starts a Trend

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    In the 24 years between signing Pete Rose in 1979 and Thome in 2003, the Phils biggest free-agent splash was the abominable Gregg Jefferies in 1995. Superstars like Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling begged to leave Philadelphia because the team wasn't committed to winning.

    They were committed by 2003, when a budding nucleus and impending new stadium convinced the loyal Thome, far and away the best free-agent on the market, to leave Cleveland, the only professional home he had ever known to become the face of the Phillies' resurgence.

    Off the field, the signing officially stamped the Phillies return as a mainstream community presence. On the field, it made them a legitimate playoff contender for the first time since the early 1980s. Perhaps most importantly, it opened the Philly floodgates as a desirable destination for other stars.    

2004: Opening of Citizens Bank Park

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    In 1998, the year they hired Wade as general manager, the Phillies payroll ranked 22nd in the majors at a paltry total of just over $28 million. In 2011, that payroll now ranks second in the majors at over $172 million.

    On Wall Street, the Phillies would be hotter than Facebook right now.

    Nothing is more responsible for that stock jump than the coolest ballpark in the major leagues. When it opened, CBP attracted a brand new community of casual observers who often came to the ballpark just to hangout in the concourse.

    When the team started winning, they kept coming back.

    Two hundred and seven (and counting) consecutive sell-outs later, and there's still no other venue that's just as fun for your five-year-old daughter as your 85-year-old great grandpa. 

2005: Hiring of Charlie Manuel

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    If Larry Bowa put baseball back on the Philadelphia map, Manuel made it the main event.

    His track record as the most successful manager in team history speaks for itself. Five straight division titles, two NL pennants, a World Series title and a .571 winning percentage.

    Prior to Manuel, the incomparable Danny Ozark was the only Phillies manager to win multiple division titles (three). Dallas Green is the only other one to win a World Series title (1980). No other Phillies manager had ever taken the team to the World Series multiple times. As for winning percentage? Only Green remotely compares at .565, but he managed over 600 fewer games.

    The ironic part about all this? No hiring in Philly history was met with more anger and outrage. With his folksy personality and bumbling mannerisms, Uncle Cholly was about as foreign a creature to jagged-edged, straight-talking Philadelphians as Steve Irwin or Daffy Duck. 

    But Manuel quickly made a name for himself as a players manager ready and eager to crack out the whip when necessary. He benched Jimmy Rollins for not running out a grounder in 2008, kicked Brett Myers out of the dugout for resisting a pitching change later that season, and even picked a fight with radio antagonist Howard Eskin after Eskin unfairly criticized the Phillies following a 2007 game. The proof that Manuel is a consummate players' manager? Only Eskin still disagreed with him after the fact.

    On the field, in addition to building stars like Utley and Howard, Manuel's hitting expertise has helped resurrect the careers of one-time fringe major leaguers like Shane Victorino (Rule 5 Pick in 2005), Jayson Werth (claimed off waivers in 2007), and Carlos Ruiz (10 year minor league player).   

2006: Hiring of Pat Gillick

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    The most timely hiring in team history, Gillick thrived in all the aspects of team building where Wade was inept. Most notably, his ability to surround an already star-studded nucleus with ideal complementary parts.

    The Phils needed a closer before the 2008 season. Gillick traded a bag of peanuts for Brad Lidge. They were in dire need of a lefty reliever early in 2007. Gillick nabbed JC Romero, who would end that season with a 1.24 ERA, off the Boston scrap heap. They needed more rotation depth for the 2006 stretch run, and again in 2008. Gillick traded nuts and bolts for Jamie Moyer ('06) and Joe Blanton ('08), the third and fourth starters, respectively, on the '08 World Series team.

    But Gillick's most important contribution to the Phillies organization was dropping his Hall of Fame knowledge on his protege and eventual successor, Ruben Amaro.

    From a roster standpoint, Gillick's best move wasn't trading for Lidge or claiming Jayson Werth off waivers. Instead, it was a trade that netted the Phillies almost nothing in return...     

2006: Bobby Abreu Trade

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    On paper, it was, as dubbed by Philadelphia Daily News baseball scribe Bill Conlin, the "Great Gillick Giveaway."

    Trading Abreu, a 30-30 offensive star who never hit below .286 as a Phillie, for CJ Henry (2005 first round pick), Matt Smith (seven-year minor leaguer at the time), and the two guys that shine their shoes (Jesus Sanchez and Carlos Monasterios, if you're keeping track of names). All were low-level Yankees prospects and fringe major leaguers at best.

    But this trade wasn't about the return. Sure Gillick could have done a little better, but this was about ridding the clubhouse of Abreu's shallow leadership presence. The Phillies were criticized when they fell short of the playoffs because they lacked the clear veteran leadership necessary to take that next step.

    This was because younger stars like Rollins and Utley didn't want to override a veteran presence like Abreu. But Abreu was just as passive in the clubhouse as he was against the right field wall.

    As an old school baseball guy, Gillick understood that the Phillies needed to be Rollins and Utley's team if they were going to take that next step. So he traded the only player old enough to remember what it was like to finish 30 games out of first (2000), and the only player still satisfied with that end result.    

2007: Jimmy Rollins Poses as Nostradamus

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    The eternal symbol of baseball success in Philadelphia, Rollins is to this Phillies team what Bobby Clarke was to the Broad Street Bullies.

    His arrival as a player in 2001 sparked the team's initial transition from irrelevant loser to rising winner. His arrival as a leader in 2007 sparked a dynasty.

    It was a season that started with the spring training prediction heard 'round the world, and ended with one of the greatest September comebacks in baseball history, culminating in the Phillies first post season appearance since 1993. Not bad. Now what could Rollins and company possibly do for an encore?   

2008: Pop the Corks

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    Outside of the Red Sox in 2004, you'd be hard pressed to find a championship run in the last quarter century that meant more to a city and a franchise.  

    For the franchise, it was the culmination of nearly a decade of trial and error, as management never veered away from the ever-precipitious, eternally-elusive championship mountain.

    For the city, it was the crowning achievement that had been dangled in front of their nose on countless occasions (since the Sixers won it all in 1983)...only to be snatched away at the last possible second.

    Also, no team can ever officially label itself a powerhouse unless it's won at least one championship. Just ask the Eagles.      

2008: Wade Re-Surfaces in Houston

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    It’s funny how a man who spent almost two decades in the Phillies' organization could make bigger contributions to the team after getting hired by the Astros. 

    But in four years since getting hired by Houston, Wade has handed the Phillies the closer (Lidge) who propelled them to a championship in 2008, the starter (Roy Oswalt) who propelled them to the best record in baseball in 2010, and the position player (Hunter Pence) who did the same in 2011. 

    The biggest knock on Wade during his Phillies tenure was his gun-shy tendencies in the trade department.  Judging by his Houston track record, it’s a good thing he never pulled the trigger.       

2009: Return to the World Series

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    Since the turn of the millennium, no sport has had more fluky champions than baseball, where no team has repeated since the Yankees in 2000.

    After the Phillies surprising 2008 World Series run, most national pundits grouped them in that flash-in-the-pan, hot-at-the-right-time category with teams like the 2003 Marlins and 2005 White Sox.

    The Phillies silenced the critics with a scintillating 2009 regular season featuring a record-setting lineup (four 30-plus home run hitters), the opening act of the Cliff Lee love fest, and the wildly entertaining, if only momentary resurgence of Pedro Martinez. Their 93 wins could have just as easily been 106 if the bullpen had saved even half of the 26 saves they blew.

    But it was the post season where the Phillies officially announced they were here to stay. They ripped through the Rockies and Dodgers in the NL playoffs, going 7-2, averaging over six runs per game, and becoming the first World Series champion this millennium to return to the Fall Classic the following year. They were just a Cole Hamels meltdown shy of becoming the first repeat champion from the National League since the Big Red Machine in 1976.           

2010 and 2011: Aces Travel in Packs

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    Nothing symbolizes how far the Phillies have come better than their top two starters. Roy Halladay begged to become part of the Phils' winning culture after years in the AL East cellar with Toronto. Cliff Lee begged to come back after the Philly faithful treated him like a native son during his sneak preview stint in 2009.  

    With the orchestrated departures of JD Drew, Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling still fresh in our memory, it's stunning in itself to think the best players in baseball are now begging their way to Philadelphia. 

    But it's even more impressive that management is now financially capable of acquiring players of Halladay and Lee's caliber while still maintaining the homegrown stars who inspired them to put on red pinstripes in the first place. 

    After the Halladay acquisition in December 2009, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrote an article crowning the new Northeast corridor axis of powers in Major League Baseball: giving the Phillies the same first class status as the Yankees and Red Sox. How's that for "commitment to winning," Scott Rolen?