- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Win When?

Alright, I’m lost, Jim said aloud although a bit begrudgingly
Like things might change in light of this confession
He was both amazed and sour that at this late date and hour
He might find himself in this situation
—The Rainmakers, “A Million Miles Away”

You may have noticed that as many as three games of the World Series will be taking place in the National League East ballpark closest to Shea Stadium that isn’t Shea Stadium — and we’re not talking Citi Field, wise guy. So relatively close yet really, so far.

The Mets finished three games behind the eventual National League champion Phillies in 2008. Were there really only three games separating the two teams? One of the outs I gave the Mets in case they didn’t win their division throughout the season was I never honestly thought they were as good as the Phillies, a team that seemed far more loaded in just about every department. Conversely, if the Phillies were that good, I wondered why they didn’t have at least a seven-game lead most of the season. You’d like to think if your team can get close to winning something — lest I remind you the Mets led the Phillies by as many as 3½ in the second week of September — they can pull it off.

Having had more time than I wished to observe the Phillies this month, I revert to my default stance that the team that should have won did win (even if one bleeping fly ball could have changed the course of the final week [1], but never mind that Wright now). However little you think of their followers and however much Ray blue you bleed starting Wednesday, the 2008 Phillies are very good, they deserved to win the East, they are the best team in the N.L.

So how’d they do it?

In one of Omar Minaya’s traditional no-time-to-think explanations right after the Mets eliminated themselves from playoff contention — with so much experience in offering concession statements, you think he’d have this stuff down pat — I heard him say something curious. Paraphrasing here, he said the difference between the Mets and Phils was the Phillies’ core had a little more experience, specifically that they’d been contending longer.

“What a crock” was my first reaction. Where was this experience differential in 2006 when we were new to first place but had no problem holding it? The Mets had adequate enough service time then. If anything, two years should have made the Mets wise beyond their years and our dynasty should be in its heyday as we speak. Owing the Mets’ failure to the Phillies’ longevity seemed as strange as insisting the Mets who failed in historic fashion down the stretch in 2007, despite defending a division title, were done in by not having enough pennant race experience (which is what our general manager suggested in the aftermath of Collapse I).

But let’s look at the Phillie side of things, particularly how their roster’s been constructed [2]. If we can’t stand the Phillies (and we can’t) I think it has something to do with their familiarity. They have put together a team over time that has grown together. Grown on our nerve endings, sure, but grown to win, too.

Every year since 2000, one of the key members of these Phillies has established himself as a Major Leaguer: Burrell in 2000, Rollins in ’01, Myers in ’02, Utley in ’03, Madson in ’04, Howard in ’05 and Hamels in ’06. Every one of them was drafted by the Phillies. Not all of them were immediate successes and most of them experienced setbacks along the way, but here they are, a unit, a core. It’s as if somebody somewhere had a plan. Baseball doesn’t work the way it did forty years ago, but these guys coming and staying together reminds me of “the boys from Syracuse,” the future Tigers who played together in the minors in the mid-’60s and coalesced into the world champions of 1968. There was no free agentry then and there was generally less inclination to trade young talent for quick fixes; there was no Wild Card to tempt a GM into quick fixes. It’s not the same in 2008, but it’s a close enough echo of what worked for a long time in this game.

Complementing the core are a slew of smart, inexpensive pickups. The dreaded Shane Victorino was a Rule 5 selection on whom the Dodgers gave up. The nearly as dreaded Greg Dobbs was plucked off waivers after Seattle let him go. Carlos Ruiz worked his way up the minors after signing out of Panama. Chris Coste is a legendary scrap heap reclamation success story. Jayson Werth was a bargain basement free agent. Brad Lidge came in an almost no-risk trade and brought along Eric Bruntlett. Jamie Moyer was a quiet deadline deal that keeps paying dividends. Pedro Feliz was an under-the-radar signing. Matt Stairs, the quintessential September pickup, proved his value with one swing in Game Four of the NLCS (and boy does he enjoy the company of his teammates [3]). All their ancillary setup men seem to have come in on little cat’s feet but unlike our setup men, they don’t do unspeakable things in their litter box.

I don’t watch the Phillies every day so I’m probably missing the slumps and the godawful outings. Because all I know about them is this year’s version made up 3½ games in a blink and last year’s version made up twice as much ground just as fast, it is my impression that they’ve been gellin’ like a felon when it’s counted. I see role players fulfilling their responsibilities, stars living up to their billing and strikes being thrown and outs being secured in late innings.

What I don’t see is a big-name free agent in the lot. What I don’t see is a humongous contract assumed and extended. What I don’t see is overpaying for underperformance. Geoff Jenkins didn’t seem to do much for them and So Taguchi was a bust (thank heaven for small favors), but it apparently didn’t drag them down. They’ve been right way more often than they’ve been wrong.

The Phillies were building in the early 2000s. They competed for Wild Cards from 2003 through 2006, never winning one. It took The Greatest Collapse In Baseball History™ to push them across the line in 2007 and two ill-timed, king-sized letdowns in Flushing and Milwaukee to ensure their good fortune in 2008. But they’ve won their division, our division, two years running. They got there with a clutch of extraordinarily talented players and a gaggle of mighty useful contributors. They may not have won then, but they do win now.

No need to compare all their moves to the Mets. We know who we’ve got [4], how we got them, what they’ve done for us lately. We know it hasn’t been quite enough these last two seasons [5]. We sense that something has to change. I wonder if it’s this assumption, as expressed from Omar Minaya to Matt Cerrone in Metsblog’s recent Q&A with the GM [6]:

“We are a market with a ‘win-now’ mentality.”

To be fair to Omar, he was responding to a question that used that phrase. But he agreed with Matt’s assessment, and it’s not exactly out-of-the-box thinking to identify New York as an impatient place. I think we can all agree we’d rather win now than not win now.

But we’re not winning now, not in the winning enough to keep playing in October sense. We’re not losing more than we win, which is an upgrade from where we were pre-Minaya — and at some level we’ll always be grateful for that — but where exactly has yielding to the pressure of “win now” gotten this franchise? Has anything been put in place to not just “win now” but to win later? To keep winning? To win against the Phillies who are not just an admirable case study in baseball management if you examine them in a vacuum but your most serious divisional rival?

The Phillies have that core as catalogued above. Rollins, Utley and Howard aren’t going anywhere. Hamels is entrenched. Victorino is clearly a virus that won’t be eradicated anytime soon. Guys will come and go from their roster like anybody’s, but will enough of them leave to make a difference for the Mets? Will they be replaced by ever more efficient cogs? How will the Mets make up a gap that reveals itself, the closer you look, as wider than three games? Minaya had some good luck with a few reclamation projects of his own in 2008 and we saw a couple of rookies make a promising mark along the way…will there be more of that? Or will “win now” automatically mean another flurry of commitments negotiated beyond anybody’s concept of the limits of practicality? Is another class of two-bit relievers and no-account infielders lining up to sign on the dotted line for three, four, who knows how many years? Is it perhaps possible that we’ll someday look back on 2007 and 2008 as the most stressful chapters of a building process whose ultimate outcome more than makes up for the body blows we’ve absorbed in these saddest of Septembers?

I have no idea. Does anybody?

If you’re not overly cheerful yet, check out Dan from Mets Refugees [7]‘ expertly taken shots of the Shea scoreboard in ruins [8]. It’s not like the Mets needed a scoreboard anyway the last time we looked anyway.