Sep 2, 2013, 2:17 PM EDT
Things are bad for the Phillies this season. You don’t need me to remind you how bad–not after they lost two games to the reeling Mets by scores of 5-0 and 11-3 last week, just as it seemed like they might be building some momentum towards at least some sort of moral winning streak to end the season. Nope: Team still sucks. Reminder appreciated as always.
Still, things could be worse. They were 13 years ago, anyway.
Like this year’s team, the 2000 Phillies went into the season with something like optimism, and ended it in something like abject misery. Unlike this year’s team, the 2000 Phillies didn’t wait until the All-Star break to completely fall apart: After going 4-4 in their first eight, they never even sniffed .500 again, trading their best player before the deadline and ending the season 32 games under .500. The team’s 65 wins were the fewest of any Phils team since 1988. Bad as this year’s group has been, they’d still have to go 4-24 the rest of the way to match ’00 for futility.
How well do you remember that year’s Phillies team? Well, it was obviously a pretty different era for the Fightins–only one player from that year’s team remains on the roster in 2013, and he made his Major League debut as a September call-up that year. Different manager, different GM, even a different stadium. But after 12 seasons in between of winning baseball–OK, they technically went 80-81 in ’02–the ’13 Phils are all but guaranteed to have at least one thing in common with the ’00 squad.
So before we figure out where we go from here, let’s take a deep dive back into what it was like the last time we had a losing team, and a little bit of how eventually we got out of it. Here’s the 700 Level’s itemized look back at the 2000 Phillies, with additional remembrances from our go-to crap team historical archivist Dave “Where Is Ben Rivera” Rueter in parentheses at the end of some items. (“The only thing that got me through the Francona years was Monday Night Nitro,” says WIBR in summation. “But even then I was still screwed Tuesday – Sunday.”)
Great-ish Expectations. The 2000 Phillies weren’t expected by many to challenge the Mets or Braves for NL East supremacy, but they did go into the season with a sense of momentum. The team had improved its record from the year before each of the three previous seasons, and with a couple off-season additions–All-Star pitcher Andy Ashby, closer Mike Jackson, recently re-acquired second baseman Mickey Morandini–as well as internal improvement from some of their young stars (Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu) and a couple highly anticipated rookie callups, the team was at least expected to contend for a winning record, if not the division itself. SI predicted the team would at least finish third in the division, citing the team’s “loads of young talent,” and stating unequivocally, “this team can score.”
Things got off to a bad start for the Phils when the pitching staff was hit by injuries early in the season. Staff ace Curt Schilling took a longer time than expected to get healthy from off-season surgery, not making his first start until the end of April, and then posting an ERA over six through his first eight starts. Meanwhile, Jackson, the team’s expected closer, felt soreness in his shoulder while warming up for the Phils before what should have been his first appearance of the season, was shut down a week-and-a-half later and didn’t pitch an inning that season. 36-year-old Jeff Brantley, expected to be the team’s set-up man, was forced into closer duty, and bombed, posting a 5.86 ERA and a 1.681 WHIP in 55 appearances. Brantley would wash out of baseball entirely the next season.
The Three Aces. Not sure if anyone actually called them that at the time, but the Phils had to feel pretty good going into the season with three starting pitchers that had been All-Stars the year before: Curt Schilling, Paul Byrd and the recently signed Andy Ashby. None of the three worked out as hoped. Schilling, as previously mentioned, started the season hurt and then ineffective, before really coming on in mid-June, striking out 11 against the Braves in a 2-1 win and going 5-2 with a 2.00 ERA in eight starts from there. Byrd, who was a mostly undeserving All-Star the year before (and fell apart after the break), continued to be miserable into the ’00 season, going 2-9 with a 6.51 ERA in 17 appearances for the Phils before being shut down for injury-related reasons.
And then there was Ashby. The Phils’ big trade acquisition–they dealt Adam Eaton and a couple scrubs to get him in the off-season–was coming off two years of being the Padres’ ace, including two All-Star appearances and a World Series berth in ’98. Ashby was expected to co-anchor the Phils’ lineup with Schilling, and in fact got the opening day start for the Phils against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was lit up for six runs in that first start, and improved little from there, going 4-7 with a 5.68 ERA for the Phils on the season. He was traded to the Braves at mid-season, and ended up pitching out of the bullpen for Atlanta in their 2000 NLDS loss to the Cardinals.
(WIBR: “Thanks to a Curt Schilling injury, the Phillies opening day starter was Andy Ashby. When you name Andy Ashby your opening day starter, you may as well just stitch a white flag on to your jerseys. We later traded Ashby to Atlanta for the venerable Bruce Chen, who has slept with half the National League, yet comes out of each relationship as fresh as a daisy.“)
The Lightest-Hitting Middle Infield in Baseball. Despite SI’s statement about how the Phils “can score,” scoring runs was actually sort of a challenge for this team. In fact, over a 14-game stretch in late April that saw the team go 2-12 and essentially lose the division in the season’s first month, they only averaged a little over three runs a game, never scoring more than six. They would finish the season with 708 runs, 16th of 16 teams in the National League. (The first-place Rockies finished with 968.)
The Phils had some boppers in the lineup that year, but they also had their fair share of easy outs. Particularly galling in this respect was the team’s starting middle infield of Mickey Morandini (.252 BA, 16 XBH in 341 PA) and Desi Relaford (.221 BA, 18 XBH in 313 PA)–which, remarkably, was still way better than their respective backups, Marlon Anderson (.228, 10 XBH in 174 PA) and Alex Arias (.187 BA, 11 XBH in 180 PA). Relaford was traded mid-season to the Padres for a player to be named later (eventually named David Newhan, 27 career PA for Philly), and Morandini, still a beloved Phillie from his first run with the team in the mid-’90s, was traded to the Blue Jays, retiring after the season.
Rolen and Abreu. It wasn’t all bad for the Phillies’ offense–they did have two legitimate burgeoning young stars in Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu, 25 and 26 respectively. Rolen batted .298 with 26 homers and good peripherals for the Phils, and won his second gold glove at third base–though for the second straight year, he missed a chunk of the season with injury, this time a strained left ankle. Abreu hit over .300 for the third straight season, nearly matching Rolen with 25 homers, and also stealing 28 bags and drawing an even 100 walks. (No one on the 2013 Phillies has drawn an even 50 walks yet this season.)
Good as Rolen and Abreu’s numbers were, neither made the All-Star team or drew a single MVP vote. Then again, this was the very peak of the steroid era, and even though Abreu’s numbers are relatively comparable to those of NL MVP front-runner Andrew McCutchen this year, by ’00′s insanely inflated standards–Colorado’s Todd Helton hit .372/.463/.698 and only finished fifth in MVP voting that year–they were merely good.
(WIBR: If you remember, Bobby Abreu didn’t play opening day in 2000, because Randy Johnson was starting for the D-Backs. Francona didn’t want to put Bobby in a lefty/lefty “funk” to begin the year, as if Abreu didn’t have 161 other games to snap out of it. (Those 680 plate appearances get on you in a hurry). Instead, we were treated to a little sum’in, sum’in in RF I call, Kevin Sefcik – who, god bless ‘em, tried. He went 0-3. It’s kind of a bad omen when your best player is healthy, but can’t crack the opening day line-up.)
PAT. THE. BAT. Called up by the Phils in late May, top prospect former #1 overall draft pick Pat Burrell was expected to inject some life into the Phils’ turgid offense, filling in for the injured Rico Brogna at first base. He went 2-4 with a triple (!!) in his debut against the Astros, though he quickly proved streaky as a hitter, flirting with the Mendoza Line for much of June, before going on an absolute tear at the end of the month. He finished the season with a .260 average, 18 homers and 79 RBIs (though just the one triple) in 111 games–very respectable numbers for a rook–and finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting, behind Jay Payton, Rick Ankiel and winner Rafael Furcal.
The Schilling Trade. Unfortunately, if you remember the 2000 season primarily for one thing, it was probably the the late-July trade that rid the team of long-time ace Curt Schilling. Schill had been the Phillies’ best pitcher for the majority of the ’90s, twice striking out 300 batters in a season, leading the league with a .990 WHIP in ’92, and of course, helping pitch the Phils into the World Series for the first time in a decade in ’93. But by 2000, he had gotten increasingly irritated with the team’s losing ways, and with his contract set to expire at the end of the season, the team acknowledged his trade demand and dealt him to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In return, the Phils got pitchers Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa and Vicente Padilla, and first baseman Travis Lee. The Mets were said to be offering a higher-upside collection of talent for Schilling–though the proposed centerpiece of that deal, outfielder Alex Escobar, never panned out in the majors–but Phils GM Ed Wade instead preferred the Diamondbacks’ package of major-league-ready players. Indeed, Daal, Padilla and Lee would all become fixtures on the Phils’ roster for the remainder of the season, though only Padilla would have any extended impact on the team’s fortunes, becoming one of their more reliable starters for the first half of the ’00s. (Lee, the prized acquisition of the deal, was a big disappointment–his numbers were decent in ’01 but regressed to ’02, and the Phils decide to let him walk in free agency to pursue big-name slugger Jim Thome.)
Meanwhile, Schilling would get fully healthy in the off-season, and go on to form the deadliest 1-2 punch in 21st century baseball out in Arizona with co-ace Randy Johnson, finishing runner-up in the Cy Young voting twice (both times to Johnson) and splitting the World Series MVP (again, with Johnson) in the Diamondbacks’ legendary ’01 Series victory over the Yankees. Philly baseball would not see a starter near Schilling’s equal on the mound for at least another seven years.
A much less impactful, but far more amusing deadline deal. Ed Wade extremely busy on the phones in July and August of the ’00 season, as it became clear what a lost season it would be for the Phillies. The Ashby deal started off the fire sale, then Schilling a few weeks later, and before the deadline, Relaford, Morandini and veteran first baseman Ron Gant were all moved as well. But the most historically interesting of the trades would have to be those involving outfielder Rob Ducey, who was first traded to the Blue Jays for what eventually turned out to be minor-league pitcher John Sneed. Ten days later, however, when Toronto wanted to deal for Morandini, they shipped Ducey right back, after just five games in a Blue Jays uniform.
“It’s value for value,” joked Wade at the time. “Their tools are very similar. The guy we got in return is a little older. But he’s got less left on his contract. So it’s a good tradeoff.” Har. Teammate Doug Glanville compared the situation to the Kevin Bacon thriller Hollow Man (“He was actually here the whole time. We just didn’t know it“), which should give you a pretty good idea of just how long ago 2000 was. Ducey lost his apartment and his locker in the interim, but was pleasantly surprised to find that his jersey was still available, at least. He hit .222 for the Phils the remainder of the season and was released halfway through the next season.
(WIBR: When I first learned that the Phillies acquired Rob Ducey for Mickey Morandini, I assumed that we had traded for Rob Duceỳ, the hard-throwing French Canadian reliever who had been overpowering hitters in Class A Dunedin. Yet, there I was, just days later, watching our very own Rob Ducey patrol left field again, like a college kid still hanging around his old high school.)
One true highlight. There weren’t a lot of exciting wins for the 2000 Phillies–there weren’t all that many wins, period–but they did get a good one on August 27th, when Bobby Abreu stepped to the plate in the tenth inning of a 1-1 game against the San Francisco Giants at the Vet. Abreu smashed a fly ball to deep center that ended up caroming off the glove of the leaping outfielder Calvin Murray. Abreu, who had considerable wheels in those days, ended up beating the relay throw from short for a walk-off inside-the-park home run–the first such occurrence since Derek Jeter in ’96–much to the excitement of Harry Kalas.
“If you can’t get excited about that game, you’re comatose,” said manager Terry Francona afterwards. Verily.
Randy, Robert and BRUUUUUUUUUUCE. Though the Phils’ pitching staff was rife with disappointments throughout the ’00 season, it was not without its pleasant surprises. Second-year starter Randy Wolf would be the only pitcher on the team to reach double-digit wins, going 11-9 with a 4.36 ERA in a team-high 32 starts, and would serve as one of the Phils’ better starters for the next half-decade. 30-year-old righty Robert Person had the best season of his career to that point, going 9-7 with a team high 164 strikeouts. And the almighty Bruce Chen, brought over in the mid-season Ashby deal, far outpitched his predecessor, posting a 3.63 ERA and a 3:1 K/BB ratio.
Wolf and Person would also, along with Vicente Padilla, be the Phillies to indirectly inspire the start of player-specific fan groups popping up at the Vet–the Wolf Pack, Person’s People, the Padilla Flotilla, etc.–which would help foster fan excitement (of some variety, anyway) during the team’s non-contending years in the ’00s. And against all odds, Chen continues to get around more than 2Pac or Brian Wilson, currently the owner of a 6-2 record and a sub-3.00 ERA for the 2013 Kansas City Royals, his tenth team in the majors.
Omar Daal and the Quest to Avoid #20. Omar Daal twice took the hill for the Fightins in late September–against the Mets on the 21st, and then the Cubs five days later–with the chance to make some seriously ignominious baseball history. Coming over to the Phils in July’s Schilling mega-deal, Daal brought with him a 2-10 record from Arizona, which he then augmented with a 1-9 start to his Phillies career. 20 losses in baseball is far rarer than even 20 wins, and had he picked up L #20, he would’ve been the first pitcher to hit the benchmark since Brian Kingman did it for the A’s in 1980.
Luckily, Daal persevered in both starts, giving up just three combined runs over 12 innings–Daal’s last six starts for the Phils were all quality outings–and he even picked up his fourth win of the season in the final game against the Cubs. Three seasons later, lefty Mike Maroth would break the streak of seasons without a 20-game loser, going 9-21 for a historically abysmal Tigers team.
(WIBR: Along with Chen, Paul Byrd and the newly acquired Omar Daal (“The Daal House”) ate some innings at the back end of the rotation.
“Daaly left the ball up early on, but then he really settled.”
“Byrdy probably threw a couple of pitches that he wants back.”
But when you collectively go 4-18, you’re not so much eating innings, but rather Eaton innings.)
The final damage. The Phils ended the 2000 season with a 65-97 record, 30 games back in the NL East, and tied with the Cubs for the worst record in the whole NL. They finished last in the league in runs, homers and slugging percentage, and second-to-last in batting average, hits, and OPS. (Their pitching numbers were a little better–they finished just 11 out of 16 in ERA, and actually had the fifth-highest strikeout tally in the league.) Their winning percentage was the lowest of any Phillies team since the ’72 squad–the one where Steve Carlton cemented his pitching legacy by winning 27 games for a 59-win team.
Someone had to be the fall guy for the season’s crushing disappointment, and as with this year’s squad, the manager got the axe. Terry Francona was fired at the end of the 2000 season after four straight losing campaigns, and replaced by former Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa, who would win Manager of the Year in his very first campaign for the Fightins. “It’s been a difficult year,” Francona said. “And when you have difficult years, the manager gets fired. I understand that.” (Of course, Tito went on to far greater glory as the two-time World Series-winning steward of the Boston Red Sox, and he’s currently patrolling the bench for the Cleveland Indians, trying to squeeze them into the AL Wild Card hunt.)
Hope for the (middle infield of the) future. A bright spot for the Phils as they played out the string in September was the call-up of 21-year-old shortstop James Calvin Rollins, a second-round pick of the team in 1996. Rollins played in just 14 games, but flashed some of his potential, hitting .321 with five RBIs and three steals over that period. J-Roll would really make his presence felt in 2001, his proper rookie season, where he would lead the entire league in steals (46) and triples (12), making the All-Star team, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting (losing to a couple perennial All Stars-to-be, Albert Pujols and Roy Oswalt), and even getting some down-ballot MVP consideration. Still on the team in 2013, of course, Rollins currently ranks in the top five in franchise history in games, hits, runs, steals and total bases.
Perhaps even more importantly, in the June 2000 MLB draft, the Phillies would select second baseman Chase Cameron Utley out of UCLA with the 15th pick of the first round. Utley would make his debut for the Phils in 2003, eventually becoming their full-time second baseman in 2005 with the mid-season trade of starter Placido Polanco. He would make the All-Star team the next five seasons and, along with Rollins, Burrell and a handful of others, make up the core of the most successful era ever of Phillies baseball at the end of the decade.
Will the post-2013 Phillies eventually reach such a rosy end? It’s hard to really draw too many parallels between the two squads here–really, the 2000 Phillies had more in common (in terms of intent, at least) with this year’s rip-it-up-and-start again Sixers squad, dealing nearly every veteran they had in the hopes of starting over with a younger, cheaper, hopefully higher-upside roster. Michael Young would never have survived to September on the ’11 Phillies, and Cliff Lee might’ve gotten the boot as well. But the rosters were pretty different in construction even at season’s beginning–the ’00 Phillies were a up-and-coming team that simply faltered trying to take the next step, whereas the ’13 Phillies are a fading team that’s probably trying too hard to hang on to the glory days.
Still, you could look at the ’00 Phillies and say that you can’t ever be sure the next franchise-defining players are going to come from. Most fans would’ve bet the farm at century’s beginning that Rolen and Abreu would be the cornerstones of the next great Phils team, not Rollins, whose stats in the minors were good but never great, or Utley, who wasn’t even the highest-selected second baseman from California in his draft class. (That would be the mythical Shaun Boyd, a career minor-leaguer from Oceanside.) By the time the Fightins were contending for the playoffs again, both Rolen and Abreu were long gone, without even returning much in their outgoing trades to help the team’s efforts.
Could Cody Asche, Maikel Franco and Domonic Brown end up as the next Rollins, Utley and Burrell? Probably not, but it’ll be the task of the next few Phils teams to find out who will be, and to do some serious cleaning out of inessential players in the meantime until we find them. And if there’s one way to take comfort in the story of the ’00s Phillies, it’s that the 2001 Phillies would turn things around to the tune of an 86-76 record–a 21-game improvement over the year before. In baseball, the potential for redemption is rarely more than a season away.
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