By In Baseball

Utley to Howard to Francoeur

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Phillies did something rather extraordinary. They sent out a lineup where the 3-4-5 hitters were:

3rd — 36-year-old Chase Utley

4th — 35-year-old Ryan Howard

5th — 31-year-old Jeff Francoeur

Well, for this team this wasn’t actually extraordinary … or even out of the ordinary. This was the seventh time this year that they have batted those three men in the middle of the order. They have also tried Utley, Howard and 32-year-old Grady Sizemore in the middle of the order. They have also tried Utley, Howard and 36-year-old Carlos Ruiz in the middle of the order.

Throw in that their best pitcher so far this year has been 37-year-old Aaron Harang, and they have 34-year-old Jonathan Papelbon pitching those lonely ninth innings, and the only player who seems to have trade value is 31-year-old Cole Hamels … it’s like Maleficent put a spell on this organization five years ago, and they still have not woken up.

But let’s focus on that middle of the lineup because an Utley-Howard-Francoeur  is truly an astonishing thing, like finding a fossil of a long-ago civilization. Thing is: It wasn’t that long ago. Four years ago — FOUR YEARS AGO — the Philadelphia Phillies won 102 games. We were talking about them as not only the best team in baseball but as an all-time team. You will remember, they had that extraordinary four-man pitching rotation:

— Roy Halladay (163 ERA+, 220-35 strikeout to walk, 24-8 team record)

— Cliff Lee (160 ERA+, 238-52 strikeout to walk, 22-10 team record)

— Cole Hamels ( 137 ERA+, 194-44 strikeout to walk, 18-13 team record)

— Roy Oswalt (104 ERA+, 93-33 strikeout to walk, 11-13 team record)

Oswalt did not have one of his great seasons — he had four or five seasons Cy Young caliber seasons in his superb career — but it didn’t matter. That gap was made up by 23-year-old Vance Worley. The team won 16 of Worley’s 21 starts, and he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting.

With those amazing starters, with a good enough bullpen, and with the remnants of a lineup that had finished first or second in runs scored each of the previous six seasons, the Phillies’ Ruben Amaro (feeding off the work of Pat Gillick) had built a superteam. The core of those Phillies had already won a World Series and a pennant. Now, they won those 102 games and seemed destined for big things.

That, of course, didn’t happen. The Phillies lost to St. Louis in the playoffs. and they lost mainly because that once-formidable lineup was getting creaky. The Phillies scored 3, 3 and 0 runs in the final three games of that Cardinals series, and in the last of those games Chris Carpenter made them look utterly helpless. And old. You should never put too much stock into one game. But the way the Phillies went down that day seemed like they had crossed the river.

I remember the press conference after that game; Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, in his own inimitable way, expressed a sort of folksy confusion about his team’s offensive woes. It was a fluke, he suggested. Just one of those things. It did not seem to occur to him that players get old, and the ones who sparked the great Phillies offense— Utley, Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez — were all at the end.

Well, that did not seem to occur to anyone in the Phillies organization.The Ryan Howard deal was the classic blunder* but there was just a general sense of denial about the team getting old and the plan to counter it was to hope that time stopped. Branch Rickey famously said it’s better to get rid of a player a year too early than a year too late. How about three years too late? Or five years too late?

*The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia but only slightly less well known is this: Never give a 30-something, one-dimensional slugger who can’t hit lefties a crazy five-year trade-protected extension two years before his contract is up.

Howard aged out. Halladay aged out. Rollins aged out. Utley’s body deteriorated. The Phillies tried to cover the wrinkles with cosmetics like 41-year-old Jim Thome and 40-year-old Jose Contreras. Their big move was signing closer Jon Papelbon. Playing off the Jeff Foxworthy bit — If your team believes that signing a big-money closer will make the difference … you might be rooting for a lousy team.

The descent of the Phillies has been steady:

2012: 81-81, eighth in runs scored.

2013: 73-89, 13th in runs scored.

2014: 73-89, ninth in runs scored.

2015: 11-23, dead last in runs scored.

Of course they’re last in runs scored this year. Their middle of the line is Utley, who is hitting .127 with an OPS+ of 20, Howard who is hitting .217 and is 0-for-8 so far with a runner on third base, and Jeff Francoeur who, well, I can’t write my 800,000th story on Jeff Franceour. Let’s just say that, playing off the Jeff Foxworthy bit, if your team signs a 30-something Jeff Francoeur … well you know where that joke’s going.

Twenty thousand people showed up for Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia. That’s way down from three years ago — the Phillies led the National League in attendance every year from 2010 to 2012 — but from another perspective it’s a miracle that they can still draw 20,000 people for this team. There are few things in sports more depressing than watching old stars scuffle. It’s like watching the last Indiana Jones movie over and over. I once asked a good major league pitcher what’s the difference between playing an Old Timer’s Game and the real thing. He responded: “Hope.”

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26 Responses to Utley to Howard to Francoeur

  1. Owen says:

    After such a great run, it looks like they’ll go back to being the terrible Phillies we all know and love for the next few years, only with a better stadium this time.

  2. Johnny B says:

    Yeah, I thought that 2008 Phillies club would win multiple rings. Then they added Cliff Lee, then Halladay. Sh!t happens in baseball. I thought the ’86 Mets would be a dynasty. And the ’75 Red Sox. Notable are the Yankee championship teams in the 90s that were always the oldest in the league, laden with veterans.

    • Ed says:

      Those Yankees teams really weren’t that old. 5 of the 8 regular starters (not counting DH) were under 30, and only one of them (Paul O’Neill) was over 31. They did have two guys in the rotation at 35 (the Davids, Wells and Cone), but it seems to me like 35 is younger for pitchers than it is for hitters. Regardless, the other 4 people that spent time in the rotation were 26, 26, 29, and 32.

      It’s not like they were trotting out guys in their mid 30s all over the field.

      • Ed says:

        Somewhere in my editing of that comment I managed to erase the fact that I was talking about the 1998 Yankees team.

      • tmutchell says:

        It’s worth noting also that all “old” teams are not the same. And most “young” teams are young because their players aren’t very good yet. A youth movement may be a harbinger of future greatness, but it usually means some growing pains in the mean time. Some of them are old because they were foolish and signed their good veterans to long, expensive contracts, like the current Phillies or the Orioles of the 1990’s, but some are old because they’ve supported their younger core with solid, older veterans on shorter contracts, much like the Yankees of 10-15 years ago. Having the oldest team in the league doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad right now, just that those same players are unlikely to be as good in the future. The Phillies’ failure to adjust, to anticipate the aging process, has done them in. Amaro might be the worst GM in the game right now.

  3. The Phils were at least lucky enough to unload Jimmy Rollins onto the Dodgers for a pair of prospects before his trade value hit zero. Even if the prospects don’t pan out, the Phillies saved 10 million dollars on Rollins contract, and with a slash line of .174/.257/.298, the 36 year old shortstop appears to be running on fumes.

  4. NPB Card Guy says:

    “…in the last of those games Chris Carpenter made them look utterly helpless. And old. You should never put too much stock into one game. But the way the Phillies went down that day seemed like they had crossed the river.”

    The image that sticks with me from that game is Ryan Howard grounding out to make the last out and ending up on the ground with a torn Achilles tendon while the Cardinals celebrated. That’s as ominous an omen of things to come as you’re ever going to get.

    • Stephen says:

      Isn’t this 20/20 hindsight though? Maybe it is only that I am a Cards fan, but my recollection is that after the 2011 series people were mostly marveling at what a wonderful game and series it had been, and giving Carpenter props for shutting down an impressive lineup. I don’t remember a spate of commentaries (or any at all for that matter) talking about the Phils looking helpless because they were helpless, just that they had run into a really good pitcher having a really good day.

      I could of course be wrong. Maybe there were a bunch of the-Phillies-looked-helpless-against-Carpenter-because-they-were-increasingly-a-helpless-team stories appearing in the wake of that series? Anybody know of any?

      • Mike Lacianca says:

        The Phillies clinched the division in the middle of September and proceeded to not play well after that. Fans were concerned going into the series…and then they scored double-digits in game one and that sort of calmed the waters. I think it was a little of hindsight and a little of we saw it coming but thought we could hold it off for at least one more season? It was a great run as a fan, but the organization simply mishandled to offense. Halladay and Lee broke down a little earlier than I think most people thought they would.

  5. Mark says:

    ^^NPB, you’re so right. Ominous indeed. The decline has been steady, something us fans have all seen, yet management does not. Still, on Saturday evening, I’m taking my son – it’ll be his fifth birthday – to his first baseball game. A Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park. Hopefully we can get down to the field and maybe get an autograph or two. We’ll walk around Ashburn Alley, and have a hot dog. We’ll watch a few innings, probably, before he gets restless. I went to my first Phillies game at 5, at Veterans Stadium. I’ll forget how bad they are, I’ll be at a baseball game with my son. And it’ll be good.

    • I’ve always loved baseball, I did the same with my kids. I started taking them to games at a very young age…. younger than 5. They still like going to games, but as young adults, are otherwise uninterested in baseball. If I have a game on TV, they leave the room. Not disrespectfully, but because they think the game is really boring on TV. This generation likes soccer, likes basketball, likes football (doesn’t everyone?), but baseball is completely off the radar. Little League used to have a waiting list & you almost had to know someone to get in the league 10 years ago. Now they’re begging people to sign up. Baseball is in real trouble with their demographics.

    • woozieman says:

      Well said. You have to love the game more than any one team to appreciate baseball’s allure. I’m a Royals fan, but also find myself rooting for the Cardinals AND the Cubs, if that is possible. Really, anybody except the Yankees! And I remember going to A’s games in old Municipal Stadium with my Dad. The smell of cigar smoke and beer, the cold luxury of a Frosty Malt, the image of Norm Siebern rounding third to score from second on a single, Stan Musial and Willie Mays and others at the All-Star Game. It’s a beautiful game.

  6. Demur83 says:

    It’s clear the front office has no clue and that the team is destined to become irrelevant again just like they were in the late 90s with Travis Lee, Rolen and Jose Mesa closing games. I’m glad they got one WS though, that makes it completely worth it to me.

    • vlock1 says:

      Plus, you got to hear Chase Utley say “World F’in Champions” on TV in the middle of Broad Street.

  7. Brent says:

    Happens in all sports. The Chiefs of the late 60s, early 70s were a collection of great players, especially on defense. 4 of those defenders are in the HOF, Buchanan, Bell, Lanier and Thomas. Hank Stram loved those guys and that was the problem. He never replaced them. Even when they got old and couldn’t play anymore. By 1976, Stram was gone, many of the glory days players were gone and the Steelers pounded the Chiefs 45-0 in Arrowhead on November 7. By 1978, when new coach Marv Levy took over, their defense was so devoid of talent, Levy decided to use a crazy tactic of using the Wing T for his offense to attempt to not have all their games end 45-0. In his words ” “It was a situation where we took over a team that had the worst defensive record in the history of the National Football League,” Levy explained. “We wanted to keep that defense off the field, so we ran the ball 60 times a game.” Even a brilliant mind like Levy couldn’t overcome the dearth of talent that he inherited and it would be another decade and 3 coaches later before the Chiefs were once again a team that was a regular playoff contender

  8. ErnieAdams says:

    I love seeing a number like 20,000 spelled out to begin a sentence. It shouldn’t feel right, but it really, really does. It says “I like my sentence as I wrote it so much that I’m unafraid to make you read all of these letters when a few numbers would normally do.” It’s pure confidence. Nice work, Joe.

  9. james says:

    What is shocking is that Francoeur is only 31. He has been so bad for so long.

  10. Four years is a LONG time in baseball. Look at Baseball Reference sometime and track the 1955 Dodgers for the next four years and see what happened to that roster. But with the Phillies, heading into 2011, I though they’d already gotten old & wouldn’t be that good. They ended up winning 102 games with the following lineup:

    C-Carlos Ruiz – Age 32
    1B-Ryan Howard – 31
    2B-Chase Utley – 32
    SS-Jimmy Rollins – 32
    3B-Placedo Polanco-35
    LF-Raul Ibanez-39
    CF-Shane Victorino-30
    RF-Hunter Pence-28
    SP-Roy Halladay 34, Cliff Lee 32, Cole Hamels 27, Roy Oswalt 33, Vance Worley 23, Kyle Kendrick 26
    CL-Ryan Madson 30

    So, only one regular player under the age of 30 and only one front line starter under 30. But, a lot of the players were still close enough to their prime & they got top performances for another year from their starters.

    One year later, as their win total declined by 21, all of the regulars except Pence & Ruiz showed significant decline. They replaced Ibanez with 34 year old Juan Pierre, who actually had a decent year, but obviously he wasn’t a long term piece.

    Halladay almost doubled his ERA and had injuries, Oswalt was gone and suddenly your rotation started including Joe Blanton, Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley as their #3, 4 and 5. Lee & Hamels still had pretty good seasons, though certainly not dominant seasons.

    So, basically I was wrong by a year, but it was obviously going to happen. But for Amaro, although obviously signing Howard to an extension was stupid, I could see where rolling the dice for one more year on an aging team seemed like a decent bet. The Reds did the same with the Big Red Machine & there are a lot of teams through the years that had menacing looking rosters that really were a bunch of over the hill players who weren’t going to win anything.

  11. Doug Bennett says:

    And why does Ruben Amaro still have a job with the Phillies: biggest mystery of all.

  12. Wilbur says:

    It’ll be interesting to see if Franceour manages to glom onto another team after the Phillies.
    As a player, not a coach.
    You wouldn’t think it possible.

    • I thought Francoeur was done last year. After one good year & then a declining year with KC, he was hitting .208 when he was released last year. He was picked up by the Indians, then released before getting a Major League at bat. The he was picked up by the Giants, proceeded to hit .194 for San Francisco & was released again. The Padres picked him up and he hit .083. Of course, his contract expired & I figured that had to be it. When he showed up for the Phillies and was STARTING, it was the craziest thing. He’s hitting .210 with little power, so it’s just a matter of time. If he gets all the way through this year with Philly, boy, the Phillies are even worse than everyone thought they’d be.

      So, in short, after last year getting dumped by four teams, you wouldn’t think that anyone would have been interested. So, next year? Seems impossible. But the guy is like a cockroach. He just cannot be killed.

    • simon says:

      Wilbur, I had to read that last part like a haiku, well done.

      As player, not coach
      You’d think it impossible
      Signing Jeff Franceour

  13. MikeN says:

    The 2013 Red Sox looked like a dynasty in the making.
    Then there was that 116 win Mariners team which was loaded with pitching prospects further down.

  14. Jesse says:

    Honestly, Joe, what is it like if you’re out walking around and you encounter Jeff Francoeur? Is there tension in the air or is it all good humor?

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