Phillies' fans flat on their faith
They're being asked to believe in a rebuilding project by a front office that might be short-timers.
Today is Part 2 of the Daily News' four-day preview of the upcoming Phillies season. The question we attempt to answer today is, "What is the team's biggest current concern?" Staff predictions are also included.
Part 1 was a discussion of the simple question: How exactly did the team get where it is today, seen by most as the worst team in baseball?
Part 3 is in Daily News Weekend. It is a profile of one of the team's legitimate hopes for the future, third baseman Cody Asche, along with some rankings of the Phillies' farm system and prospects.
Part 4 is Monday, Opening Day. While acknowledging what a bad year this is expected to be, the goal is to identify the steps the team must take this season to make progress. Also, there will be a pullout schedule with a list of giveaway days at Citizens Bank Park.
CLEARWATER, Fla. - The never-ending, unforgiving, forgettable winter is finally over, and the sun is breaking out on a Saturday afternoon in mid-April. It actually feels warm outside, the kind of day you wouldn't mind heading out to the ballpark for an evening of entertainment.
The Phillies are hosting the Washington Nationals, arguably baseball's best team. Cole Hamels is scheduled to pitch, and every one of his home starts could be his last in South Philly.
But . . .
Can you muster up enough energy to dust off your Pat Burrell shirsey and get excited about a Phillies team that may very well lose 100 games this year?
No Phillies team has reached the century mark in losses since 1961, when there was no Ruben Amaro Jr., but there was a Ruben Amaro, the current GM's father, starting at shortstop, and when there wasn't a catcher nicknamed Chooch but there was one they called Choo-Choo: Clarence Coleman. But with the current roster, and likelihood that Hamels isn't on it in July, losing 100 games is very possible.
So is it a product worth watching?
Is the current rebuilding worth investing in?
Do you have confidence in the people in charge of that rebuilding?
"It's going to take time to get competitive," team president Pat Gillick said as the spring-training schedule winded down in Clearwater. "So you have to show the public that you know what you're doing and that you're headed in the right direction. And hopefully that when, a year or 2 down the road, what we're talking about now is going to come into fruition.
"So there might be a couple of years, from an attendance standpoint, that we would suffer until people gain the confidence that we're going to be competitive. This game at some point becomes a little bit cyclical. So at some point, we had some good years and tremendous support and we still got support. It might not be as great as it was, usually people prefer to come see a team that's going to win 60 percent or 65 percent of the time than a team that they're not sure what it's going to do."
Welcome to Phillies baseball in 2015.
Gone are Jimmy Rollins and the Rotation of Aces. On their way in are unproven infielders Freddy Galvis and Cody Asche; on their way out, eventually, are aging infielders Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
Gillick admitted back in October that the franchise would be going full throttle into rebuild mode, and that the team likely wouldn't contend in the next 2 or 3 years.
"Listen, Pat has to be honest," said Michael Stiles, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Phillies. "And we have to be honest with ourselves, we have to be honest with our fans. If we're going to tell our fans, 'Look, we're absolutely going back to the playoffs, we're going to the World Series,' yeah, it might happen, but Phillies fans right now know that if you tell them that, you're blowing smoke . . . Are we going to draw 3.7 million fans, which was our high-water mark? No, there's no way we're going to do that. But are we going to do just above 2 million, just below 2 million? We have to play them and see."
The Phillies' front office tends to be optimistic to a fault, but the fever pitch that took over Citizens Bank Park as recently as four summers ago has been replaced by a sea of blue seats and a death rattle. The 12-year-old ballpark may still be a destination spot for casual sports fans, but it surely wasn't built to be the city's biggest outdoor summer bar, either.
As the 2015 season begins, the Phillies are in the precarious position of playing a 162-game schedule during the start of what's likely to be a 2-to-3-year rebuild, and a rebuild fraught with uncertainty.
A fan base emboldened by the team's success of the first decade of the new century has grown cynical and jaded. A front office responsible for improving the on-the-field production must win back the public's trust.
And then you factor in the instability at the top.
Gillick and Stiles moved into new positions this winter, when David Montgomery was shifted out of his team presidency seat into a chairman role. Amaro's contract expires at the end of the season. Gillick, 77, hasn't committed to staying in his current role beyond 2015.
While the casual fan will surely still go to a ballgame on a whim on a warm summer night, the former season ticketholder is probably going to hesitate just a bit before forking over a hefty check made out to "Phillies."
If the club's ownership isn't committed to the current baseball operations staff, shouldn't they have someone else steering the rebuilding ship?
"That's understandable," Amaro said of that potential concern among the fan base. "But I've been through several different phases in my job, originally with Ed Wade . . . when we were in a rebuild mode. We drafted and developed, along with [longtime scouting director] Mike Arbuckle, the Rollinses and Chase Utleys . . . The [Ryan] Madsons and Brett Myers and Pat Burrells and those guys, those were all the guys drafted and developed and came to the major leagues and became a big part of our club moving forward and through those years when we had a lot of success. That's the job at hand now. We know what it takes to do that."
Amaro went on to name just about every baseball operations department director currently working under him.
"Other people will make decisions about the future of our organization as far as leadership," Amaro said. "But I have great faith in the people that are doing their jobs right now and I fully expect us to get back as soon as we possibly can, to the point where we're going to be perennially contenders. It's not a straight line. There are very few organizations that can maintain that . . . It's tougher and tougher to acquire the talent that will keep you at that level. But that's the goal. And I believe we have the right people in place to do it."
But is Amaro's faith blind, since the current major league roster lacks the kind of premium, young talent around which rebuilding teams hope to build? Is the makeup of the front-office hierarchy flawed, since it's populated (and often repopulated) with iconic Phillies figures of the past, who surely have had a great deal of success in their careers but might be aided by at least a couple sets of eyes from the outside, with different opinions and perspectives?
Within the white lines, the biggest concern the Phillies have at the moment is the dearth of talented position-player prospects within their farm system.
They failed to replace Jayson Werth adequately for 4 straight years - or form a productive outfield as a whole, really - and are still waiting on the heir apparent for Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz, and for Rollins and Utley, too. The Phillies clearly won't compete again until they have a new core capable of consistent success during the rigors of a 6-month major league season.
But you can't put the right players in place if you don't have the right people finding the players, and you can't find those people locating those players if you don't have the most effective leadership from the highest of offices at One Citizens Bank Way.
Amaro might or might not be on the hot seat, and Gillick might or might not return for a second season as president, and there's no telling if cigar tycoon and limited partner John Middleton will figure out a way to gain majority control of ownership.
For nearly every baseball team, hope is eternal each spring. For the Phillies, it's the beginning of a season of uncertainty.
"It's a question that's ownership's decision to control," Stiles said of the respective futures of Amaro and Gillick. "And I don't think there's a message to say other than, this ship has been sailing since 1883. And I think in terms of Philadelphia institutions . . . in the big picture, we're as stable as any that's ever been . . . I don't craft the message. I just think it is, to the typical fan, I don't think those questions are as important as how well we play this year and what kind of experience they get otherwise coming into the ballpark."
The failures on the field are easy to find in the box scores and standings, available to anyone with a newspaper or an Internet connection.
The Phillies have had one of the three highest payrolls in baseball in each of the last 4 years but have failed to field a team with a winning record in the last three of those seasons. They'll spend more than $140 million on another team expected to lose more games than it wins this season.
The team's rapid decline has been well-documented, maybe no more so than in the 1.26 million fewer people who came to Citizens Bank Park in 2014 than just 3 years earlier, in 2011.
The biggest concern among the people no longer walking through those turnstiles is the lack of trust they have in the Phillies' front office. And until that changes, the sun won't be shining quite as brightly on the ballpark off Broad and Pattison.