Building a champion: the Phillies
The entire Phillies front office deserves credit for the team's success
Closer Brad Lidge was acquired from Houston in a one-sided trade
The National League champion Phillies were built primarily by legendary general manager Pat Gillick plus former draft guru and current assistant GM Mike Arbuckle and a coterie of underrated yet experienced scouts and executives, but they didn't do it alone. They needed an assist from former Phillies executive Ed Wade, who last November contributed perhaps the most crucial player of all to this World Series-bound team.
Now the Houston Astros GM, Wade deserves credit not for happening to be in Philly when Arbuckle made most of their great draft picks (including the star infield trio of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley), but instead for sending closer Brad Lidge from Houston to his former team for practically nothing. Lidge turned out to be one of the greatest trades in Gillick's Hall-of-Fame-worthy history (the key player sent to Houston was speedy but spare outfielder Michael Bourn) and the final piece for a team that already possessed a terrific nucleus and was nearly ready to win.
The trade received barely more than scant notice at the baseball general manager meetings last November, but now that Lidge has gone 46 for 46 in save chances this year -- joining Eric Gagne as the only closers to save 30 games in a season without a blown save -- the Phillies look primed to win a World Series championship and Gillick looks smarter than ever.
Even if no one else got it, Philly's powers-that-be understood what a steal Lidge might be. They held an advantage in that one of their two main major league scouts, Gordon Lakey, lives in Houston and knows Lidge better than anyone not currently with the Astros, whom Lidge pitched for from 2002 to '07. While Lidge struggled much of his last two seasons in Houston, Lakey said, "His mechanics were not real good, but his stuff didn't diminish. I did not see anyone who was booed the way Brad was booed. A change of scenery is what was needed.''
Both Lakey and Charlie Kerfeld, the ex-Astros reliever now working for Gillick, were insistent that Lidge was worth a shot. "Our guys covering the big leagues said Lidge was back to what he was,'' Arbuckle said.
A lot of other folks surmised that cozy Citizens Bank Park was exactly the wrong park for Lidge, and Philly was precisely the wrong town. Instead, Lidge regained his slider, his confidence and his brilliant career and has found nothing but brotherly love in his new home.
Lidge is the anchor for a team that already had several excellent pieces, thanks to superb drafting -- especially in the first two rounds (Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Pat Burrell and Utley were first-rounders and Rollins a second-rounder) -- and a bevy of bargain pickups engineered by Gillick.
Arbuckle, the lead drafter under the deposed Wade, rarely missed on his first picks. His replacement, Marty Wolever, knocked it out of the park with his very first No. 1 pick, selecting Hamels when a lot of other teams stayed away after the cool Californian suffered a broken pitching arm while running into a car mirror playing touch football in his hometown of San Diego.
Hamels became the Phillies' best left-hander since Steve (Lefty) Carlton himself, and one of the best in baseball, filling the ace role for a rotation that, with strength at the top in Hamels, Myers and Jamie Moyer, is built for the playoffs. Unlike the Moneyball set, Arbuckle has never shied away from high school hurlers. He chose Myers out of Jacksonville, Fla., in 1999, recalling that he liked Myers' "power arm," though surely the dynamic curveball didn't hurt, either.
The strength of the team, though, is a power-packed lineup that's made for its home park. Jim Fregosi Jr., the son of the last Phillies manager to take the team to the World Series, was one of the scouts who loved Utley, a Los Angeles product who failed to sign with the hometown Dodgers after being a second-round pick in 1997 out of powerhouse Long Beach Poly high school. Instead, Utley went to UCLA. "Knowing what a dirtball baseball player he is, I'm kind of shocked he didn't sign with the Dodgers,'' Arbuckle said the other day.
Bob Poole was the Phillies scout who urged them to take Rollins out of the Oakland area, and Jerry Lafferty, another scout, was all over Howard, even after a brutal year at Southwest Missouri State that caused him to sink to the fifth round. "He struggled to make contact his junior year ... But by the fifth round, it was time to take a player with double-plus power,'' Arbuckle noted. "As it turned out, he has triple-plus power.''
Howard might make it three straight MVPs for the Phillies this year, following Rollins' selection in 2007 and Howard's the year before. And Utley also looked like an MVP candidate early in the year. So the Phils are as strong at the top of their talent structure as any team. But they are extremely deep, as well, thanks mostly to Gillick's knack for buying low and finding gems.
Talented outfielder Jayson Werth was a cheap free-agent pickup following two injury-wracked years with the Dodgers. Gillick and longtime assistant Don Welke, who like Lakey has been in the game forever (Gillick, 72 and said to be retiring, has always employed experienced and knowledgeable people) pressed for Werth after recalling his talent when they had him in Baltimore, and didn't waste any time trying to sign him. Padres GM Kevin Towers recently said that when he called Werth at his home in Springfield, Ill., in his first days as a free agent, Gillick was already in the house.
Werth was only one of several players Gillick snapped up that were hardly coveted at the time. He got fine-hitting third baseman Greg Dobbs as a waiver pickup from Seattle, reliever Scott Eyre in a trade for a low-level minor leaguer, and reliever J.C. Romero as a waiver claim from Boston. Cost-efficient free-agent outfielder Shane Victorino came as a Rule V pickup. Victorino was the idea of office worker Mike Ondo, who simply read the reports and made the suggestion. But, as Lakey noted, "We weren't that smart because we offered him back.''
More often than not, however, the Phillies front office and scouting departments have proven to be plenty smart. And because they are, the Phillies are better than ever.