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Break Up the Phillies
Tim Crothers
September 01, 1997
Pitching stopped Philadelphia's ran at a historically bad year, A forecast for expansion lineups, A hurler is born
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September 01, 1997

Break Up The Phillies

Pitching stopped Philadelphia's ran at a historically bad year, A forecast for expansion lineups, A hurler is born

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Player, Pos.

'97 Team

TAMPA BAY

Lou Collier, 2B**

Pirates

Orlando Palmeiro, CF

Angels

Luis Gonzalez, LF*

Astros

Fred McGriff, 1B*

Braves

Mel Nieves, RF

Tigers

Chris Snopek, 3B

White Sox

Tom Pagnozzi, C

Cardinals

Hanley Frias, SS**

Rangers

Rolando Arrojo, P**

Devil Rays

Billy Ashley, DH

Dodgers

ARIZONA

Kenny Lofton, CF*

Braves

Player, pos.

'97 Team

Craig Counscll, 2B

Marlins

Travis Lee, 1B**

Diamondbacks

Brooks Kieschnick, LF

Cubs

George Arias, 3B

Padres

Alex Ochoa, RF

Mets

Kevin Stocker, SS

Phillies

Jorge Posada, C

Yanks

Aaron Sole, P

Red Sox

*Free agent

**Minor league prospect

The day after the All-Star break the Philadelphia Daily News began printing a regular feature that tracked whether the Phillies might break the major league record for losses in a season: 120, by the '62 Mets. The Phils had gone 4-22 in June and finished the first half of the season with a 24-61 record. "People kept telling me we had hit bottom, but then we'd find somewhere below the bottom," manager Terry Francona says. "But I never lost faith that this team was much better than our record indicated."

Sure enough, between July 28 and Aug. 18 pesky Philadelphia won 15 of 19—the best record in the majors over that span. And as a result the Daily News has dropped its feature. At week's end the same team that went 82 straight series without a sweep had already swept three series in the last month. The same club that endured 7½ weeks in which no starting pitcher other than Curt Schilling won a game was savoring quality starts and wins from Tyler Green, Garrett Stephenson and Matt Beech. "Pitching has been the key to our turnaround." Schilling says. "Our young guys have begun to have some good starts, and luckily that's become contagious."

In 20 August games through Sunday, Phils starters were 10-5 with a 2.91 ERA and averaging nearly seven innings per start. Meanwhile, since the Ail-Star break the offense had scored 1.5 more runs per game than before. The surge was sparked primarily by third baseman Scott Rolen (page 28). "Our aim was to finish the season with hope," Francona says. "I think we've learned we can do more than just keep spinning our wheels."

The Skinny on Expansion

Remember when expansion teams were hapless? When they faced a sentence of seven to 10 years in baseball's cellar and annual losses in triple digits? When the expansion Mets acquired the prefix Miracle just by reaching the playoffs in their eighth season?

Now it's different. The Rockies made the playoffs in only their third year, and the Marlins, now in their fifth season, are on course to do the same, though both have been aided by the wild card. And don't be surprised if the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who begin play next season, contend just as quickly. "There's no question those new teams will be good in a hurry," Giants general manager Brian Sabean says. "Expansion teams come in like gangbusters now. It's a concern, especially if they're in your division."

With both franchises having been awarded in 1995, Arizona and Tampa Bay are already the most seasoned teams in baseball-expansion history. They have enjoyed the unprecedented benefit of three full seasons to scout talent. The Devil Rays have five farm clubs operating this year, and the Diamondbacks have four. "We had 1½ farm clubs at that stage," says Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard, of his club's minor league affiliates one year before the major league start-up. The new teams also have had the luxury of studying the Rockies' and the Marlins' blueprints. Arizona is expected to pattern itself more after Colorado, drafting polished players, while Tampa may acquire more prospects, as Florida did.

The big equalizer is cash. Five years ago the Rockies entered the expansion draft with orders from ownership that their payroll not exceed $8 million. They lost 95 games their first season but soon started spending money in the free-agent market, picking up Larry Walker and Ellis Burks, running up their payroll to well over $30 million and winning the National League wild card in 1995. The Diamondbacks' payroll is expected to be around $40 million, and the Devils Rays' will be only slightly lower.

"As in most professional sports, there is a disparity between the haves and have-nots," says Jerry Colangelo, Arizona's managing partner. "We hope to be one of the former. We have more debt than any expansion team in history, but we will spend if the opportunity is right, because we also expect to be a large revenue producer." Indeed, the Diamondbacks have already sold 33,500 season tickets. (The Devil Rays have sold 22,000.)

Both expansion teams incurred the wrath of existing clubs when they paid unheard-of bonus money to four prospects who became free agents after the 1996 amateur draft because of a technicality. U.S. Olympic first baseman Travis Lee got $10 million and high school righthander John Patterson $6 million from Arizona, and two other schoolboys, righthander Matt White and lefthander Bobby Seay, got $10.2 million and $3 million, respectively, from Tampa Bay. The huge bankrolls of the expansion teams will also allow them to select veterans in the November expansion draft whom other teams are trying to shed from their payrolls and to court some of the marquee names in the free-agent market.

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