Phun With The Phillies

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Todd Zolecki’s piece on MLB.com about the Phillies’ drama sums the situation up perfectly at the end when he writes:

But simply, this is a meeting that never would have happened if the team was playing well. But with the season on the brink, things like this get magnified.

It is nothing a winning streak can’t fix.

Team meetings and entreaties from manager Charlie Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. for the club to act professionally won’t go very far. The Phillies’ fortunes will be decided on the field. With a veteran team that has had success for the majority of the past seven years and with players who are earning significant guaranteed paychecks, what precisely can the manager and GM do to get them to “behave” anyway?

Cliff Lee’s reaction to the meeting and scolding was indicative of the attitude that has gotten Lee traded so frequently and placed his name out there as a negotiable commodity again. He can be a moody, petulant brat who is tolerated when the team is going well and he’s performing as one of the best pitchers in baseball, but his act wears thin when the club fortunes are not heading in a positive direction and his attitude grows darker and more sullen. Teams will continue to want him as a true ace at the top of a rotation, but they’ll also be willing to deal him when it gets to be too much. Lee’s pitching great and the team is staggering, placing the depth charges for an explosion like we saw the beginning of over the weekend. When a player moves around as much as Lee does, there’s a reason for it and there seem to be a vast subsection of baseball people who tire of his act. If the Phillies fade out and do trade Lee, it will be to get his salary off the books, to bring back some prospects and to get him out of the clubhouse, not necessarily in that order.

The days of players having to listen to management have been over for almost two decades. The players know they’re going to outlast the manager and GM and if they don’t, they’re going to get paid anyway. Rookies who are hungering to stay in the big leagues and get big contracts of their own are more likely to listen to what they’re told. In certain instances there are the rookies who don’t adhere to the hierarchy and clubs exercise the option to demote them or get rid of them as the Diamondbacks did with Trevor Bauer last winter. That was a form of cutting losses, something the Phillies must consider now.

With the Phillies, what can Manuel or Amaro say to Lee or anyone else who they feel needs to set an example and take things a bit more seriously especially when the team is getting blown out and the players are acting as if they don’t care? “Please stop”? Of course it looked bad to have the Phillies goofing around in the middle of the game, but they don’t want to hear that and won’t listen to it. A manager today can’t be a taskmaster and disciplinarian unless he has a young team that doesn’t have any choice but to listen. A club like the Phillies that has veterans with long-term contracts and has been with the same manager for nearly a decade is going to tune him out when he tries to pull in the reins. It’s just the way the game is today.

What is seen as a laxity of discipline for a team that’s losing is seen as looseness for a team that’s winning. If the Phillies were 20 games over .500 and heading toward the playoffs, joking around even during a blowout would be seen as shrugging off a bad day. As they’re under .500 and debating whether or not to start dealing veterans like Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon and Lee, it’s seen as complacency or out-and-out not caring.

The Phillies’ problem isn’t their behavior or their perception. It’s that they don’t have the players to compete with the younger, stronger and better teams in the National League, their farm system is dilapidated at best, and with their contracts a full-blown rebuild is out of the question. They’re in a vacancy. Whether the players sit in the dugout with their hands folded in their laps, cheer on their teammates like it’s high school, or behave in such a way that it spurs the manager and GM to take action to quell it doesn’t make a difference unless they play better and that’s something they do not appear to have the capability to do.

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