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Washington Nationals: Why the Nats Cannot Afford to Repeat the Mistakes of 2002

Every few seasons, a small market team emerges as a surprise contender.  Caught up in the rush of playoff talk, these teams often rush into trades without realizing the consequences of dealing away prospects in hopes of securing a playoff berth.

The Montreal Expos were that team in 2002. They made a blockbuster trade and in the process traded away three future All-Stars.

They were a good Expos team, full of good young starts that the franchise had developed through its minor league system, one of baseball’s best during the late nineties. The roster was dotted with notable names such as Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera. 

The Expos somehow managed to stick around the top of the standings long enough for Major League Baseball’s self-appointed general manager, Omar Minaya to ravage the franchise’s once promising farm system to rent Bartolo Colon for half a season in an attempt to stay in the playoff race.

Needless to say, the Expos did not make postseason. In fact, they were not even close. The Expos did finish the season with a winning record at 83-79, but that was hardly worth the price that Minaya paid. In the trade with the Indians to acquire Colon, Minaya traded Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, and Cliff Lee for 17 starts from a pitcher he knew he could not possibly keep.

The next year, the Expos finished 83-79, but with no new talent on the way, and homegrown stars like Guerrero taking advantage of free agency, the Expos franchise could not rebound and struggled to sustain their winning ways. Major League Baseball was forced to relocate the franchise to the nation’s capital, where success has been hard to come by.

Fast forward to current day. The Nationals have finally begun to replenish their farm system—two straight 100-loss seasons allow a franchise to do this—and are winning at a respectable enough clip that some analysts are speculating that the team could contend for the wild card.

The best thing for Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo to do now would be to turn off the TV whenever such talk comes on. As a small market franchise, the Nationals cannot afford to mortgage their future on one season. The farm system is once again stocked with talent like it was in the late nineties.

Rizzo must realize that his franchise’s best hope lies in following the footsteps of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays starting lineup is full almost entirely with players developed in the minor leagues. The few players not from the farm system have been carefully picked free agents. Teams like the Nationals and Rays cannot afford to make mistakes on free agents.

Reaching on a free agent is not worse however than losing a player that goes onto become a star. Small market teams benefit from the ability to resign their young players at a discounted rate. The Washington franchise could have had Lee, Phillips and Sizemore for the first six years of their careers. Instead, they lost these future stars in exchange for finishing four games over .500.

The Washington Nationals need to be patient this season and resist the urge to pull the trigger on a deadline deal. Mega-prospects such as Bryce Harper, Brad Peacock and Tyler Moore are dominating the minor leagues. The Nationals have once again created one of the best minor league systems. Destroying that in an attempt to contend this season would be a terrible mistake. Patience is a virtue, and passing on a major trade will allow the Nationals to reap the benefits of their prospects.

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Trip to Citizens Bank Park Shows How Badly the Baltimore Orioles Have Blown It

Don’t get me wrong; Citizens Bank Park is a great place to watch a baseball game. It’s just that, as a lifelong Orioles fan, it can be a little depressing taking in a ballgame in the sea of red that is the Philadelphia Phillies’ gem of a ball park.

You see, Oriole Park at Camden Yards was once the happening place to be in Baltimore.  When it was built, the Orioles’ home set the new standard for ball parks, one from which the Phillies’ home draws many features, such as the wide concourses and open air entertainment areas for fans, Eutaw Street in Baltimore and Ashburn Alley in Philadelphia.

Camden Yards opened at the tail end of the cookie cutter era of baseball stadiums.  It was a time of characterless multi-use turf stadiums, and the Orioles retro ballpark gave fans a chance to experience a truly beautiful ballpark which blended seamlessly into its surroundings.  Capitalizing on their new home, the Orioles went on a run of seasons averaging over 3,000,000 in attendance.

The Orioles were not a good team when they moved from decrepit Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards in 1992, having faltered from their position as one of the dominant teams of the ’70s and ’80s. That all changed when they opened Camden Yards.

The new stadium, and the influx of funding it generated, spurred the Orioles on to a run of five winning seasons in six years, two appearances in the ALCS and what certainly would have been a playoff season in 1994 had the strike not interrupted the season.

Then came the 1998 season, and the end of the good times in Baltimore. Due to mismanagement and the inability to develop any semblance of a starting pitching staff, the Orioles have not had a winning season since the summer of 1997.

The fans have certainly noticed. A team that routinely drew over 45,000 fans a game now struggles to draw 25,000.

I grew up going to games at Camden Yards at the tail end of the Orioles’ string of winning seasons. The atmosphere was not much different than that of Citizens Bank Park when I attended an afternoon Phillies game last week.

As a fan, you could feel the confidence of the home fans that their team would win. If a fan can feel this from the stands, how must the players feel on the field?

I realized then that it had been a while since I had felt this feeling at Camden Yards—and even then, that swagger was coming from Red Sox or Yankees fans taking over the Yard. 

Going to Citizens Bank Park has become the “cool” thing to do in Philadelphia, much like it was with the Orioles in the mid ’90s. The Phillies have ridden their newfound fan support to four consecutive playoff appearances, two World Series appearances and one World Championship, and they again have the best record in the majors at this point in the season.

The Phillies have been able to do what the Orioles could not do with their new stadium: make the permanent jump from also-ran to perennial contender. They have done this by spending liberally and creating an atmosphere committed to winning.

For all the winning the Orioles did in the mid ’90s, it always seemed owner Peter Angelos was more concerned with his bottom line than winning.

The Phillies have spent liberally the last few years to make sure the winning ways continue. There is not a doubt in my mind that the Phillies turnaround was spurred by the replacement of rat-infested Veterans Stadium with sparkling, modern Citizens Bank Park.

So, as I sat at Citizens Bank Park, watching free agent acquisition Cliff Lee put the Marlins to sleep in a two-hit shutout, I could not help feeling a little sad that the Orioles squandered their chance to become a yearly contender.

Angelos was content to ride the momentum of Camden Yards for a few seasons. High attendance continued through the first few years of futility, but nothing was done to right the ship in Baltimore.

A recent surge in excitement surrounding the Orioles’ strong play at the end of the 2010 has done nothing to spur attendance, as the Orioles now rank 24th in the league in that category.

The pieces are in place for the Orioles to begin a climb back to respectability, especially three promising young arms in Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz, but without more fans filling the seats, the team will struggle to make the next step, especially in a division with Boston and New York.

Most teams experience an uptick in attendance the year after opening a new stadium. The teams that are able to capitalize on their increased revenue are the model franchises of the league, the ones that fans become jealous of.

The Baltimore Orioles had their chance to become one of these teams, but just one trip to Citizens Bank Park is enough to show how far from the top they have fallen.

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Philadelphia Phillies: Never Question Halladay in the 9th Inning

No true ace willfully gives up the ball with a game on the line.  As a fan, you admire this, but sometimes, you still have a hard time trusting them.  Maybe the closer should be called you think.

But when Roy says he’s got it under control, you just have to trust him, no matter how bad things might look.  Halladay has earned the right to be his own closer.

I learned this last night in the ninth inning as the Phillies played the Nationals.  Through the first eight innings, Halladay was on cruise control, allowing only two hits and shutting out Washington.  Although he had thrown nearly 100 pitches, things seemed to be in control.

That was about to change as Rick Ankiel led off with a double.  Jayson Werth followed with a single.  Just like that, Halladay was in his first jam of the night as the tying run came to the plate.  The bullpen came to life.  Surely, Charlie would be out on the mound to congratulate Roy on a game well pitched, and put the ball in the hand of closer Jose Contreras. 

But Manuel stayed in the dugout.

Halladay struck out the next hitter, Adam LaRoche, but the next two batters singled, driving in two runs and putting the tying run on second. 

Now, Manuel came running out of the dugout. 

The announcers assured those of us viewing at home that when Charlie runs out of the dugout he is not ready to make a pitching change.  The game seemed to be slipping away, a loss in a game like this could wreck the rest of the week and kill a team’s momentum, especially following a loss the night before. 

Surely Charlie must realize Halladay was done, I thought.  The 100-plus pitches having taken their toll, Halladay simply would not be able to finish what he had started, no matter how badly he wanted to.

Halladay, however, did not see things my way.  He assured his manager and teammates that he had things under control and would protect the Phillies lead, which was now perilously close to slipping away.

As Manuel walked back to the dugout, without taking his ace with him, I implored him to reconsider. He did not and Halladay stayed in the game.

What followed was some of the most focused, clutch pitching that I have ever seen in the ninth inning of a game.  The Nationals called for pinch hitter extraordinaire Matt Stairs to the plate, the same Matt Stairs who became a Phillies folk hero for his late game heroics.  I had a bad feeling about this matchup.  Stairs could end the game with one swing.  Given a fastball middle-in, Stairs would send the Nationals home winners.

Halladay simply fired three straight fastballs on the outside corner.  Stairs didn’t even move the bat from his shoulder.  I had never seen a hitter so overmatched at the plate.  Pudge Rodriguez followed.  The game now seemed safe.  Again, Halladay disposed of the hitter with three pitches.  The last a filthy curveball on the outside that buckled Rodriguez.

With this performance, Halladay has, in my opinion, earned the right to dictate whether or not he will stay in the game.  The way he bore down in crunch time was incredible.  To strike out the final two hitters on six pitches, with the tying run in scoring position, shows that Halladay is a true ace.

Charlie Manuel obviously knew better than to take the ball from Roy Halladay.  Next time I see Halladay in a jam in the ninth inning, I will know better as well.

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MLB: Are the Phillie’s Phantastic Phour Living Up to the Hype?

The Phantastic Phour, R2C2, The Four Horsemen, The Foureign Legion…I could go on. The Philladelphia Phillies starting rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels created massive amounts of speculation this winter—could they be the greatest rotation ever assembled?

So, after two turns each, have they lived up to the hype?

Through the first eight games of the year, the foursome has compiled a 6-2 record, pitched to a 3.80 ERA and have struck out more than a batter per inning. These are good numbers, but they are hardly numbers that would place the Phantastic Phour in the company of baseball’s historically great rotations. 

Roy Halladay has been his typical brilliant self thus far. On opening day he limited the Astros to a single run over six innings, striking out six while allowing only five hits. His second start, against the Mets, was also vintage Halladay domination. Over seven innings, Doc shut out the division rival, striking out seven while allowing six hits. Dubbed “Tunnelman” in a Sports Illustrated profile (for his remarkable focus), Halladay has exhibited just that in two overpowering starts.

Cliff Lee, the man who made Philadelphia proud this offseason by spurning the Yankees for the City of Brotherly Love, has not been so dominant this season. Lee pitched well in his first start, striking out 11 over seven innings, with a Carlos Lee home run as the only blemish on his record. 

His second start of the season, however, is cause for concern.

Lee was pulled in the fourth inning after giving up six runs on 10 hits to the Braves. Four of those hits went for extra bases as he was clearly missing his best stuff. This is an issue for Lee. He is usually hit hard when he doesn’t have his best stuff. His excellent control can be a detriment here, as his pitches are rarely off the plate.

Phillies fans shouldn’t worry too much though. Lee’s BABIP this season is .433. Balls will start finding gloves when Lee is pitching.

The third member of the staff, Roy Oswalt, has been the picture of consistency during his tenure with the Phillies. Since arriving last summer, Oswalt has gone 9-1 for the Phillies, including victories in his first two starts this season. Without much fanfare, Oswalt simply does what is expected of him. 

Oswalt was largely hidden for the beginning of his career in Houston, and his personality doesn’t generate tremendous excitement. But if the Phillies are to attain their lofty goals this season, they will need Oswalt to maintain his steady pace.

The last member of the Phantastic Phour, Cole Hamels, is also the most puzzling. At times he has the most dominant repertoire of the staff; at others, he fights to get batters out. Hamels has struggled at times to overcome the perception that he is too California Cool to consistently dominate Major League hitters.

Hamels’ stuff is undeniable, but at times he is prone to giving up the long ball, a major concern at cozy Citizens Bank Park. In his first start of the season, he was shelled by the Mets. He was not hit particularly hard, but gave up seven hits in only 2.2 innings. He does this, not getting hit particularly hard but posting crooked numbers nonetheless.

Working with Halladay, Oswalt and Lee may allow Hamels to bear down more effectively and get key outs. In his second start, his dominant side was on display against the Braves. He shut them out over seven innings, giving up only four hits while striking out eight. For the Phantastic Phour to cement themselves as one of the greatest rotations of all time, Hamels will need to dominate more often than not.

It’s a bit early for the coronation, but the Phour’s first eight starts show that they are on the right track. If the Phillies offense continues to produce, there is no reason to doubt that another parade down Broad Street is possible—with the Phantastic Phour in the lead firetruck.

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