Commentary

Little moves prove big for Phillies

Originally Published: October 18, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- There's no magic formula. There's no secret recipe. There's no runaway Amazon best-seller entitled: "How to Build a World Series Team or Your Money Back -- All $200 Million of It."

But there are always lessons to be learned from the teams that make it to the World Series. And here is the lesson to be gleaned from the presence of the latest National League representative in the old Fall Classic, the Phillies:

Don't forget the little moves.

The Phillies -- as their loyal public has long noticed -- are never the team that makes The Big Move. They don't sign the richest, most famous free agent on the market. They don't trade for the most seductive name on the July trading-deadline menu.

Instead, they skulk along below the talk-show radar, looking for names that never make the lead story on "SportsCenter," sometimes names that barely even dent the transactions column.

Winning Blueprint

Some of the key pieces of the Phillies' 2008 team weren't big-name acquisitions. They did, however, play important roles in Philadelphia's run to its first the World Series since 1993.
How the Phillies were built
Matt StairsJayson WerthGreg Dobbs.

Scott EyreJ.C. RomeroChad Durbin.

Those aren't players you build a team around. They're not the names you'll find on the grand World Series marquee. But add them to a cast of homegrown stars -- to a Jimmy Rollins and a Chase Utley here, a Ryan Howard and a Cole Hamels there -- and here's what those guys become:

Players you win with.

Finding those kinds of players has been the house specialty of GM Pat Gillick for, oh, about three decades now. And 11 trips to the postseason later, with four different franchises, it's beginning to look as if he's onto something.

"You know, it's not always about That Big Free Agent," Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer said Friday as his team was getting ready for a World Series while most of those Big Free Agents were getting ready to hit their favorite pitching wedge. "Sometimes, That Big Free Agent can create a problem."

[+] EnlargeMatt Stairs
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonThere wasn't much talk about the move the Phillies made to acquire Matt Stairs, but there has been plenty of talk about the huge homer he hit in Game 4 of the NLCS against the Dodgers.
You don't need us to start running down all those Big Free Agents and the problems they've left in their wake. You don't even need us to start running down the long list of teams that have reeled in those free agents and found out, once they'd rounded them all up, that their pieces still didn't fit.

They're obvious. But this story isn't about them.

It's about a team and a general manager that paid extra-special attention to those smaller details -- and to how those little moves helped glue their bigger pieces together.

That's the moral of the 2008 Phillies: Winning isn't always about dollars. And it isn't about July 31. And it isn't about making headlines on Dec. 14. It's about finding pieces of all shapes and sizes -- and then making them fit.

"And that is a credit to Pat, because I think he has great instincts and feel for what those smaller pieces can be to your club," assistant GM Mike Arbuckle said.

Unlike many people in this line of work, Gillick and his most trusted advisers -- Arbuckle, Ruben Amaro Jr., Gordon Lakey, Charlie Kerfeld and Chuck LaMar -- don't get real stoked up about the stuff their fans and media obsess on all offseason.

That doesn't mean we're all wrong when we pass along those 187,946 Johan Santana trade rumors in any given week in January. But what Gillick has spent his career demonstrating is there are other ways to win.

"I know that's what people want to hear about," Arbuckle said. "People want to hear about a club going out and getting The Big Guy. … But if you can't get that big fish, what you have to do is try to take a sound baseball approach.

NLCS: Dodgers vs. Phillies

Complete coverage of the Dodgers-Phillies matchup.
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Scouting: Dodgers Insider | Phillies Insider
"And sometimes that sound baseball approach isn't what fans may want to hear at the time. Sometimes, that sound baseball approach may be a couple of smaller moves that supplement what you know you already have, and it's what you need to put you over the hump."

So at the July trading deadline, for example, Gillick balked at the asking price on a slew of left-handed relievers on the market. Exactly one week later, he was able to go out and deal for a left-handed reliever as good as any of them -- Eyre -- from the Cubs for only a middle-range pitching prospect (Class A reliever Brian Schlitter).

Eyre, whom the Cubs had just designated for assignment, then made that trade look especially brilliant by compiling a 1.88 ERA in 19 appearances for the Phillies.

You might say that was luck. Except the year before, the Phillies swooped in and picked up their other left-handed bullpen piece, Romero, for just about nothing after the Red Sox had cut him loose.

The results of that move: a pitcher who has held left-handed hitters to a .104 batting average (14-for-138) over the past year and a half -- after getting released.

Then there's the man who hit arguably the most important pinch-hit home run in Phillies history: Stairs. He, too, was a player Gillick traded for in August after his old team (Toronto) had designated him for assignment. But he fit a need the Phillies had been trying to fill for weeks: a home run threat off the bench. And one mammoth NLCS bomb off Jonathan Broxton later, that trade has never looked better.

"He was a veteran guy who had played a lot of big games," Arbuckle said. "He has big power, and obviously our manager [Charlie Manuel] likes power. He was a guy we thought could do exactly what he did the other night."

[+] EnlargePat Gillick
Larry Goren/Icon SMIPhillies GM Pat Gillick, who plans on retiring once this World Series run ends, built this team with a series of small, well-planned moves.
But this team is overstuffed with acquisitions of exactly this same ilk. Let's run through some more:

Dobbs: Claimed on waivers in January 2007 when the Mariners were doing some roster maneuvering. A player Gillick had always liked since his days in Seattle. Since arriving in Philadelphia, Dobbs has gotten more pinch hits (36) than any player in the National League, but also started 123 games, most of them at third base.

Werth: Signed as a free agent for $850,000 in December 2006, after the Dodgers non-tendered him. Gillick was the GM in Baltimore when Werth was the Orioles' first-round pick in 1997, then kept his eye on him throughout Werth's frustrating battles with wrist problems in 2005 and '06. Werth has gradually worked himself into an everyday right fielder, and this year hit more homers (24) than Justin Morneau and David Ortiz, and had a higher slugging percentage (.498) than Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Pena.

Durbin: Non-tendered this past winter by the Tigers because he was arbitration-eligible. Signed by the Phillies to a bargain free-agent deal (one year, $900,000). Became one of their most useful and versatile bullpen pieces (2.87 ERA in 71 appearances), despite running out of gas in September.

Moyer: Another August trade (in 2006), another trade for a player Gillick went way back with, to their days in Seattle. Moyer was 43 when the Phillies traded for him and was viewed by some folks as being close to the end of the trail.

Well, apparently not. Since then, he has exactly the same record (35-21) as Josh Beckett and Carlos Zambrano. In fact, only six pitchers in baseball have more wins than Moyer since that trade.

So let's review. Not one of the seven players we've mentioned here -- Eyre, Romero, Stairs, Dobbs, Werth, Durbin and Moyer -- was a major free-agent signing. Two had been non-tendered by their old teams. One had been released. Two had been designated for assignment. Three were traded for after the trading deadline. One was a waiver claim.

The three signed as free agents cost barely more than $2 million combined at the time. The three they traded for cost them a total of four minor leaguers, none of them top prospects.

The three hitters combined for 35 homers and a .283 average in 661 at-bats. The four pitchers went 28-15 with a 3.27 ERA and two saves in 357 1/3 innings. The Phillies wouldn't have advanced this far without any of them.

[+] EnlargeScott Eyre
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAll Scott Eyre did after being acquired in an under-the-radar move was post a 1.88 ERA in 19 appearances for the Phillies.
And beyond what they've contributed on the stat sheet, they've all been popular clubhouse figures who added to the chemistry of one of the closest teams in baseball. But that's no accident, either.

"Pat's done a good job here because Pat really goes out and beats the pavement," Moyer said. "It's not just going out and signing people just to sign them. I think he really looks into individuals. It's really easy to say, 'Hey, that guy's a good player.' But what about personality? Who is he? How can this person help this club, not only on the field but off the field? And Pat really works hard at that.

"Pat knows a lot of people. He's been around a long time, and he has a lot of experience. And that's one of the biggest intangible things he brings to this club. You don't see it written about a whole lot or talked about a whole lot in the media. But I've known Pat for a long time, and he's very observant. He does his homework. He goes the extra mile, and I respect that. The teams that I've been on that he's been in charge of, we spend a lot of time together as players. And it's really enjoyable to be in a clubhouse with quality people, where there's not a barrier between players."

Pat Gillick is 71 years old now. He said before this season that this is his last year as a general manager, and he hasn't indicated lately that he's about to reconsider. But his record continues to speak for itself. And when it does, it tells you there's no reason this man should retire any time soon.

Gillick was in Virginia on Friday, at the funeral of Manuel's mother, so he wasn't available to discuss his team-building philosophies. But typically, when he was standing on the podium in Dodger Stadium on Wednesday for the presentation of the National League championship trophy, he deflected attention away from himself.

Even more typically, he heaped the credit on his predecessor, Ed Wade, for doing "a tremendous job getting the nucleus here." Because that nucleus preceded him, Gillick claimed, all he did was "kind of filled in around what Ed had in place."

But there's more to that filling in than just throwing money at whoever will take it. And this team is living proof.

"I think Pat is a huge believer that a winning team is a sum of all the pieces," Arbuckle said. "And if you do it right, the sum of those pieces can turn out to be greater than all the individual pieces."

And the sum of these pieces has led the Phillies all the way to the World Series.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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