Six years after meeting in World Series, Phils and Rays reunited at other end of baseball spectrum

Six years after meeting in World Series, Phils and Rays reunited at other end of baseball spectrum

It shouldn't much surprise you at this point to hear that the Philadelphia Phillies are the proud owners of the worst record in the National League. Losers of eight of their last nine games, already shut out six times at home this season, with their best pitcher on indefinite injury leave and the rest of the rotation in tatters, this is not anybody's idea of a good baseball team, or even an average one. You might not have thought going into the season that over a week into June, the Phillies would have a worse record than the Cubs or Marlins--I certainly wasn't that pessimistic--but it doesn't feel all that wrong either. This is who the Phillies are at this point.

What might surprise you a little bit, if you're not terribly invested in the happenings of the Junior Circuit, is that the Phils do not have the worst overall record in the majors. At 24-40--2.5 games worse than our Fightins--that distinction belongs to the Tampa Bay Rays.

In 2008, when the Phillies and Rays met in the World Series, and the couple years afterwards, it seemed like the Rays were set up in a way the Phillies were not to contend almost in perpetuity. Unlike the Phillies, who quickly grew a taste for cashing in their younger prospects for veteran lineup-fillers of immediate use--occasionally to our own detriment, as Kulp expertly detailed earlier today--the small-market Rays recognized the value of both homegrown talent and bargain-bin free agency shopping. They drafted well and developed their own players with seemingly endless patience, signed them to long deals early in their careers if possible to avoid potentially bigger payouts down the line--rather than, say, waiting until they hit their primes and then signing them to nine-figure extensions before they even got to test the market--and either let them walk or traded them for further prospects once they became too expensive, beginning the cycle all over again.

The result was a team that always seemed to be able to answer its own questions without much outside help. Rather than acquire Cliff Lee or Hunter Pence for a big playoff push, they could just call up Matt Moore or Desmond Jennings and get a similar jolt, without potentially compromising their future plans or binding themselves to any big-money commitments. It was a strategy birthed out of necessity--the Rays didn't have the money to spend like the Phillies did, even if they wanted to--but one that seemed far more sustainable for success than the Phils' unapologetic spending.

And up until this year, it has been. The Rays have yet to make it back to the World Series, but in the five full seasons since '08, they've made the playoffs three times--no small feat in the ultra-competitive AL East--and have yet to finish below .500. From the '08 roster, only four players remain (and one, reliever Grant Balfour, spent several years in Oakland in between), but with one of the game's top GMs in Andrew Friedman and one of the most respected, creative coaches in Joe Maddon, the actual lineup fielded in Tampa from a year-to-year barely seems to matter. The Rays never have a particularly formidable lineup on paper, but they get on base, they defend well, they find good bullpen arms for cheap and they always have another young flamethrower or two to call up to keep their starting rotation formidable.

Again, up until this year. This finally looks to be the year that a gear or two have clamped up in the normally smooth-running Rays machine. Slugging has rarely been a particular organizational strength in Tampa, but this year it's been so bad that their top power-hitting regulars have been Sean Rodriguez (a utility infielder and career .368 slugger) and David DeJesus (93 homers in 5512 career plate appearances). The power pitching, normally a given with the Rays, has been short-circuited by injuries to starters Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore, a rough start by longtime staff ace David Price, and the stalled development of prospects Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi. Even the fielding has been borderline-disastrous.

The potential for bounceback is there for Tampa, but at 16 games under .500 and 14 games out of first place, contending this year is looking more and more unrealistic a goal. In the meantime, the potential looms for a trade of the Cy Young-winner Price before he hits free agency after the 2015 season and becomes far too expensive for them to keep, the sort of move necessary for the Rays' small-market operation but one that would certainly seem to signal a throwing in the towel on this possibly already-lost season.

It's fascinating to me that the Rays and Phillies have, for the time being at least, ended up in the same place, despite taking such divergent paths to get there. The Rays exercised precaution and frugality and taking the long view, always making sure they were prepared for tomorrow and always leaving themselves outs. The Phillies went big on a number of short-term bets, leaving them with relatively few chips to work with, but not humbling them enough to get them to stop throwing good money after bad. Yet six years after they were both at the league's apex, here they both are in the cellar. To quote Harold Ramis via John Cusack, "You do one thing, you do another... I mean, so what? What's the difference? Same result."

Is there anything to actually be learned from this? Probably not. The Rays have hit on a historic confluence of player regression and bad luck, but it's unlikely to last forever. Evan Longoria and Wil Myers will probably start hitting again (if they can stay healthy, anyway), Moore and Hellickson will return eventually and Price will start to look more like the perennial Cy Young contender he's been for the past decade. The errors by their normally surehanded defenders will probably come down. This could all just be an example of the random cruelty of baseball, where a team can start the season as the consensus favorite in their division and end up at the bottom of the standings, with their season as good as done just over two months in.

Then again, maybe it's just part of another lesson: Nothing lasts forever in sports. While it would be silly to let a couple months of bad baseball have you write off the Rays entirely, it's also possible that some of their prospects just haven't panned out as they planned, and in the meantime, Tampa no longer has one of the league's most vaunted farm systems--in fact, at 26th, they ranked one below even Philly in Baseball-Prospectus' preseason estimation. You do what you can stay as competitive as possible as long as possible--the Phils had the way they thought made sense for them, and the Rays had theirs--but eventually, hard times fall on just about everyone.

Of course, you'd still trade the Phils' five-year outlook for that of the Rays in a heartbeat--they have the better recent history, they're still mostly young at their core, they still have guys making decisions with a proven track record of being among the better minds in the business. And if there's one thing that really separates the two teams--beyond the Phils' embarrassingly bigger budget, anyway--it's that while 2008 was obviously a very long time ago for both teams, the Rays are the one that has long seemed cognizant of that fact, and willing to move on from it. The sooner the Phils can get there as well, the less dire their future will seem.

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

Inside Doop: Union inch closer to playoffs after tie in Toronto

The Union left the country for a big game over the weekend and did not return to the United States with a win as they hoped.

But they did come back with a hard-earned point against the top team in the conference as well as the first MLS goal from their marquee summer signing, while inching closer to the playoffs. Here’s a look at Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Toronto FC and what lies ahead with three regular-season games left.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. It took Alejandro Bedoya almost two months to score his first MLS goal … but what a goal it was. After collecting a pass from Fabian Herbers midway through the first half (just barely avoiding being offside), the U.S. national team starter took one dribble and fooled goalkeeper Clint Irwin with a clever chip over his head and into the net. You don’t see those kind of chip goals often and when you do, they’re usually delivered by big-time playmakers — the kind of guys the Union don’t usually have but do now with Bedoya. Head coach Jim Curtin’s decision to play Bedoya at the No. 10 attacking midfield spot with Tranquillo Barnetta injured also paid big dividends and showed the Union have more midfield options going into the playoffs … and into next season.

2. Coming into the game, a big storyline centered around center back Ken Tribbett, who got the start at center back about a month after getting pulled at halftime vs. Toronto. Another centered around right back Keegan Rosenberry, who was trying to bounce back from a rare off game in Portland the previous week. But, in the end, both players had some very good moments and helped limit the Toronto attack for much of the game, especially in the first half. Much of that had to do with another Curtin lineup decision as the Union head coach put two defensive-minded midfielders in front of the backline: Warren Creavalle, who also had a great hustle play that nearly led to a second goal right before halftime, and Brian Carroll, who’s now made two straight starts after missing six straight games with Plantar fasciitis.

3. Saturday’s game didn’t end without some late fireworks from the league’s hottest player, Jozy Altidore. Riding an eight-goals-in-nine-games streak coming in, the U.S. national team star struck the post in the 87th minute and was taken down in the box by C.J. Sapong in stoppage time on what initially looked to be a clear penalty. If you look at the replay from Sapong’s perspective, however, you could probably make the case that Sapong was going for the ball before getting impeded by Altidore. Either way, the idea of a ref not making a call that would likely decide a game (on a play that wasn’t a real goal-scoring opportunity) took some guts, especially as he got lambasted from the home team and its fans.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. The brutal three-game road trip ends Saturday as the Union, after a loss in Portland and tie in Toronto, take on the rival New York Red Bulls (7 p.m., The Comcast Network). As conservative as it might sound, another point would probably make it a mildly successful trip considering the caliber of opponent. Either way, the Union’s playoff hopes and seeding will likely come down to their final two home games against Orlando and the Red Bulls. At this point, the best they can likely hope for is to hold off Montreal, D.C. United and New England for the No. 4 seed in the East, which would ensure them an opening-round home game. Luckily for them, Montreal and New England both lost this weekend, and although D.C. picked up a big win, they did so against another team in the playoff hunt in Orlando.

2. Another week means another question about captain Maurice Edu’s health. It’s now been more than two months since he returned to the practice field and almost a month since he started playing rehab games with the Bethlehem Steel. With only three games left in the season, it’s hard to see him becoming a starter after being out so long with a stress fracture. It also doesn’t help his case that Carroll and Creavalle are both playing well at his position. But if Edu’s healthy, there’s no sense not utilizing him as a midfield reserve or even as an emergency defensive replacement. The question, as always: is this the week he finally makes his season debut?

3. While Curtin’s lineup decisions played well in Toronto, one interesting one was not playing Roland Alberg. With Barnetta out, many Union fans probably expected Alberg to start at the No. 10 position — or, at the very least, come off the bench. But with the Union never falling behind, Curtin probably didn’t feel the need to bring in such an offensive-minded player. It was an understandable move considering the context but one that was surely disappointing for Alberg, who despite having nine goals in just over 1,000 minutes, has played only 19 minutes over the last three games and has started only once since the beginning of August. By now, you have to wonder what role the dynamic Dutchman will have in the playoffs — if he has one at all.

Stat of the week
With his seventh assist, the rookie Herbers moved into the top 10 in franchise history in career assists. He’s tied for ninth all time with Barnetta, Alejandro Moreno and Conor Casey.

Quote of the week
“I kind of even surprised myself.”

— Alejandro Bedoya, on his first MLS goal

Player of the week
Gotta give it to the guy who scored one of the best goals of the Union’s season, right? The Union now hope there’s more to come from Bedoya during the final stretch of the 2016 season.

Nerlens Noel on Sixers' frontcourt logjam: 'I don't see a way it can work'

Nerlens Noel on Sixers' frontcourt logjam: 'I don't see a way it can work'

CAMDEN, N.J. — Nerlens Noel is standing his ground.

After saying that the Sixers' entering the season with three starting-caliber centers (himself, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid) "doesn't make sense," Noel didn't back down from his stance during the team's annual media day.  

"I don't see a way it can work," Noel said Monday. "It's just a logjam. You have three young, talented centers that can play 30-plus minutes a night." 

The Sixers attempted to play with two bigs in Noel and Okafor last season but had little success. Now that Embiid is finally healthy, the fit to the puzzle doesn't figure to get any better.

Reports swirled during the offseason that the Sixers were looking to trade either Noel or Okafor to add backcourt help to the woeful franchise, but nothing came to fruition.

"Things need to get situated," Noel said. "I think things obviously need to be moved around, someone needs to be moved around. It's just a tough situation. I can't really say too much because I have no say in the matter, so obviously that's for who can handle the situation in the right manner.

"I've gone through a whole lot. Probably the most, arguably, that any player has gone through in the NBA in losing. It's a tough situation to still be in. Year by year, to see things get more difficult to show your value. Year by year, it's always been something. It's really at a point where it's just a lot."

Bryan Colangelo said he understands Noel's viewpoint. However, the Sixers' president said he is in no rush to trade any of the centers and will wait the situation out.

"It’s not disappointing. It’s understandable," Colangelo said. "I think Nerlens actually did a pretty good job sizing up what we have, which is a lot of depth and a lot of talent at that position."

Despite each of the three centers being early in their career, Noel, who is in the final year of his rookie contract, doesn't want to hold off to see if the trio can actually mesh on the floor.

"I can't say I do really understand that (wait-and-see approach)," Noel said. "If you have a group of players, I just don't think it makes too much sense to just still come into the season with such a heavy lineup at the center position. I don't know what there is to wait and see."

Noel made sure to express that he has no issues with Okafor and Embiid and said they are some of his closest friends on the team. But when asked whether he was happy to be a Sixer, Noel deflected.

"I feel good," he said. "I'm all right, I'm in a good place right now."

Sure sounds like it.