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.

Mychal Kendricks may be only starter to play Thursday vs. Jets

Mychal Kendricks may be only starter to play Thursday vs. Jets

Nelson Agholor, a struggling second-year receiver who may or may not be a starter, likely won't play in the Eagles' preseason finale Thursday against the Jets.

Mychal Kendricks, a fifth-year linebacker who's been a regular starter since he was a rookie, likely will.

"There's a chance," head coach Doug Pederson said Monday. "There's a chance he plays because he hasn't played all preseason, and we still want to get him those live reps and get him ready for Cleveland."

Kendricks played Saturday against Indianapolis after missing the first two preseason games with a hamstring injury suffered in training camp earlier this month. He was still in the game in the fourth quarter, when the rest of the starters had exchanged their helmets for baseball caps.

"Why? Because he hasn't played," Pederson said. "He hasn't played and we just want to see him get game and live reps. That's the bottom line."

And just to be sure, Kendricks is still a starter?

"Oh, yeah. He's another one that we'd love to see again this Thursday night in a short role," Pederson said. "But at the same time he hasn't played all preseason. Stephen Tulloch's another one that we need to see play. So there's an opportunity for these two to get some more reps on Thursday."

Tulloch makes sense. He needs all the reps he can get. And he's also a backup. He should have no problem playing Thursday.

As for Kendricks ... he was not available to the media Monday.

Aaron Grymes waived/injured by Eagles

Aaron Grymes waived/injured by Eagles

Aaron Grymes was making a serious push to be on the Eagles' 53-man roster until the cornerback's right shoulder slammed into the ground at Heinz Field after an interception.

Grymes hasn't practiced or played since and the Eagles waived/injured the 25-year-old corner on Monday.

Before coming to the Eagles this spring, Grymes spent three successful seasons in the Canadian Football League and won a Grey Cup as an All-Star for the Edmonton Eskimos in 2015.

There seems to be a decent shot that the Eagles might want to put Grymes on their practice squad.

After the Pittsburgh game, when he had the interception and suffered the injury, Grymes was asked if he would prefer to be on a practice squad or head back to Canada, where he's already a proven star.

“I’ve thought about both of them," Grymes said on Aug. 18. "Both of them are great opportunities. I know that there are teams in Canada that are willing to bring me in and let me play. But then again, you can’t really compare it with this NFL dream I’ve had forever.

"To sign to a practice squad … injuries happen every day, and I think an opportunity could be there. It will be something I sit down with my wife and talk about, sit down with my agent and talk about. We’ll just make the best decision for us from there.”

Nelson Agholor unlikely to play Eagles' preseason finale, even if he could use the work

Nelson Agholor unlikely to play Eagles' preseason finale, even if he could use the work

Starters typically don't play much if at all in the final preseason game, but what does that mean for the Eagles and Nelson Agholor?

Agholor may be a starter by default, but the second-year wideout has followed up a disappointing rookie campaign with an uninspired summer thus far. More reps might be of value for a young player in Agholor's position.

Doug Pederson apparently disagrees, telling reporters on Monday that Agholor "probably" won't make an appearance in the Eagles' preseason finale this Thursday against the Jets. When pressed for an explanation, the head coach gave a curious response.

"One, I don't want to risk an injury necessarily," Pederson said. "Two, he's right on track with where he needs to be, so I'm not concerned with Nelson."

Any assertion that Agholor is "on track" is debatable. The 2015 first-round pick has just two receptions for 30 yards in preseason action. To make matters worse, he's also dropped three passes, including a costly deflection that went for an interception against the Colts on Saturday.

Minimal production and lapses in concentration plagued Agholor throughout last season, and there's little evidence those issues are behind him. Regardless, Pederson sounds unconcerned.

"Every day he comes out here and puts in a quality day's work," Pederson said. "He works extremely hard, and I've seen what he can do in practice.

"Is there the occasional drop here or there? Yeah. What he did after the drop (against the Colts), you probably didn't notice the blocking downfield, the things he did away from the ball. More than being a receiver — obviously, catching the ball is number one — but we pride ourselves in being physical in the run game and blocks down the field, and the things he did in this football game put him in a really good position going into the regular season."

To his credit, Agholor has shown a willingness to contribute without the ball in his hands. The 23-year-old threw a key block on Josh Huff's eight-yard touchdown run on Saturday.

Of course, Agholor wasn't taken 20th overall for his ability to pancake defensive backs. The Eagles are hoping he can become a viable target in the passing attack.

Agholor has dealt with questions about his production and confidence going back to last year. He knows as well as anybody that he needs to improve, although he doesn't necessarily feel that growth needs to take place in an exhibition game.

"The most important thing to me right now is practice, and I got an opportunity to go out here and practice and progress from the game to today," Agholor said. "We went over some corrections from the game, so that was a step, and now when I go out here, I have to show signs of progression.

"(Coach Pederson's) decision is his decision. For my mind, I need to make sure I go out here today and get better as a football player."

But are Agholor's troubles holding on to the football correctable through practice? Drops are often attributed either to a receiver's hands or his concentration, both of which tend to be difficult flaws to overcome.

Concentration has been more to blame in Agholor's case. If there's a positive, he realizes that. Agholor looks at a drop like the one he had against the Colts that wound up going for an interception and tries to figure out exactly what broke his concentration on that play so that he won't make the same mistake again.

"As a wide receiver, when you watch that, the end result, the drop, isn't on my mind," Agholor said. "It's 'What was my route?' to go to that. Did I do too much to take my focus away from receiving that football? And I felt like I did.

"I felt like my pattern to get to the football — I made man moves and they were actually in a zone — and all those stairsteps made my eyes and my hands not be in the right place to receive the football at the right time."

Nobody is putting more pressure on Agholor to eliminate these mistakes than he is.

"That's what you have to do in this league, and that's what you have to do for a football team, especially when they count on you," Agholor said.

"My teammates count on me to be explosive with the football and without the football. I want to always do it with the football because that's my job. I'm a wide receiver. But as a player on the field, I have to make sure I'm explosive and I have to make sure I make plays without the ball in my hands too."

Perhaps that's why Pederson is showing so much faith in his young receiver. Work ethic has never been an issue for Agholor, and he's going to do whatever he can to become a reliable weapon for the Eagles. When he comes up short, it's not for lack of effort or preparation.

Fortunately, there's still time for Agholor to turn things around. If he can give the offense somewhat steady production in 2016, nobody will remember the preseason or even how he struggled as a rookie. Agholor realizes that too, so he's worried only about getting ready for opening day against the Browns on Sept. 11.

"I have a responsibility because I will be a guy that's out there," Agholor said. "In my mind, my number's going to be called multiple times and I need to answer the phone. That's how I look at it."