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.

Opportunity with Eagles, talk with Le'Veon Bell has Kenjon Barner hungry

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Opportunity with Eagles, talk with Le'Veon Bell has Kenjon Barner hungry

Kenjon Barner is hungry, literally and figuratively.

After spending 2014 on the Eagles' practice squad and getting just 37 offensive touches in a crowded backfield last season, the running back is looking to carve out a bigger role with the Birds in 2016. DeMarco Murray is gone, and with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles away from the team earlier this week at practice, it was Barner getting the first-team reps. 

Mathews missed Tuesday's practice with an illness, and Sproles hasn't reported to the Eagles' voluntary workouts, which become mandatory from June 7-9.

So Barner, the 27-year-old RB Chip Kelly coached in college and traded for prior to the 2014 season, has had some opportunities to impress new head coach Doug Pederson. And Barner wants to make clear that despite his Oregon ties — he's one of three remaining players from Oregon that Kelly brought to the Eagles, along with Josh Huff and Taylor Hart — he's not only here because of the coach he outlasted.

"It's a great opportunity," Barner said, "just a fresh start. Go out there and continue to show what you can do, continue to make plays and constantly have your name in the coaches' minds.

"For anybody who says, 'Oh, that's Chip Kelly's guy,' no, I'm a football player. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't a football player. I wouldn't have gotten drafted if I wasn't a football player.

"It's not a chip on my shoulder. Yes I went to Oregon, yes I played under Chip, I love Chip to death, but I'm a football player. I create my own lane. I'm not gonna let anybody place me in a box and tell me what I am."

At 5-9/195, Barner doesn't fit perfectly into the box of a classic bell cow back. He's more of a Sproles-lite, a shifty back who can catch passes out of the backfield. He showed that last preseason, when he rushed 13 times for 91 yards and a touchdown and also caught four passes for 72 yards, including a 50-yarder.

That kind of backfield versatility is necessary in the offense Pederson brings over from the Chiefs, the offense Andy Reid ran for many years here. In Kansas City, Pederson and Reid utilized their running backs often in the passing game just as they did with the Eagles. Even when Jamaal Charles went down for the year after five games last season, that trend continued with Charcandrick West catching 20 passes and DeAnthony Thomas getting some grabs out of the backfield.

"I fit whatever role they want me to fit," Barner said. "Whether it's catching balls out of the backfield or whatever it is. Jamaal Charles is a great back and if I can do half of what he's done throughout his career I'd be lucky."

Barner has patiently waited three years for this kind of opportunity. Mathews and Sproles are expected to be the Eagles' top-two ball-carriers, but both are getting older and neither is an every-down back, Mathews because of all the injuries and Sproles because he's more of a situational matchup nightmare. So even with the addition of fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood, there should be some opportunities for Barner, who has done all he can to further his own development.

"Just older, more mature, more professional than I've been in the past," Barner said. "Understanding the offense, really going home and studying, really knowing what my responsibility is.

"For me, man, it's just about being mature, growing. I feel like if you're not growing, what are you doing? You constantly have to grow, have to evolve, not only physically but mentally. That's kind of where I'm at.

"I did take it seriously last year, but having the opportunity to go through what I've been through, go home and be with my family, have guys like (Chris) Maragos, I talk to him on a daily basis about football, about life. Sproles constantly being in my ear still — he may not be here but he's still in my ear. It's a lot of things coming together."

One change Barner made this offseason was to his diet. It came from a conversation with the NFL's best all-around running back, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell.

"I had a talk with Le'Veon Bell back in January," Barner said. "I spoke with him and we were just talking about eating. I'm the type of guy that if I see somebody and I see a change in them and I see it's positive, I have no problem telling you, 'I like what you're doing, tell me how you did it.' I reached out to him because I've been seeing pictures of him and I've seen his body change. We came in the draft together and he's always been a big guy, but he hasn't been that cut, that ripped. So I reached out to him like, 'Yo, what did you do, what's your diet, what have you been taking, what are you doing and what are you not doing?' Just really trying to pick his brain. 

"I'm trying to be great. And if I see you doing something that's pushing you to the next level I'm gonna ask you how you did it. 

"I'm not gonna say I've been perfect. I'm just really big on sweets, I have a sweet tooth like no other and I can thank my dad for that — growing up he always had candy and snacks by his bed so I would always sneak in his room and eat them. That's the hardest thing, that's like my kryptonite."

Sweets weren't a part of the Chip Kelly regimen, that's for sure. But with the coach who brought Barner to the Eagles now in San Francisco, it's more on the players to keep themselves on track, both in the kitchen and with their sleep schedule.

"It's different, a lot slower, obviously," Barner said of practices under Pederson. "Is that good? I mean, you don't get as tired. But you're not in as good of shape as you were in Chip's offense. Chip's offense, you have to be in tip-top shape. So we're still getting there, still certain times when we're tired, times when you shouldn't be tired. So you have to do a lot of the conditioning on your own outside of here.

"Today, [Pederson] asked us who's getting eight hours of sleep. Everybody cares about it because you want your players to be at their best and you can't be at your best if you're not getting enough sleep, (but they're) two completely different people."

Barner is one of three remaining Oregon players Kelly brought to the Eagles, along with Josh Huff and Taylor Hart. He's outlasted his former coach here, and he made clear this week that he's not a guy who should be tied to Kelly, even if his familiarity with that system might have been a deciding factor in bringing him in.

So last night's Union game was pretty crazy

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So last night's Union game was pretty crazy

When the Union played in Orlando last year, the game was a relatively dull scoreless draw.

And for most of Wednesday’s game between the two teams in the same venue, it looked like history was going to repeat itself.

That’s when the Kaká hit the fan.

Here’s a quick recap of all the craziness that happened in the second half of the if-you-turned-away-you-probably-missed-something 2-2 draw:

  • Tranquillo Barnetta, inspired by a story I wrote about him a day earlier, scored his second goal this season -- both of which have come against Orlando

  • Warren Creavalle was taken down from behind in the box but no penalty kick was given and no red card was shown, leading head coach Jim Curtin to call the sequence “embarrassing”

  • Orlando City responded with two rapid-fire semi-controversial goals, scoring the first after Philly goalie Andre Blake was wiped out and the second on a shot Blake appeared to make the save on but the ref ruled was in (where’s goal-line technology when you need it??)

  • Ken Tribbett, the pride of Drexel, scored his first MLS goal after early collecting his first MLS assist -- after only being called into the game because of an injury to Josh Yaro

  • Orlando’s David Mateos was shown a straight red card in the final minute but Barnetta couldn’t convert a close-range free kick to win it

  • Fabinho killed a guy with a trident

To think all but one of those things happened in one half is pretty wild -- and that doesn’t even factor in several other cards, calls, no-calls and a pretty cool set piece the Union ran.

https://twitter.com/KevinKCBS3/status/735820306242232320

Oh, and almost lost in all the commotion, was the fact that Andre Blake gave us another memorable moment in a season full of them when he saved a first-half penalty kick from freaking Kaká.

https://twitter.com/MLS/status/735626554902859776

In the end, Curtin couldn’t get over some of the refereeing decisions, particularly the no-call on Creavalle -- which, as you can see, was in fact quite bad.

https://twitter.com/TotalMLS/status/735636659576930305

Still, the fact that the Union escaped a tough place like Orlando despite the ref and while playing without three of their top playmakers (Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueria and Ilsinho) is quite a nice achievement that you would never have seen with past Philly teams.

It also moved their unbeaten streak to six heading into Saturday’s showdown between the first-place team in the East (your Philadelphia Union) and the first-place team in the West (the Colorado Rapids) -- who you might recall were two of the worst teams in MLS last season.

See ya in the rockies.

https://twitter.com/KevinKCBS3/status/735653796358049792 

Let the bidding begin for Mike Trout, who Angels must move at some point

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Let the bidding begin for Mike Trout, who Angels must move at some point

Yes, the Angels are going to trade Mike Trout.

It may not happen this year or even next year, but eventually Angels GM Billy Eppler will accept the reality of the bleak future ahead for his franchise. Albert Pujols, who has five years and $140 million remaining on his contract after this season, has taken the baton from Ryan Howard for the worst contract in baseball. Good luck getting out of that deal. Other than the increasingly rare Pujols hot streak, they have nobody equipped to protect Trout in the lineup. 

The starting rotation has been patched together, with both Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney going down with elbow injuries early this season. Unless one of those guys comes back healthy, there isn’t a No. 1 or No. 2 starter on the roster. Theoretically, the Angels will have money to spend on the free-agent market with both C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver coming off the books after the season. But with Andrew Cashner and Jeremy Hellickson the likely headliners on the pitching market, a quick fix for the rotation seems unlikely. 

The 2017 free-agent market for hitters isn’t much better. Should Yoenis Cespedes opt out of his contract with the Mets, he could provide a potent presence behind Trout, but there will be stiff competition for his services and he’ll be in line for a massive payday. 

Toronto’s once-dynamic duo of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista should be available, but both appear to be trending downward. Giving either player a long-term deal is a risky investment at best. 

Building around the young players in the organization isn’t a viable option. By all accounts, the Angels have the worst farm system in baseball. You can check out those rankings here or here. This is a franchise in dire need of an infusion of young talent. 

We’ve seen the Phillies in a similar situation with Cole Hamels. Once there was no way forward to win with him, the only reasonable option was to trade him. Even the most ardent Hamels supporters have to admit now that moving him made sense.  

Yes, Trout is only 24 years old and is the best all-around player in baseball. The Angels should certainly explore every possible option to build a winner around the South Jersey native, who is in the second season of a six-year deal that will pay him $119 million from 2017 through 2020. But the franchise is trending in the wrong direction. If they cannot honestly see a path to contending with him, they should look to move him and jump-start a rebuild. There will be no shortage of suitors. 

So ignore the notion that you never trade an “inner-circle Hall of Famer,” which Trout certainly is on track to become. He is signed through 2019 and the clock is ticking. 

Let the bidding begin.