What Phillies can learn from Red Sox rebuild: Sign short-term deals, survive bad deals, keep players motivated

What Phillies can learn from Red Sox rebuild: Sign short-term deals, survive bad deals, keep players motivated

Last year, the Red Sox skidded to a 93-loss finish and, all things considered, one of the biggest underachievements in recent sports memory. This year, and after an 8-1 lathering of the Cardinals in Game 1, they're three wins from a World Series crown. No matter the outcome, they've already capped a turnaround that's nothing short of remarkable. Maybe among the best all-time. Maybe the best.

"How'd they do it?" ask Phillies fans, fresh off their team's 89-loss snoozer? Good question.

The answer, besides the obvious like, you know, preaching getting on base and offering the clubhouse a non-lunatic manager: By keeping guys financially motivated. And despite some failure.

Vaunted as Boston’s offseason rebuild has been, it’s hard to overlook the most significant similarities between the deals: (a) none offers any guarantees beyond next-next year, (b) a few ended in magnificent disaster.

Here's a reminder:

THE BAD

Joel Hanrahan, RP (acquired via trade on 12/26/12): Back to back All-Star Games for Pittsburgh despite absurd control issues in 2012 that resulted in baseball's second-highest BB/9 among relievers that year, his age-31 season. For some reason, this was deemed worth a former No. 6 overall prospect and Mark Melancon, who posted a 1.39 ERA in 72 appearances out of what became baseball's second best bullpen. And what did that deal, considered by some a coup for the Pirates, get for Boston? 7.1 innings, two blown saves, a 9.82 ERA, and one Tommy John surgery. Overall, less than good turnout.

Ryan Dempster, SP (two years, $26.5 million): Had decline written all over him, even before Texas traded for him at last year's deadline and his ERA blew up like Will Smith's face in "Hitch," to a 5.09 down the stretch. And decline Dempster did: 4.57 ERA in 32 starts before getting yanked from the rotation in September before the final stretch. Tough to crush Boston for Dempster's $13.25 million this year, given the comparable production vs. pay the Blue Jays, Nats and, yes, your Phillies got from Josh Johnson, Dan Haren and Jonathan Papelbon. And he did bean A-Rod. Still. Not so bueno on the whole.

THE GOOD(ish)

Mike Napoli, 1B/C (one year, $5 millIon): Original deal was three years, $39 million. Then Boston realized that the 31-year-old former Angel and Ranger was basically running on a replica of Bo Jackson's hip. (Really.) This season, solid year. 4.0 WAR, seventh most among first basemen. 23 homers. Decent .842 OPS. All to temper his 32.4% strikeout rate, second-highest in baseball, Ended up getting great value, enhanced by his ability to let David Ortiz full-time DH. But remember, Boston was willing to pay a deal that would've carried AAV of $13M, Carlos Beltran's 2013 earnings. Of the seven players at the position to post a better OPS, only Joey Votto would've earned more per year. Value, but only as a function of fortune.

Jonny Gomes, DH/OF (two years, $10 million): End of the day, any 11 year vet earning $5 million per is small potatoes. Still, Gomes' .247/.344/.426 line tells you all you need to know: plate patience matters, especially for fringe guys. If he qualified, his 3.87 pitches per plate appearance would've only ranked 11th of 22 AL outfielders. But imagine what Gomes' on-base percentage, on par with Ben Revere, who hit .305 this year, would've been without it. In short, valuing walks isn't "Moneyball." In 2013, it's just "smart."

THE GOOD

Koji Uehara, RP (one year, $4.5 million): Not much to say "nay" about here. 3.3 WAR, most among relievers. 11.22 K/9, best among relievers. 21 saves in 24 opportunities, after taking over for Andrew Bailey, who replaced the injured Joel Hanrahan. 2013 ALCS MVP. Had a $4.25 million 2014 option (55 appearances) vest mid-season. Even though he'll be 39, don't think Sawx fans are complaining.

Shane Victorino, RF (three years, $39 million): Oh, Shane. Tough for Phillie fans to swallow. Career-worst year in 2012 that somehow further slipped after he was traded to the Dodgers. Funny, though. Guy struggles heftily in not one, but two, over-paid, arguably bad clubhouses, goes to one with the proper chemistry and motivation and posts a career-high .294 average, solid .802 OPS and, best of all, 5.6 WAR, in the neighborhood of soon-to-(maybe?)-be $300 million man Robinson Cano, who played 38 more games.

Stephen Drew, SS (one year, $9.5 million): Posted the same 3.4 WAR as Milwaukee's Jean Seguara, and a better OPS, despite not qualifying for the batting title. (WAR is a cumulative stat, so yeah, that's impressive.) Not bad for a No. 8 hitter, where he batted for most of the season. On defense, average range, but a sure glove that was third-best at the position. Very, very  much worth the coin.

THE TRADE

Who could forget about The Trade, which shed $250 million in salaries through 2018 and three guys who, in their own words, even a half-year later, didn't quite jell with the rest of the clubhouse: Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. For Phillies fans green with envy over their team's bad contracts, consider, Ruben Amaro may have had the chance. Remember, trade actually centered on Los Angeles' waiver claim of Gonzalez and Beckett. Two weeks earlier, the Dodgers put in a claim on Cliff Lee. Can we confirm that conversations between GM Ned Colletti and Amaro involved a similar megadeal, for, say, Lee, Ryan Howard (a buy-low move for a high-upside guy coming off injury that would've been perfect for the first base-needy and farm system-poor Dodgers) and Papelbon (Brandon League was soon to be an UFA, and, in the first year of a three year, $22.5 million deal, owner of a 5.30 ERA)? No. But you'd be foolish to disregard the coincidence.

THE OTHER TRADE

Midseason deals often matter just as much, if not more, as those struck in the offseason. And credit the Red Sox: despite Peavy's 4.28 ERA with the White Sox in the first half, and only marginally better 4.08 in Boston after, he provided security for a team parched for pitching depth, considering Clay Buccoltz' health and Dempster's stuff. He was a No. 4 ideally, a No. 3 in a pinch. Was he worth Jose Iglesias, the slick-fielding and average-reliant shortstop that went to Detroit? Maybe, considering Boston was higher on SS Xander Boegarts anyway. Maybe not. Still, the fact that they (a) addressed a position of need, (b) got production comparable to what Peavy had been doing pre-trade, (c) orchestrated the always tough three-team deal and (d) preyed on the desperation of not one, but two teams (Detroit needed to fill the void soon to be gashed by SS Jhonny Peralta's 50-game PED ban, and Chicago just kind of sucks/needs to rebuild), it's safe to call this a success.

JOHN LACKEY

Any time you can get a guy you're paying $82.5 million over five years to bounce back from a career-high 6.41 ERA two years prior AND Tommy John surgery one year prior to win 10 games and post a 3.52 ERA as your No. 3 (and, given Buccoltz' issues, often a No. 2), you're got fortune on your side. Especially when your current management group wasn't responsible for the signing, from 2009. The lesson: good luck never hurts.

THE TAKEAWAY

So, what's there to learn in all of this?

(1) Don't spend lots of money/prospects on one or two guys that you can spend on, like, 10. In baseball, deals not working out isn't a risk. It's an occupational hazard. Here, in what may be considered the greatest fixer upper in sports history, you'll note that two of the seven deals (for $20 million in salary this year and some really, really good prospects) ended in utter catastrophe. A third, Napoli's, could've been quite meh quite easily. For Phillies fans consumed by the big market mentality that, when it comes to free agency, your spending of a lot of money on tickets/jerseys/memorabilia should correspond to the front office's spending of a lot of money on "marquee" names, no, the top prospect on the market probably isn't worth it. Money -- any money, let alone Howard/Pujols/Hamilton/Cano money -- is often "bad money" by default. Especially since...

(2) Make sure your players, and front office execs, are properly motivated. Short-term deals create incentives. Urgency. Desperation. Sure, much can be said about Boston adding personalities, character, chemistry. But how much of that is the result of their individual financial situations? Give a guy bazillions of dollars over a decade, it's impossible for him to be as motivated as he is with the carrot still dangling in front of him. He's also likely to have more camaraderie with the guys around him, most of whom are in the same, disleveraged position. This doesn't make athletes bad people, it makes them human. Which means the same incentives should work the same way on just about everybody.  Brief deals also helps cushion the blow of bad deals (which we just established are inevitable) and turn over the roster, which is especially great if you've got viable prospects up the pike like, say, Franco, Hernandez, Asche, Galvis. Giving such guys a clear path not only motivates them, seeing as they're only months? weeks? days? from "the call," it holds the front office and scouting department accountable. They have to find and cultivate talent, because sometime in the not too distant future, they'll need to use it. (Like, say, this year's other World Series participant.)

As for Victorino, pouncing on a high character guy coming off a dreadful year was savvy. It also shows how Boston executed the other part of this "give guys incentive" strategy. His motivation here wasn't the money -- he has what may be his last significant contract. It was restoring his reputation, something you have to wonder whether guys without the opportunity for a fresh start, and locked into five-year, gadzillion dollar deals, worry about. Especially when there are, like, 10 of them not worrying about it in the same room.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @MKH973 Catch him every Saturday from 12-2 on 97.3 ESPN-FM. 

Wendell Smallwood 'really excited, ready to go' for NFL debut Saturday

Wendell Smallwood 'really excited, ready to go' for NFL debut Saturday

Eagles rookie running back Wendell Smallwood will finally make his NFL debut on Saturday. After missing out on the team’s first two preseason games with a quad injury, Smallwood can’t wait for his first action.

“I’m really excited, ready to go,” Smallwood said Tuesday. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a game.”

Smallwood held out some hope that he would play against the Steelers, but said he never cleared the final hurdle.

“The trainers and coaches didn’t feel like I had my last burst,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was up to full speed, I was about 85 percent running. I didn’t feel like I had that last gear … this week, I’m back to full speed.”

As he discussed last week, Smallwood has maintained his focus and tried to learn from watching his teammates while on the sidelines. Given his desire to impress as a rookie and the fact that he’s never missed a game before in his football career, that’s obviously been a challenge. Running backs coach Duce Staley and veterans like Darren Sproles understand that and have paid close attention to Smallwood’s development.

“Darren talks to me all the time about it, he asks me every day how I’m doing and what I need to do,” Smallwood said. “I think just having him and the other running backs in my corner is definitely a positive.”

One facet that Smallwood has been constantly working on is his pass-blocking knowledge. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich on Tuesday stressed the importance of all his backs being strong in pass protection, and said he was encouraged by Smallwood’s progress in that phase of the game.

“Even though he was a great runner in college, you could see glimpses of him in the passing game, you could see him in protection, that he was a willing blocker,” Reich said. “And he had the aptitude when you talked to him in the interviews and when you watch film with him, you can see that he gets it and he processes it, and that’s a very important part of it. So his continued progress to get on the field is going to have to come in the passing game, as well.”

Smallwood is pleased with his understanding of the Eagles’ pass-blocking schemes, but he knows he always has to be on his toes, just in case a question flies his way.

“I think I’ve been progressing very well with [pass blocking,]” Smallwood said. “Just learning techniques and learning the system, all the calls the line has, and I think I’ve picked it up. Duce throws random questions at me and I’m right on time with them, so I think I’m doing very well in that area.”

On Saturday, he’ll be dealing with more than questions; Smallwood will have to pick up linebackers and safeties trying to hit his quarterback. He’s looking forward to it.

DL Martin (knee) day to day
Defensive lineman Mike Martin is another Eagle who has been frustrated by a lingering leg injury.

Like Smallwood, Martin has yet to play in the preseason. Since twisting his knee several weeks ago in training camp, Martin has mostly been on the sidelines. Now he’s back to practice, though Martin said he’s “just easing back into it, not trying to throw myself in there hard right off the bat.”

It seems unlikely that Martin will play against the Colts. While he classified his situation as “a day-by-day thing right now,” it’s hard to imagine him going from “easing back into it” to the heat of an NFL game.

While he’s been out, Martin, a third-round draft pick by the Titans in 2012, has aimed to learn as much as he can.

“Anytime you miss time and can’t be out there, it sucks, but I’ve been in my book and haven’t missed much on the mental side of it,” he said. “Every day I’m just trying to pick up where I left off.”

Once he returns, Martin can’t wait to play in Jim Schwartz’s defense and create chaos for opposing offenses along with Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and his other talented teammates on the defensive line.

“[This defense] is just an attack style, which is really great for me,” Martin said. “That’s the type of player I am and it fits me perfectly.”

Upon arrival, newest Eagles LB Stephen Tulloch ready — but for what?

Upon arrival, newest Eagles LB Stephen Tulloch ready — but for what?

Stephen Tulloch walked out of the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday afternoon chatting with new teammate Brandon Graham, while wearing a crisp white No. 54 jersey for his first practice.

Jim Schwartz wasn’t sure if Tulloch would make it onto the field Tuesday because of all the “administration stuff” the linebacker needed to do, including putting ink to paper. But as the Eagles took the field at around 1:30 p.m., Tulloch joined them. He wouldn’t miss it.

After all, practice is where the 31-year-old feels most comfortable.

Schwartz on Tuesday morning recalled a story from training camp several years ago, when, as the head coach of the Lions, he wanted to give Tulloch a veteran day off. The coaches even told the training staff that Tulloch wouldn’t be participating that day.

“He came in my office mad as a hornet and was ready to practice,” Schwartz said.

Tulloch then told his head coach that he was ruining his streak. Forget games — dating back to high school, the linebacker hadn’t missed a practice.

Schwartz admitted he’s not one for compromising, but did make a compromise that summer day. Tulloch was allowed to practice, but his reps were cut down some.

“He knows how I am. I prepare,” said Tulloch, who remembered the story. “To me, practice is more important than that game. When you miss a rep, you miss something and you can’t make it up. I try to be present every day that I’m out here on this field. We’re playing a kid’s game. I’m 31 years old and to be able to come out here and play this game, it’s pretty fun.”

Tulloch was 28 during the 2013 training camp and went on to play and start all 16 games in the 2013 season. In 2014, he played just three before tearing his ACL, but returned to play in all 16 last year.

Tulloch told Schwartz he has been working out twice per day while unemployed this summer. “Guys like that, they know how to get themselves ready,” Schwartz said.

“I have tremendous respect for guys that get 10 years in the NFL because you can’t make 10 years on talent alone,” Schwartz said. “You can’t make 10 years by being a try-hard guy. You gotta have a great combination of things and also in 10 years, you’re going to be working with different coaching staffs in 10 years. You gotta have the ability to work in a lot of different schemes, whether you’re an offensive player or a defensive player. I’ll bow down to guys who play 10 years in this league because that’s tough business.”

Tulloch has been a starter in the NFL for years but likely won’t have that role in Philly. The Eagles have a starting linebacker group of Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham. Doug Pederson said Tulloch will compete at the middle linebacker spot, but Hicks is still the starter for now (see story).

For a long time, Tulloch was very good. He's one of just nine players in the league to have five interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries since 2006. And he’s played six of his 10 NFL seasons under Schwartz, who already has three of his former players in prominent roles this year.

Schwartz said Tulloch is “not here to replace anybody,” but added that a rotation isn’t out of the realm of possibility. The defensive coordinator, citing an analogy in which everyone brings something different to a party, said it’s important to accentuate each of his players' strengths.

Despite starting for most of his career, Tulloch in 2016 will likely be a backup, which includes playing special teams. Earlier in the week, Pederson said he wants to get Tulloch on at least one special teams unit. The veteran linebacker on Tuesday said he hasn’t played special teams since 2006 or 2007.

“Whatever’s asked of me, I’ll do,” Tulloch said.

Tulloch was informed of his release from Detroit in February, but he wasn’t officially cut by the Lions until July, after he healed completely from a minor ankle surgery. He said he felt good a long time ago, and had a couple other teams interested in him. Ultimately, though, he decided to join the Eagles and reunite with Schwartz, for whom he has great respect and whose defense he feels most comfortable in.

Even if Schwartz tries to make him take a day off.

“I just love football,” Tulloch said. “I think this is my 26th, 27th year of playing football. I started back in 1991 when I was five years old. It’s just a way of life for me. It’s something I do. I have a passion for practice, I have a passion for the game. I play hard, I work hard, I take care of my body. I do what I have to do.”

Tonight's lineup: Phillies load up with righties vs. White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon

Tonight's lineup: Phillies load up with righties vs. White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon

The Phillies are loading up with right-handed hitters for Tuesday's series opener at U.S. Cellular Field against White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon.

Odubel Herrera is out of the lineup and Aaron Altherr takes his place in center field. Peter Bourjos and Tyler Goeddel are in the outfield corners. 

Carlos Ruiz serves as the designated hitter against Rodon, who has huge platoon splits. Righties have hit .305/.365/.484 against Rodon; lefties have hit .220/.268/.286.

Rodon has a changeup to stave off right-handed hitters, but he's used it only eight percent of the time this season. He's thrown his 94 mph fastball, sinker or slider with 92 percent frequency (see game notes).

Emmanuel Burris gets a start at second base.

Ryan Howard is out of the lineup. U.S. Cellular Field is the only active stadium in which he's never played. The Phillies haven't been there since 2004.

1. Peter Bourjos, RF
2. Aaron Altherr, CF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Cameron Rupp, C
6. Carlos Ruiz, DH
7. Freddy Galvis, SS
8. Tyler Goeddel, LF
9. Emmanuel Burris, 2B