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. 

Drexel alum Ken Tribbett enjoys 'special' week for Union

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Drexel alum Ken Tribbett enjoys 'special' week for Union

CHESTER, Pa. — For more than a month, Union center back Ken Tribbett waited patiently on the sidelines, hoping to get the starting spot back that he had and then lost.

Last week, he indeed got back on the field … and then some.

After Joshua Yaro separated his shoulder in Orlando on Wednesday, Tribbett proceeded to notch his first MLS goal and assist, before playing the full 90 minutes in front of 30 family members in his home state of Colorado on Saturday.

It was quite the eventful week for someone who wasn’t expected to play at all during the road trip, let alone accomplish a couple of emotional milestones.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Tribbett told reporters from Tuesday’s training session after the Union returned home following hard-fought road draws vs. Orlando City SC and the Colorado Rapids. “For me, being out a month, mentally I had to make sure I stayed tuned in. And when I got my chance, I stepped in and was ready to go.”

Even if you are mentally prepared, it’s still not an easy thing to step in at center back in the middle of a game, considering that’s a position that rarely gets changed. Making things even more difficult was the fact that Yaro, who took over starting duties after Tribbett rolled his ankle in April, had been looking every bit like the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft.

“Josh was playing a great game in Orlando,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “If you go back and watch the tape, he was one of our top performers. Ken stepped in at the end of the first half, which is challenging at center back — not a position you like to sub at all. But Ken came in pretty seamlessly and got the goal, which is a bonus, obviously.”

You can call it a really big bonus.

Tribbett was never expected to even be in MLS this year after failing to get much notice following a standout career at Drexel.

And he certainly wasn’t expected to log much playing time this season with the Union, who added Yaro and Anderson, a Brazilian, to a position that already featured a rising star in Richie Marquez.

So surprises are nothing new for Tribbett, who started the first five games of the year after soaring up the depth chart in the preseason and now has a goal to add to his unlikely MLS resume.

But it’s no surprise to him.

“I don’t think shock is the right word because I expect a lot of myself and I expect to score a couple of goals this year,” Tribbett said. “So it was just more relief to get the first one out of the way. Any time you score, it’s jubilation, so that was awesome. And to tie the game in Orlando after going down 2-1 was really good for the team, so everything about it was just a special moment.”

Tribbett, who also had a secondary assist in Orlando, enjoyed another “special moment” just three days later when he got to play in the Denver area where he grew up. That was not something he could have imagined after his circuitous journey took him from Colorado to Drexel to the USL’s Harrisburg City Islanders and now to the Union.

“That was probably a moment I won’t ever forget,” Tribbett said. “I had about 20 or 30 family members there, and for a lot of them it was the first time they’ve seen me play professionally. So being back home in Colorado was a special feeling.”

Although the Union backline stayed organized and surrendered only a couple of shots on target in Colorado, Curtin did say it wasn’t the best performance from Tribbett. But the Union coach is ready to lean on him again for Wednesday’s game vs. the Columbus Crew at Talen Energy Stadium (7 p.m./TCN) while Yaro gets an MRI on his shoulder.

“He did fatigue at the end and I talked to him about it,” Curtin said of Tribbett. “He had a couple of little mistakes toward the end of the game. Part of that is your legs starting to fade. But it’s good for him that’s under his belt. He’ll be ready to go now [Wednesday] for the full 90 minutes.”

With the Union idle for two weeks following Wednesday’s game because of a Copa America layoff — and Tribbett’s place in the lineup uncertain from there — the Drexel alum is certainly excited to get back on the field for his first home game since April 8.

“It’s a very important game,” Tribbett said. “We want to go into the break with certain goals for ourselves. We want to be at the top of the conference, and if we win, we’ll achieve that goal. We want to keep one goal per game [allowed]. Right now, we’re one off that, so if we get a shutout tomorrow, we’ll be right back on track.”

Pete Mackanin sends Cesar Hernandez a message

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The Associated Press

Pete Mackanin sends Cesar Hernandez a message

Pete Mackanin dropped second baseman Cesar Hernandez to eighth in the batting order for Tuesday night’s game against the Washington Nationals.

“If you want to call it a message you can call it a message,” Mackanin said.

Hernandez entered the game hitting .255 with a .616 OPS. Last year, he hit .272 with and .687 OPS.

“I expect more out of him,” Mackanin said. “I think he's a better hitter than he's shown. I think he's a .280 hitter and I think he's at .250. I want to see improvement. We need him to get back up to .280, where I think he belongs. He’s got to make adjustments. We need offense.”

Mackanin pointed to Hernandez’ double-play partner, shortstop Freddy Galvis, as an example of a player who has made improvements.

Galvis entered Tuesday night hitting .257 with a .696 OPS. But in the month of May, he was hitting .277 with a .708 OPS.

“Freddy is starting to come on,” Mackanin said. “He’s starting to make adjustments.”

Galvis has also played excellent defense.

The Phillies are a rebuilding club with a number of potential big-league contributors rounding out their development in the minors. The team’s top prospect is a shortstop – J.P. Crawford – and he’s in Triple A now. It’s not out of the question that he will be the team’s opening day shortstop next season.

Crawford’s eventual ascension impacts both Galvis and Hernandez. Galvis can also play second base. Whether Hernandez or Galvis becomes the second baseman when Crawford arrives could be determined by who hits. This is the time to make impressions.

“That's basically what it boils down to,” Mackanin said. “I've even talked to them about that — 'It's an important year for both of you because there are people who want to be in the big leagues that are in the minor leagues and want to take your job.' You have to approach it that way. You can't let down. You have to stay focused and work hard.”

While all signs point to Crawford taking over at shortstop in the future, Mackanin said Galvis’ defense should not be taken for granted.

“As well as Freddy is playing shortstop, you'd hate to move a guy like that out of that position,” Mackanin said. “It's a defensive position and he's been so good at it.”

Galvis entered Tuesday night with just two errors in 50 games. His .990 fielding percentage trailed only San Francisco’s Brandon Crawford and Detroit’s Jose Iglesias, both .995.

National champion Villanova honored by President Obama

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National champion Villanova honored by President Obama

WASHINGTON — For the most successful senior class in the history of Villanova basketball, Tuesday's trip to the White House was the culmination of a championship season and quite possibly the final time the 2016 National Championship team will be together as one.

President Barack Obama praised their poise, which was epitomized by the final play when Ryan Arcidiacono fed Kris Jenkins for the buzzer-beating, championship-winning three-pointer.

"A lot of teams would have had their spirit broken — the Wildcats, they took control, they responded," Obama said. "And on a play called ' 'Nova,' Kris took a pass from Arch and pulled up a few steps behind the line and shot this team into basketball lore. That was a good shot. It was like Christian Laettner-good. It was like a Jimmy-V-running-up-and-down-the-court shot. Charles Barkley apparently jumped out of his seat, which — (laughter) — he doesn’t do very often these days." 

In what has become customary for a championship team's visit, head coach Jay Wright presented the 44th President of the United States with a Wildcat jersey and the number "44." The Wildcats wore the uniform when they played Oklahoma on Dec. 7 of last year in Obama's home state of Hawaii.

"This was an amazing day for us," Wright said. "We not only presented him with the jersey, but with a picture of him that mirrored Kris Jenkins hitting that game-winning shot, because we've got a lot of respect for him as a great leader."

While gracious as guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., it was the Wildcats who spoiled Obama's tournament bracket when they knocked off the president's pre-tournament pick, Kansas, in the Elite Eight on their way to the Final Four. At the time he made his picks back in March, Obama mentioned Wright's Wildcats, telling ESPN, "I know eventually they're going to break through." He just wasn't confident enough to see the 'Cats win it all roughly three and a half weeks later.

Obama on Tuesday confirmed he should have listened to his second-in-command, "Joe (Biden) wanted me to remind you that he picked 'Nova to win it all. This is the type of wise counsel that you are looking for from a vice president. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow his counsel and so my bracket was busted.

Wearing a stars-and-stripes bow tie, junior Josh Hart, who decided last week to return to Villanova for his senior season, attended nearby Sidwell Friends School, where he was a classmate with President Obama's oldest daughter Malia.

"We talked a little, not too much," Hart said. "I try to give her some space. She's busy with senior projects and graduation and stuff."

Now Hart will refocus on guiding Villanova to become the first school since the Florida Gators in 2006-07 to win back-to-back National titles, and with that, a return trip to the White House.