September 19, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL East
The Importance of a Strong Core
The Philadelphia Phillies clinched their fifth straight National League East division crown with a Saturday night victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. A playoff birth was not really in doubt given their odds in the Playoff Odds Report, but the mathematical certainty of the division title and the near assurance of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs should give the members of the Phillies a level of comfort heading into yet another postseason.
Speaking of comfort, there should also be a level of comfort for the players involved in the 2011 division-winning Phillies because of their familiarity with each other and with the playoff scene. One of the reasons for the Phillies' division success these last five years is that they boast a core of players that has been unparalleled in the NL East since their first title in 2007. The Phillies have eight players who have been with the major league club since 2007, with six of those players being regular, above-average or better contributors to the team.
Aside from marginal performance of Kendrick, who is a replaceable bullpen/fifth-starter type, the Phillies have had had strong continuity in a set of six players who have contributed a good chunk of the team's success during that time span. The Phillies players listed here have contributed an average of almost 21 wins above replacement level per season. Their 103 wins above replacement is actually representative of 22 percent of the team's total wins since 2007. Going into each season, the Phillies were able to count on winning 20-plus games more than a replacement level team just from the performances of seven of their 25 roster spots. Indeed, the group of seven failed to reach at least 20 WARP in only two seasons, falling just short in 2009 (18.2) and 2010 (17.4). In 2007, this crew was at the top of its game on its way to stealing the division from the free-falling New York Mets; that season, the Phillies had both Utley (6.6 WARP) and eventual MVP-winner Rollins (6.7 WARP) playing at MVP level with Howard (4.4 WARP) also putting up a second-straight season of strong performance. Also, keep in mind that this list does not include the regular contributions of another strong player who departed before this season, outfielder Jayson Werth; from 2007 to 2010, Werth actually provided 17.1 WARP, which would have placed him second on this list.
This string of strong performances from a core of players cannot be found anywhere else in the NL East. While the Phillies have had the luxury of playing with six players who have been consistently good, the rest of the teams in the division have had varying levels of continuity and excellence in performance from the players they have kept since 2007.
Assembling a core as strong as the Phillies' requires both identification of the right players and signing those talents to amicable long-term deals. Most of the teams listed here did this in bits and pieces, but they did not achieve the level of success that the Phillies did. Hamels, Howard, Rollins, and Utley were all home-grown products of the Phillies system, while Victorino was an outside acquisition. However, each of them was identified as a critical piece and signed to affordable deals, with Howard and Utley receiving longer-term extensions. Only Howard's contract will now become a financial burden for the team, with the others nearing the end of their deals or still being paid affordable prices.
The Atlanta Braves and New York Mets were moderately successful at doing the same thing. The Braves also had a pair of homegrown talents in Chipper Jones and Brian McCann locked up in the mid- to long-term with Tim Hudson being the major import via trade. Alongside those players, the Braves have done a decent job developing talent in order to foster a competitive team. A number of players among their current core have only recently arrived in the majors and are likely to produce and eventually replace the production of aging players like Jones and Hudson. Though they fell outside of the confines of this search, guys like Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward look to be a part of a good core for future Braves teams.
The Mets, on the other hand, have struggled in the latter half of the decade because they failed to surround a properly identified core with support pieces. Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and David Wright (with help from Mike Pelfrey) averaged about as many wins as the Atlanta core since 2007, but while the Braves have added young names, the Mets have spent money and misidentified players like Oliver Perez and Jason Bay as viable players to surround their core. With Beltran gone and Reyes possibly on his way out, the Mets will have to cultivate players from within to find some help for Wright and whatever is left from this previous core of players.
The Marlins and Nationals had their own problems in building a stable foundation of players upon which to expand into a competitive team. For the Marlins, their problem has been in retaining their young talent. During the Phillies' run of division titles, the Fish have identified and extended the right players in Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, and to an extent Ricky Nolasco. Unfortunately, budget “concerns” from their traditionally cheap owner limit their ability to hold onto talent for the long haul, though the recent extensions and the move to the new stadium have given the few Marlins fans out there some hope that a reversal of fortunes is coming.
The Nationals' difficulty has been in finding talent worth extending long-term. Outside of Ryan Zimmerman, only one National has played for the major league team in every season since 2007, and that one player is the ever-replaceable John Lannan. Since 2007, the Nationals have consisted of a sometimes healthy Zimmerman surrounded by a merry-go-round of veteran free-agents who might have been helpful to teams on the verge of a playoff berth, not rebuilding clubs that need more talent before they can compete. Luckily for them, years of struggles leading to high draft picks, when combined with solid developmental work in the minors, have yielded a strong group of players for the team's future, meaning that the time for a competitive Nationals team with a long-term group of young talent may come sooner rather than later.
The Phillies' fifth division title in a row is a testament to the work the team has done in team building. There is always luck in assembling a homegrown group like the ones they have, but the proper emphasis of player development and draft combined with some lucky bounces have bought them five divisions in a row. With the financial backing to acquire players like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee to supplement an already top-notch group, it is no surprise why the Phillies have dominated the NL East the last few seasons. However, other teams in the division like the Braves and Nationals may have their sights set on the leader with their own budding team-controlled talents.