In 1936, MGM released a movie called San Francisco, in which the entire male population of the titular town, including Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, gets the hots for Jeanette MacDonald, a thoroughly annoying priss of a saloon singer who suffers from a Tourette’s-like affliction that forces her to burst out in the title song every two minutes or so, blubbering, “San Francisco, open your golden gates…” in faux-operatic tones capable of inducing sudden bouts of incontinence in any animal smaller than a camel. For reasons that are still not clear 75 years later, Gable spends almost the entire picture trying to pry open her golden gates when, let's face it, even the most Darwinistically-compelled, reproductively-driven hetero would probably choose a beer with Spencer over bedding Jeanette. Fortunately, the devastating 1906 earthquake comes along to shock everyone back to their senses, and in a gesture of appeasement to the angry gods, the chastened denizens of the Barbary Coast sacrifice MacDonald to an active volcano.
At least, that’s how I prefer to remember it. I bring this up only because with the injury to Domonic Brown’s hamate bone, the Phillies have been restaging their own version of the flick, except this time, it’s Charlie Manuel, not frigid Jeanette, belting out “Ben Francisco, open your golden gates, or at least go out to right field and try to take over for our top prospect, the guy who was supposed to take some of the sting out of losing our best hitter, Jayson Werth.” No, the lyric doesn’t parse, but then, neither did Jeanette, and Charlie looks better in a dress.
Werth presented one of the most difficult GM problems of the offseason just past. He was by far the Philllies’ best hitter in 2010, and not just because some key players were hurt and others disappointed. He excelled in his own right, and was also an excellent fielder and baserunner besides. Further, he was the sole slugging righty in a lineup so dominated by lefties that if they won the World Series, Fox news wouldn’t cover them. The Phillies needed him like Fred Wilpon needs a loan shark.
Yet, Werth also was dangerous in that he was already 31. Any long-term contract was going to mean paying him a great deal of money past the point when he was likely to contribute at anything like his current level. The irony of Ruben Amaro Jr. tearing up Ryan Howard’s contract and extending him through 2016 with a punishing $10 million buyout for 2017, when Howard will be 37, should not be lost on anyone. Werth is mobile where Howard is immobile. He walks, while Howard grows increasingly impatient. A late bloomer, Werth has continued to improve into his 30s, while Howard has gone backwards. When choosing between the two for long-term contracts, the correct answer was probably “neither,” but if absolutely necessary, then Werth seemed more worthy. Instead, the belated realization that the Howard move was tantamount not only to shooting one’s self in the foot, but doing it in an unnecessary way, seems to have closed the wallet on the more deserving player. As Albert Pujols hits the free-agent market this winter, Phillies fans can only reflect that their team might have been free of Howard at the same time.
Meanwhile, as the Phillies were dealing with the reality of that old, spiteful saying, “You made your bed, now sleep in it,” general manager Mike Rizzo of the Nationals carried off Werth, a player he didn’t need for a length of time he can’t possibly be of use for. Still, he didn’t sign Ryan Howard, though one suspects he might have tried if given the opportunity.
Having stepped in one mess and avoided the other didn’t mean that the Phils could pat themselves on the back given how few alternatives the departure of Werth left them with. Brown, an unheralded 20th-round pick in 2006, is the sole high-level position player the Phillies have, the result of a combination of weak drafting and aggressive trading. The first Cliff Lee deal cost the Phillies four players, and though history will likely show that they got off cheaply, that’s still four pieces out of the farm system. The deal that sent Lee away, advertised as an opportunity to replenish the farm, apparently failed as all three players acquired were miserable last season. The Roy Oswalt deal cost another three players, including J.A. Happ. While the end result of these maneuverings is a rotation that is one of the best in history (at least on paper), the two trends of weak drafts and the use of prospects as ammunition has led to the Phillies being not only one the oldest teams in baseball, but also one that doesn’t have a great many ways to compensate when the frontline players suffer injury or simply decline.
This is the case with Francisco. He is a sort-of okay platoon player, “sort-of” because his career rates against lefties are only .267/.347/.460, though he did somewhat better than that last year, hitting .284/.344/.557. Even so, his OBP ranked out of the top 100 among players who had 90 or more plate appearances against southpaws. His slugging percentage ranked 26th in the same group, although he did rank highly among players who could fairly be described as reserves. Against righties he hit a depressing .253/.310/.330. In 2008 and 2009, years in which he played more often, it was .265/.326/.436, and .260/.326/.464, respectively. Brown was no sure thing as a superior run producer—PECOTA was calling for only .264/.323/.431 this year—but Francisco seems like a reasonably sure bet not to reach even those levels of production if he's playing against all pitching.
Combine this with Chase Utley’s ongoing knee problems, Howard’s fade, Jimmy Rollins’ injuries and general mediocrity since his MVP season, that Placido Polanco can hit .300 and still not put a great many runs on the board, and becomes apparent why the loss is so frightening. It's no matter how transient the injury might be—a hamate bone is unlikely to be a death sentence for any player not named “Nick Johnson,“ after all. However, this was a lineup that might have been barely average with Werth available and continuing to operate at the peak of his powers. If Brown isn’t going to mitigate that loss, who is?
The panic is less about Brown’s injury itself than the bout of ballclub existentialism it provoked. The starting rotation may be one for the ages, but the hitters are so faded that it seems as if they’ve already beaten the pitchers there; we can look at them in both high definition and sepia-tone at the same time. The injury has cast Brown in the unfortunate position of having to heal up and then rush to the rescue of an under-supported bunch of Hall of Fame hurlers. But once that one-man cavalry is expended, who rescues him?
Dynasties are a tough thing to maintain. Their four aces should give the Phillies every chance of overcoming their aging offensive core, but it’s not going to be as easy as it might have been had the organization done more to focus on both sides of the ball. And who knows? Perhaps Ben Francisco will open his golden gate and rise to the occasion of starting in right field. After all, Clark Gable didn’t want to make that picture with Jeanette MacDonald. "I just sit there while she sings?” he asked, incredulous. “None of that stuff for me!" The film was a hit, and MacDonald, paired with a taxidermist’s moose specimen named Nelson Eddy, went on to weaken the bladders of rodents and farm animals while singing soon-to-be archaic numbers like “Indian Love Call” in a series of pictures that made her one of the top box-office draws of the 1930s. Truly it was a strange and distant time, but the point remains: not only are the ridiculous and the sublime sometimes hard to differentiate, but sometimes you might luck into the latter when you truly deserve the former.