Two years ago Thursday, we announced the World Series that never was: Boston vs. Philadelphia, a matchup of clearly baseball’s best teams in 2011.
The Red Sox made twin splashes at those winter meetings in Orlando, signing Carl Crawford and acquiring Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres. An even more stunning development followed on Dec. 13, 2010, when the Phillies upstaged the Rangers and Yankees by agreeing to a five-year, $120 million contract with Free Agent of the Century Cliff Lee.
After that, it was a matter of stamping the script “B” and “P” on the Fall Classic ticket strips. My recollection of that time is hazy — I spent waaay too much time calculating Lee’s theoretical tax savings in Texas — but it seemed that no one predicted something other than Red Sox over Phillies or Phillies over Red Sox.
And the following autumn, the Cardinals beat the Rangers.
The prognosticators’ comeuppance is relevant now, for two reasons. One is that no team — not even the Dodgers — is as good as it looks in December. The other is that we shouldn’t overcorrect our past assessments of the Phillies and Red Sox by underrating them now, even after Boston’s catastrophic last-place finish under Bobby Valentine and worst season since 1965.
Beware the heavyweight franchise with something to prove — even though a considerable amount of work separates each team from the seemingly predestined glory of two seasons ago.
Let’s start with the Phillies. They were a third-place team in the National League East this season. And they look like a third-place team today, trailing the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves in top-to-bottom talent. But look at the good news: The Phillies are unburdened by the expectations that dogged them two years ago.
Here are a few things we know about the status of their holiday shopping:
• Center fielder Ben Revere, acquired from the Twins last week, is the only Phillie assured of a full-time outfield job in 2013. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. needs to acquire at least one everyday outfielder, perhaps allowing in-house candidates to compete for the other spot.
• Revere will earn close to the league minimum in 2013 because he is not yet eligible for salary arbitration. By trading for him — instead of signing, say, Michael Bourn — Amaro may have saved around $10 million toward the coming year’s payroll. He can apply that money elsewhere.
• According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Phillies’ commitments for 2013 are between $20 million and $25 million below their 2012 Opening Day payroll.
• Anthony Gargano, the Philadelphia-based host for FOX Sports Radio and 94WIP, reported that the Phillies have offered free-agent Josh Hamilton a three-year contract before he agreed to join the Los Angeles Angels. Phillies officials have not denied the report.
When considering those factors together, it’s apparent the Phillies will add another outfielder — quite possibly a big one. And they need to do so, after a dull lineup finished in the middle of the National League in runs scored this year. Left and right field were particular concerns, as they were mired in the bottom half of the league in OPS at both spots.
The arrivals of Revere and third baseman Michael Young give the Phillies an improved lineup, but it won’t be complete until Amaro signs someone to address the yawning need for a corner outfield bat. Now that Hamilton is no longer an option, the best free agent candidates appear to be Nick Swisher, Cody Ross and Scott Hairston. The trade market remains a possibility, too. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported recently that the Phillies and Chicago Cubs had discussed a trade of Alfonso Soriano for Domonic Brown.
(To linger on that concept a moment: If the Cubs are willing to pay a substantial share of the $36 million left on Soriano’s contract over the next two seasons, the Phillies would be wise to make that move. Soriano, who turns 37 next month, is coming off arguably his best season since 2007, while it appears the longtime prospect Brown — with a .703 OPS in nearly 500 major league plate appearances — may never click in Philadelphia.)
But the Phillies also have other, less-talked-about needs. They had the seventh-best rotation in the National League last season, to say nothing of baseball history — the frame of reference that came up after Lee put pen to paper two winters ago.
Roy Halladay isn’t as dominant or durable as he once was, and the No. 5 spot currently is held by the unproven Tyler Cloyd. And now that the Wilton Lopez trade has fallen through, the Phillies still are looking for Jonathan Papelbon’s setup man.
Meanwhile, the rival Braves and Nationals boast rosters that are nearly April-ready. In that respect, the Phillies could sign Swisher and still be regarded as divisional underdogs.
The Red Sox are more than one player away from winning the AL East, too, even after agreeing to contracts with Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes and David Ross. (Victorino’s deal will be announced Thursday, but FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal has reported that issues are delaying final approval of Napoli’s contract.)
Boston general manager Ben Cherington seems no more than halfway done with his offseason work, amid continued speculation that he could trade center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and/or catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Both routes appear problematic. Few teams are looking to upgrade in center, and those that are (such as Seattle) may not want to acquire Ellsbury with only one season left on his contract. The starting catching market is similarly tight, with two needy teams — the Rays and Yankees — residing in the AL East and therefore unlikely partners.
Swisher makes more sense for the Red Sox than Hamilton would have, if only because he offers the flexibility of playing four positions — left field, right field, first base and designated hitter. Swisher and Ellsbury could be full-time players on the same Red Sox roster. It’s hard to see how that would have been true for Hamilton and Ellsbury, given the current makeup.
But pitching remains the biggest question at Fenway Park, just as it proved to be two years ago when the Red Sox were supposed to win it all. With Boston’s right-now rotation — Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, John Lackey and pending addition Ryan Dempster — there is a considerable amount of wishful thinking about new manager John Farrell’s ability to reverse recent trends in health and performance.
Even with Dempster agreeing to a two-year, $26.5 million deal, as Rosenthal reported Thursday, there is still room for improvement.
Free agent Anibal Sanchez, who signed with the Red Sox as a Venezuelan teenager, probably is the top free-agent pitcher available now that Zack Greinke is a Dodger.
Similarly, the bullpen includes a number of pitchers who can close — Uehara, Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon, even Daniel Bard — but no clear closer. Thus, there is the tantalizing possibility that the Red Sox will sign Rafael Soriano away from the Yankees — a nice rejoinder now that Kevin Youkilis has joined forces with the Empire.
That would be so 2011 of the Red Sox, a memory of those woebegone days when Boston was expected to rule the baseball world rather than surprise it. The Phillies know the feeling. Two years after their teams were the no-brainer picks to meet in the World Series, fans of the Red Sox and Phillies are taking their hopes and dreams with a chaser called humility.