Friday, August 7, 2009

Is This The Best Phillies Team Ever?

The big question raised by the imminent arrival of pitcher Pedro Martinez to the Phillies lineup isn’t who will be the team’s fifth starter. When you’re talking about a team choosing for its fifth starter between either a three-time Cy Young winner or one who’s won more than 250 career games, can you really go wrong?

The more intriguing question: with Martinez, who also finished in the top five in Cy Young voting seven times, and the recent addition of reigning AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, is this now the best team in Phillies history?

Sadly, of course, the Phillies aren’t the Yankees when it comes to great teams, so the list of contenders is shorter than Carlos Ruiz (does every home-plate umpire have to be taller than him?).

The contenders include the title teams of 2008 and 1980, the World Series teams of 1915, 1950, 1983, and 1993, and the 100-regular-season-win teams of 1976 and 1977, as well as this year’s group.

It’s pretty easy to eliminate some from the list quickly, starting with the World Series teams. Grover Cleveland Alexander’s ’15 team featured three Hall of Famers but pitcher Eppa Rixey (the Reds) and shortstop Dave Bancroft (New York Giants/Boston) would make their names elsewhere. Pitching carried a workmanlike lineup.

The ’83 Wheeze Kids included the most Hall of Famers ever on one Phillies team with four (Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Steve Carlton), not counting Pete Rose. But as the team’s nickname implies, they’d seen better days.

The ’93 team had unique chemistry—Lenny Dysktra’s arms indicated maybe there was a little too much chemistry—and a solid pitching staff led by Curt Schilling (16-7) and Mitch Williams (43 hair-raising saves). The 97-victory team knew how to win and how to have fun, but Schilling is the only possible Hall of Famer, so the greatness factor is missing.

Then, you have to choose between the back-to-back teams. The 1976 and '77 teams were similar except for a few players that give '76 (Dick Allen, Dave Cash, Jay Johnstone) the edge over ’77 (Richie Hebner, Ted Sizemore, Johnstone/Bake McBride) The pitching staffs were roughly the same, though Jim Lonborg and Jim Kaat were better in ’76.

And, without a title to back it up yet, I’ll still take the 2009 team ahead of 2008: Raul Ibanez over Pat Burrell, Lee over Kyle Kendrick, and the '09 team has the swagger of having won a World Series. Brad Lidge and the bullpen were better last season, but there’s still two months and an incoming Brett Myers to remedy that. This year’s group has the largest division lead in the majors at 7 games, has a better winning percentage than last year (.575 vs. .567.), and gets Lee and possibly Martinez for the rest of the season.

That leaves a Final Four of 1950, 1976, 1980, and 2009 for tomorrow’s entry.

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