We all know the Phillies will be a mess on the field this coming baseball season, but it could be even messier in their clubhouse, and we’re not talking about dirty socks and wet towels on the floor. The Phils have a star player who doesn’t want to be here anymore (pitcher Cole Hamels) and they have former star player that they don’t want any more (Ryan Howard), but can’t get rid of. And they have players who probably don’t belong here (including Domonic Brown), but the Phillies are stuck with them, too.
So, even though this team will probably be dysfunctional between the white lines, it’s what’s going on between the ears of the players that will really make this a long and painful season.
That was magnified this week, when Hamels told a reporter from USA Today that, yeah, he wants to desert the sinking ship that will be moored in South Philadelphia this season. Hamels wasn’t nasty about it, but his message was clear — he wants to play for a contender and the Phillies won’t be a contender for a long time to come, if then. Of course, we don’t feel sorry for somebody who will earn gazillions of dollars for working a couple of hours every five days, but Hamels’ plea for freedom to a national publication had to get the Phillies’ attention, and that includes the front office and the players who will depend on Hamels’ left arm to give them at least a chance to win an occasional game.
The Phils’ other pitching ace, Cliff Lee, would also like to get the heck out of here, but first he has to prove he’s healthy again after pitching in only 13 games last year before being shut down with an elbow injury. Lee signed with the Phillies back in 2011 to complete what was thought to be a pitching staff for the ages, joining Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt in a dream rotation. Now, just four years later, Halladay and Oswalt are out of baseball, Lee is trying to come back from a serious injury and hopes to be dealt to a contender, and Hamels wants to bail out as soon as possible, too.
But at least Hamels is a problem that can be solved as soon as the Phillies find some team with which they can work a trade. It won’t be easy, because the Phils will ask for a lot in return, but it is doable. However, getting rid of Howard and/or Chase Utley will be a lot more difficult because, unlike Hamels, their best days are well behind them and they’re never coming back. Neither is an elite player anymore, even though they have elite contracts, and not only are they costing the Phils a lot of money, they’re also blocking the progress of younger players in the organization.
Both Utley and Howard have struggled the last few seasons with their performances and their health, but each year the Phillies and their fans fooled themselves into believing that somehow they would find the fountain of youth and regain their All-Star forms. Well, nobody is living in la-la land anymore. Nobody expects more than mediocrity from two players who helped the Phillies win so many games and division titles.
So, every day Utley and especially Howard report to work, they’ll do so knowing that their bosses would prefer that they were someplace else. The same holds true for reliever Jonathan Papelbon, whom the Phillies are also trying to trade, but at least Papelbon still has value after coming off a very good season in 2014, when he had an ERA of 2.04 and saved 39 games for a team that won only 73.
Then there is Brown, who was supposed to be a star by now. For years, he was the Phillies’ prized prospect, but those days are long gone. Brown keeps getting chances to shine at the big-league level and he keeps falling down, with the exception of a month and a half in 2013 when he played well enough to earn an All-Star berth. He batted .235 with just 10 home runs last season, his third in the big leagues, and he looked pretty much clueless the entire time. No matter how nicely the Phillies talk about Brown and his still-unfulfilled potential, everyone knows he’s been a major disappointment and nobody really expects him to magically become the great player he was supposed to be.
Add it all together and the Phillies’ clubhouse isn’t exactly a jolly place to hang out, because the closeness and the camaraderie that marked this team in their glory days is no longer there. Actually, it wasn’t there last year, as manager Ryne Sandberg confessed in a recent interview with Hal Bodley of MLB.com.
“I didn’t think we had a good clubhouse last year,’’ Sandberg said. “I don’t think it was conducive to winning. The team coming together and jelling as a group last year — we came up a little short on that end. It’s something that can be handled differently with some different strategies this year.’’
Different strategies, maybe, but for the most part it will be the same players, even though some don’t want to be here, some aren’t wanted here and some don’t deserve to be here. So, get ready for the 2015 Phillies because, ready or not, here they come.