Ryne Sandberg spent six years slumming it in the minors ... for this?
The Philadelphia Phillies looked like a great job on paper. There was the veteran core that won the 2008 World Series, a rotation fronted by Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and a go-for-it mentality that would lead them to sign A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $16 million contract in spring training.
The payroll pushed $160 million in a big market that produced 257 consecutive sellouts at Citizens Bank Park between 2009 and 2012. The franchise’s business plan landed a 25-year, $2.5 billion megadeal with Comcast SportsNet over the winter.
But these Phillies look more like the 2010 Cubs, when Ryno managed Triple-A Iowa and got passed over after Lou Piniella’s abrupt retirement, Mike Quade’s hot streak and another round of Joe Girardi rumors.
There’s a general manager on the hot seat (Ruben Amaro Jr.), with big-money players in decline (Ryan Howard) and big personalities testing the limits (Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon). As an aging nucleus sees its window closing, there are rumblings about a summer sell-off to restock a farm system that’s not generating enough impact players.
That’s the backdrop for Friday night in South Philly, where two of the National League’s worst teams will begin a three-game series that’s more about survival and process than settling old scores.
Just listen to Larry Bowa, Sandberg’s bench coach, airing out the Phillies last week on 97.5 The Fanatic.
“You have players here in the big leagues who aren’t playing like big leaguers,” Bowa told the Philadelphia radio station. “I understand it’s a long season, and there are periods of time when I played and things went bad. But we’re going into June. And there are some players right now who need to pick it up. There’s no question about that.”
Hamels began the season on the disabled list, and Lee’s there now with a left elbow strain. Getting Lee healthy could mean contenders will have an alternative to the Jeff Samardzija sweepstakes.
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Bowa called out Domonic Brown (.575 OPS), the young outfielder the Cubs were once rumored to be asking about while shopping Alfonso Soriano. Bowa pointed out Brown’s splits last year — 23 of his 27 homers came before the All-Star break — and wondered why anyone struggling so much would have such an “upbeat” attitude.
“I don’t know how he does that, because if it were me, I’d be going nuts right now,” Bowa told The Fanatic. “The big thing you got to be concerned about is take away a five-week period — maybe six — (from) the equation (last year) and the numbers aren’t very good. He did most of his damage in those five or six weeks. He made the All-Star team. In fairness to him, he’s hit some balls hard lately, but he’s not playing the way that he’s capable of playing. I just think there’s more in there than that.
“Ryno’s playing him every game. I just think we’re going to find out one way or another if this guy can play up here. That’s what you have to do. (Ryno) has been pretty patient with him.”
The Phillies went 20-22 after Sandberg replaced Charlie Manuel and took over as interim manager in mid-August, getting the official nod in late September and hoping to become the face of this transition.
The Jim Hendry administration and Theo Epstein’s front office don’t exactly see eye to eye, but neither group thought Sandberg had what it takes to run a big-league team.
That didn’t matter in Philadelphia, where old friend Dallas Green works in the front office as a senior advisor. As Sandberg’s consigliere, Bowa sees the Phillies doing all the early hitting, extra work and fundamental drills that slowly turned Sandberg into a Hall of Famer.
Sandberg willed himself into iconic status at Wrigley Field, going from Philadelphia’s 20th-round pick in 1978 to getting traded with Bowa in 1982 to becoming a 10-time All Star with nine Gold Gloves. But Ryno can’t anchor the lineup or make plays anymore.
“A lot of this has to do with instinct,” Bowa said. “If you don’t have good baseball instincts, you can’t teach instincts. If you don’t have it by the time you get to the big leagues, you’re not going to get it. I don’t care how much you practice.
“And there are some people right now showing they don’t have the baseball instincts that maybe we thought they had.”
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The bills always come due, as the Cubs found out trying to win one for the Tribune Tower before ultimately selling to the Ricketts family.
Maybe the Phillies, who just swept the San Diego Padres, can get hot and make another run this summer, squeezing the last drops out of what’s left from the group that won five consecutive division titles between 2007 and 2011.
But this could also be a 28-36 team stuck in no man’s land.
“It’s not like we got a lot of options right now,” Bowa said. “These guys have big-league uniforms on, and they have to start playing better baseball.”