When it comes to talking about dynasty's in baseball, you don't have to look outside of the NL East to find a rather impressive example. From 1991 through 2005, the Atlanta Braves were simply just assumed to be the Eastern Division Champions. In those 15 seasons, they collected 14 division titles - including 11 in a row from 1995 through the end of the streak - five National League titles and one World Series victory. The only season that they didn't finish in the post-season was 1994, the year that there was no post-season thanks to a strike, which technically gave them 14 straight division titles. Over those 15 seasons, they posted a .601 winning percentage (1431-949).
It's interesting to look at their dynasty and consider that in the five seasons prior to their reign, the Braves finished no better than fifth in the division and that was in just one of the five years. From 1986 to 1990, the Braves had a winning percentage of just .402 (323-481). It's also interesting to consider that the first three seasons of their reign were done under the old two division system, where the Atlanta Braves were in the NL West, along with the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Astros and Reds.
So, just how did the Braves turn things around and become the dominant team in the National League? And, can the Phillies follow the same path to stake their claim on a dynasty? We went to Bill Shanks, author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team and publisher of TheBravesShow.com, to find out how the Braves were built and what made them tick. Shanks had some insights on just what the Braves did to insure that they would be good and stay good.
Shanks: When it became obvious to everyone who followed baseball that the Atlanta Braves had created a special starting rotation in the 1990s, the Braves did a smart thing. They made certain those pitchers (Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux) were re-signed for the long-term. There was never a danger (at least until the ownership structure changed earlier in this decade) of those pitchers leaving. They also re-signed players like Jeff Blauser and David Justice, two position players important to the lineup and the clubhouse. That continuity was crucial in the success of the team, particularly in the 1990s.
In 1991, Glavine was 24 and Smoltz was 25. Maddux didn't join Atlanta until 1993 at the age of 27. Steve Avery was also a big part of that rotation in the early 90s, but he would run into injury problems in '94 and never really return to form. The 2008 Phillies featured Cole Hamels (24) and Brett Myers (27) at the top of their rotation. Young Kyle Kendrick (23) couldn't hold up the role of Avery very well and found himself out of the rotation by the end of the season. The Braves were able to keep Glavine, who they drafted in 1984, with the club through the 2002 season before he headed to the New York Mets as a free agent. Smoltz, who had been drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1985, came to Atlanta in a trade for Doyle Alexander in August of 1987 and the Braves have kept him in their organization ever since.
Both Myers and Hamels were drafted by the Phillies. In 2006, both the Mets and Phillies finished ahead of Atlanta to break their string of division titles. The Phillies responded with a three-year deal for Myers. So far, Hamels hasn't gotten his long-term deal, although this will be the winter that the big money rolls his way, either through arbitration or by signing a long-term deal with the Phillies. For their part, the Phillies are interested in getting a long-term deal done that would keep Hamels in town at least through the 2013 season, asking him to give up arbitration and one year of free agency eligibility. The Phillies also have some young starters coming through the system - mainly, Carlos Carrasco and J.A. Happ, who are the closest to major league ready - and the Phillies need to insure that Hamels, Myers and the young pitchers coming along stay in the organization for at least the better part of their careers. The Phillies also guaranteed that closer Brad Lidge won't go anywhere until at least after the 2012 season when they signed him to a three-year extension last July.
As for signing position players, the Phillies have done very well in that department. Jimmy Rollins is signed through 2010 with an option for 2011 and Chase Utley is inked through 2013. Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard are both under team control through the 2011 season and both could be signed to long-term deals that would keep them in town even longer.
You can argue about what the potential loss of Pat Burrell and Jamie Moyer would do to the clubhouse in Philadelphia. That part of the Braves success often goes unnoticed, but it deserves mentioning, as Shanks alluded to in the first part of his synopsis on the Braves dynasty.
One area where the Braves and Phillies would appear very similar in having a well developed farm system.
Shanks: The Braves would sign an occasional free agent (Maddux in 1993, Andres Galarraga in 1998, and Brian Jordan in 1999) but the success was mainly due to the farm system. It created prospects whose value would be turned into trades for players that would help when needed. Whether those prospects panned out or not, they had value to other teams that had veteran players available. If there had been a dip in the ability to produce talent, those trades for players like Fred McGriff and Mike Devereaux and Denny Neagle would not have been able to be made.
So far, the Phillies have chosen to keep most of their young players who come up through the system, but that practice has started to shift. The Phillies used Michael Bourn and Mike Costanzo to get Brad Lidge from the Astros last winter and turned Adrian Cardenas and Michael Spencer into Joe Blanton during the 2008 season. The Phillies had also initially acquired Jamie Moyer in a deal with the Mariners for two prospects, Andrew Barb and Andrew Baldwin, who have yet to pay dividends for Seattle. In fact, Barb didn't pitch in 2008, while Baldwin was average at best in Triple-A ball last season. While some of the prospects still coming through the system may well wind up being a big part of the Phillies roster, some are likely to bring other pieces of a winning puzzle to Philadelphia. Right now, the Phillies are considering making a move for Jermaine Dye (Chicago White Sox) and would use prospects to make such a deal work.
As for the occasional free agent, the Phillies have added pieces like Pedro Feliz and Geoff Jenkins. While neither has produced as the Phillies had hoped that they would, both have played at least some role in the Phillies success. Feliz, whose offense dropped, has played a near flawless defense at third base for the Phillies. Jenkins came through with a key hit in the 2008 post-season against his old friends in Milwaukee. The Phillies are considering at least a couple of free agents this winter and they're likely to have a bigger impact on the club. Names like Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett have been bounced around Philadelphia.
When you look at the final analysis from Shanks, the Phillies appear to be doing pretty well in looking to follow the example set by the Atlanta Braves.
Shanks: The Phillies will have to keep its core talent (Howard, Utley, Hamels) together with long-term deals and continue to stress player development so that trades can be made to fill in holes. It's not a point of signing free agents; that's such a secondary tool that needs to be used only when there is a perfect fit. Keeping the organization strong at its base is the key to long-term success.
It's hard to imagine the Phillies not getting a long-term deal done with Hamels and possibly extending Utley before his initial deal runs out in a few years, if he's still putting up big numbers. Howard and the Phillies have had a love/hate relationship and it's possible he would be the weak link when it comes to keeping the kids at home. It's also going to be interesting to see how much the loss of Mike Arbuckle will hurt the Phillies farm system. It definitely deserves noting that Arbuckle helped find some of the young prospects that Atlanta produced during their tenure atop the National League. For now, the Phillies are strong at their base, but that strength can crumble quickly if it's not guarded dearly.