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Phillies With Cliff Lee Look Remarkably Like Late '90s Braves

There's a possible silver lining for Braves' fans here.

First, let's go back to 1995.  The Braves' efforts culminated in their only championship during the run, with a masterful performance from Tom Glavine sealing the victory.  They had Hall of Fame talents in the rotation and they had money to spend on assets.  They were looking to remain competitive for several years.  Greg Maddux was signed to a long term deal at a fairly reasonable price for a man of his talents-in an interesting parallel, he, like Cliff Lee, was offered more money by the Yankees but chose to go elsewhere. Glavine and Smoltz had been extended for several years as well.

Those Braves had a reputation for their farm system and home grown talents, which makes you think they were frugal with their spending.  In reality, the Braves were a top spender rivaling the Yankees while they made their best runs.  Even though Maddux and Glavine were signed below market value, they were still serving very large contracts, and the Braves weren't afraid to pay big money to guys like Fred McGriff, Marquis Grissom, later Andres Galarraga, even guys like Jeff Blauser were making impressive sums for the times.  Today, those values are just tiny in comparison-Maddux was making less than $7 million per year-but they were significant contracts in that market.

Over the next several years, the Braves were desperate to add another World Series banner to display in their fresh new ballpark.  That they ultimately failed is a testament both to the difficulty of winning a championship and the randomness of the MLB playoffs-how else does Jim Leyritz becoming a World Series hero and one of the most hated names in Atlanta folklore?  Year after year we had new incoming talents like Grissom, Lofton, Brian Jordan, Galarraga as the Braves pushed hard for that elusive second title.

Right now there are some interesting parallels.  Their spending has ballooned since 2007, as they've been adding pieces in order to make their solid core of players into a true championship team.  There's some obvious comparisons to make-Roy Halladay is, like Maddux, making a ton of money, but still probably less than his market value, and is probably a Hall of Fame lock, and also like Maddux, he's signed long term.  They've added a second ace, much as Glavine was to Maddux in the 90s, with two other excellent pitchers to fill out their rotation.  Those four look extremely comparable to what the Braves had from 1997-1998, which is considered the gold standard of pitching rotations in baseball history.

While the personnel is similar, the organizational similarities are more ringing.  The trade for Roy Oswalt last year looks very similar to the Denny Neagle addition in 1996.  Both teams were strong enough to make the playoffs without, but they felt the need to add one more piece in order to improve their playoff chances.  And both were short-lived additions-I don't expect Oswalt to stick around after 2010.  The Braves extended a hometown favorite John Smoltz after 1997 in what might have been an ill-advised move, as he had elbow problems which would ultimately require multiple DL stints and then Tommy John surgery, while the Phillies extended the popular Ryan Howard in what has been widely criticized as overpaying without cause.  And both organizations returned to the World Series following their victories to lose to the Yankees....both by a 4 games to 2 margin, in fact.

One thing to note about the Braves of the late 90s is that they weren't following a very fiscally responsible model.  John Schuerholz admits this himself in his book.  From '96 up until the early 2000s, they were constantly operating the red, by seven and sometimes even eight figures.  The baseball side of operations was countering all good business sense, thinking that if they could just claim one more championship they would get themselves over the top and recoup their losses.  They continued adding pieces until the gradual decline of attendance and evolving financial structure of major league baseball forced them to alter their model.

It's very easy to project this quality onto the Phillies, as they are exceeding what was widely believed to be the upper limit of their payroll by as much as $20 million for 2011.  They have a ton of payroll expended on a small number of players-$20 million for Howard and Halladay, $24 for Cliff Lee, over $15 for both Utley and Oswalt, $11.5 for Lidge and Ibanez.  While winning championships is a great way to boost your organizational cashflow-just ask the Yankees-spending and hoping like the late 90s Braves leads to some inevitable problems.  The big tipping point for Atlanta was when they failed to retain Tom Glavine as he hit free agency after 2002.

This is where we get toward what might be good news for Braves' fans.  While it's been commented that the Phillies might go on a Braves-like run, they more resemble Atlanta's waning years.  What happened to the Braves is that they were forced to cut payroll (in effect-they just stopped increasing their payroll while payrolls around the league were sky-rocketing around them) as Braves fans gradually lost interest in the playoff disappointments.  The Phillies have already had consecutive disappointments in the playoffs, failing to reach the World Series last year despite being heavy favorites in the NL.  The Phillies will have a great team in 2011, but there will be plenty of really strong teams to contend with-the reigning World Series champion Giants, for one, and the Braves themselves look very strong.  With some very large long-term payroll commitments to Lee, Halladay, and Howard, plus the need to make a decision on Jimmy Rollins in 2012, the Phillies HAVE to keep fan interest high in order maintain their large payroll obligations. (It's worth pointing out that, like the Braves with Chipper Jones, the Phillies managed to lock up their star player Chase Utley at an extremely reasonable deal, as he's making $15 million a season through 2013).  Another near-miss in 2011 could put the Phillies in a situation similar to the Braves at the beginning of the 2000s.

Here's where comparisons end.  Once the Braves had to scale back on payroll, they had a great farm system to fall back upon.  They were able to continue churning out cheap, good young players like Andruw Jones, Kevin Millwood, Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles, Brian McCann, and Adam LaRoche, (even one year wonders like Damion Moss, Jeff Francoeur, and Horacio Ramirez).  They had one of the best farm systems in the game every single year and continued to receive dividends from it, even if it was by acquiring JD Drew and Eli Marrero or Tim Hudson for their prospects. It's not that the Phillies have a poor farm system right now-it's actually in the upper half of the league.  Dominic Brown, at least, should fill in pretty well for the next several years for them.  They do not, however, have a farm system as rife as the Braves during their heyday.  One other thing the current Phillies can't replicate from the waning years of the Braves' run is the relative lack of competition..  The second place team in the NL East during that span averaged fewer than 87 wins.

Not only that, none of the Braves' rivals at the time were churning out very much young talent.  The Mets were horrible, the Expos were dying as an entity, and the Marlins had one good year before hosting a fire sale.  The Phillies were the only really solid rival during that stretch.  What the current Phillies are facing is a Braves team that's both young and extremely balanced, with a ripe farm system that should graduate several good players over the next four years, and are coming off a 91 win season despite several tough injuries.  There are also the Mets, who, despite some flaws, have impressive talents on their roster and a greater willingness to spend than they did ten years ago.  There are too many obstacles to overcome for the Phillies to expect sustained success like the Braves of the 90s.  And this is good news for Braves fans who are eagerly eying 2012 and beyond with their assortment of young talent.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.