The Phillies, The Big Red Machine, and All Time Great Teams

CHRIS PUMMER: It’s much to early to consider the present version of the Phillies among baseball’s all-time great teams, but as an early favorite to win their third straight NL pennant, they’re maybe elbowing their way into the discussion.

But even if the Phillies put a second title on the shelf — a pretty big assumption to be making in February — I think they still fall short of maybe the best National League dynasty of the last 50 years, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.

The Reds routinely won close to 100 games each season from 1970-1979, averaging more than 95 wins each year during that run (while also winning 89 the year before and after, too). That stretch included six division titles, four NL pennants and two World Series titles, and a 98-win season where the Reds didn’t qualify for the playoffs.

During the Phillies’ current three-year stretch of qualifying for the playoffs, they’ve won 89, 92 and 93 games with two pennants and one title.

That’s just not very impressive, especially when you consider how weak the NL has been lately.

Even if we go back to playing make-believe, and pretend the Phillies win 108 games (the most the Reds of the 70s ever won) and roll to another title this upcoming season, they’re still only at the level of regular-season dominance the Machine demonstrated. The difference still being the Reds did it for a decade and the Phillies doing it only four years.

Even if you give the Phillies extra credit for winning an extra playoff round, you can’t do that without admitting they are also a byproduct of a three-division-plus-wildcard environment.

The Phillies have won three NL East titles with win-totals that wouldn’t have earned them three straight playoff appearances in the 70s.

Three straight pennants and two titles would be impressive if the Phillies could pull it off. But it would probably still leave them plenty short of matching the Big Red Machine’s legacy.

The Philadelphia Phillies have the opportunity this year to become the first National League Team to win three straight pennants since the St. Louis Cardinals accomplished this feat from 1942-1944.  And I’m not saying the Cardinals were necessarily in cahoots with the Axis Powers but they benefited perhaps more than anybody from the draft that sent so many players to fight in a foreign land . . . except I guess all those people who were liberated from fascism.

Anyway, this week’s discussion is either a referendum on that feat or an evaluation of where the Phillies rank at this juncture in a discussion on all-time great teams.  My colleagues and I are at a consensus on the fact that here, at the dawn of another spring training, it is just a shade too early to speak in such terms.  For all we know, this could be the year that the New York Mets finally get it together and. . . nah, I’m kidding.  I couldn’t keep that up with a straight face.

The Phillies really do look like the class of the National League once again.  But in reality, a pennant alone would not yet place the Phillies in the pantheon of dynasties.  It would just make them the answer to a nice trivia question.

All of that said, this is almost certainly the best Phillies team ever fielded.  In the three years since its core of Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley reached peak maturity, it has already amassed something comparable to the legacy of Mike Schmidt’s late 70s and early 80s club.  With two pennants and one World Series title to each team, the moustache-and-sideburn Phillies only have the edge on Division titles with 5 to 3.

Of course, the 35th best club in Yankees history probably competes pretty well with most Phillie rosters of the past.  But in reality, the current Phillies are also not particularly far away from being considered as among the best teams in NL history.  It is with this contention that I may have ignited a little bit of a controversy with my colleagues during this week’s debate.  To my perspective, the threshold for all-time great teams begins with two World Series victories.  It is thus that I suggested that the Phillies, with a World Series victory this year, would rank in close company with the middle of the pack where all-time great teams are concerned.  To my view, this included such teams as the Yankees of Bronx Zoo infamy who won titles in ‘77 and ‘78, and the Big Red Machine, which ruled the National League from 1970 to 1976, with back to back titles in ‘75 and ‘76.

Chris in particular objected to the idea that these Cincinnati Reds were in any capacity middle of the pack.  And this is more than fair.  The team’s roster includes three Hall of Famers (Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan & Tony Perez); four if you count Pete Rose, which you really should.  And as Chris points out, the Reds’ regular season records generally dwarf those of the Phillies to this point.

However, several things do bear mentioning.  First and foremost, we have the benefit of hindsight where the Reds are concerned.  Quite certainly, as a team which won 95, 99 and 98 regular season games without advancing to the playoffs from ’72 to ‘74, the Cincinnati Reds may well have been regarded as underachieving also-rans just on the cusp of their greatest accomplishments.  At the same place in their progress, the Philadelphia Phillies have only won 89, 92 and 93 regular season games, and yet, have thrice appeared in the playoffs, and twice appeared in the World Series.

This does not yet make the Phillies comparable to the Reds.  They do need another World Series victory, an accomplishment which is reasonably within reach for the National League’s most talented squad.  But with such a victory, the Phillies would be entitled to think of themselves as one of the great National League teams.  And perhaps with 35 years of hindsight, the list of accomplishments for this Phillies team will entitle us to think of it as a dynasty of legendary proportions.

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