Simile Saturday: Avatar Edition

The Philadelphia Phillies are like the Fire Nation

Earlier this week, the estimable Rany Jazayerli caused a stir on Grantland when he had the temerity to suggest that the Phillies’ current dominance might not be permanently sustainable:

“Philadelphia’s hitters are getting old all at once. In 2007, when this batch of Phillies first made the playoffs, the average age3 of the offense was 28.8 years old. Three years later, the average age of the Phillies’ offense was … exactly three years older. At 31.8 years old, the 2010 Phillies had one of the 10 oldest lineups in NL history. This year, their hitters are just a tick younger — 31.5. Only a handful of teams in history have fielded an offense this old in back-to-back seasons, and almost all of them paid a price….

“Throw in the millions guaranteed to Halladay and Lee and even Blanton, and the Phillies already have $113 million tied up for next year. That number doesn’t include what Hamels, in his final year before free agency, will earn. It also doesn’t count Jimmy Rollins, who will also be a free agent after the season. The Phillies will have to decide between re-signing their then-33-year-old shortstop to a long-term deal and trying to find a replacement among a weak free-agent class.

“Which brings up another problem brewing in Philadelphia: The team’s farm system, having been used so many times to trade prospects for star players, is just about tapped.”

Rany goes on to describe the fall-offs suffered by various franchises who tried to win old, including the NL Champion 1983 Phillies.  You will be surprised to know that Phillies fans were less than pleased with this assessment.  While Grantland itself doesn’t allow comments (a truly ridiculous thing, if you ask me), there was a substantial reaction on Facebook, Twitter, and on HardballTalk, where Craig Calcaterra generated 310 comments in response.  Among my favorites:

From “Halladaysbiceps”, a frequent commenter at HBT who used to spell his username “Halladaysbicepts”:

“I’m getting tired of the articles and Sabermaticians that post on this site. The articles on this site are anti-Phillies all the way and the Sabermaticians are like some religious cult. Instead of giving the Phillies it’s due and posting articles on the site that list their accomplishments, you post articles that either denegrate them or the organization. I just don’t understand why this is the case. It’s the Sean Forman’s and Rany’s of the world that don’t enjoy baseball unless they quantify every aspect. That’s sad….

Stick to treating skin disease, moron, and keep watching the Phillies win division after division while your puke Royals continue to stink up the American League.”

From another frequent commenter Chris Fiorentino:

“I have a request for all the national writers and others who obviously either hate the Phillies, are jealous of their success this year, or both…can you at least let them win a frigging World Series before you already start talking about their decline from the top…the top of what? Best record in baseball by 4 games on August 30th? Geeze.”

From Grantland’s Facebook page, one young man writes the article was, “Overly negative, inaccurate and boring article that was hard to get through. The stuff about Howard, who is leading the league in RBI again, was just overkill and dumb.”  Another writes, “Jazayerli is probably the kind of person who sees a guy walking down the street with a super model and starts complaining that her boobs will be sagging in 5 years.”  And one woman posits that, “He has not yet recovered from the 1980 World Series, that’s all.”

None of these responses is particularly surprising; this is the Internet, after all.  What most Phillies fans seem to be universal in, however, is in their assurance that the band will keep playing forever.  They’re wrong.

My son and I have been working our way through the old Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, in which a young boy, Aang, who is learning to control all of the elements (air, water, earth, and fire) must try to stop a nation of people who can control fire from taking over the world.  It’s a beautiful and surprisingly complex story that takes place over the course of three seasons and 60 episodes that’s fun for kids, while also not being a waste of time for adults.

In this world, 100 years ago the Fire Nation used the power of a comet to augment their abilities and launch an offensive that almost managed to topple the whole world.  As the Avatar returns to the world, so too does the comet, whose power they hope to harness once again to obliterate the remaining opposition.  The Fire Nation hopes to rule the world forever, and to purge the world of their rivals.  It’s a cartoony plan, but also horrifying.  They’re essentially intent on bringing forth a Thousand-Year Reich of fire.    The problem, of course, is that nothing lasts forever, especially when a superpowered 10 year old is training specifically to defeat you.  In the end, Aang and his friends are able to beat the Fire Nation and restore balance to the world.

And that’s what’s going to happen again in the National League.  The Phillies, while they do have terrific financial resources, don’t have the kind of income that can go toe-to-toe long-term with the Red Sox and Yankees to compete at acquiring the best free agent and amateur talent.  They have traded their #2 and #3 prospects.  Other big prospects, like Brody Colvin and Sebastian Valle, have scuffled.  The Phillies don’t have position players in their minor leagues that can take over for Jimmy Rollins or Placido Polanco, should they leave and/or stumble with age, and pitching prospects (and the Phillies do have a couple good ones) are notoriously fickle.  They didn’t have a first round pick this year, thanks to signing Cliff Lee, forfeiting an important means of replenishing their system.  This is likely to become a trend as they seek to replace fading veterans.  They also don’t seem particularly active on the international front.

So unless the Phils have a secret factory somewhere, where they mass-produce prospects, the Phillies would seem to be running out of time.  Meanwhile, the Braves and the Nationals continue to build, the Marlins aren’t entirely without hope, and the Mets are now run by some of the smartest baseball minds around.  The Avatar is coming, and the Phillies don’t have the firepower to him off forever.