A lot of the Phillies’ offseason discussion has boiled down to one question: how does Player X compare to Player Y, whom he is replacing? It is a valid and particularly useful tool when projecting wins and predicting improvement for a club. The Phillies have a particularly strong canon of historically popular players that most of the city’s fans rally around. This canon definitively includes, but is not limited to, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Richie Ashburn, and Robin Roberts and may soon make room for Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.
There are a few articles out there about how teams fared once their golden geese proverbially went South. Most teams, like the Phillies and Schmidt, struggled to find even league-average play at times to replace their superstar, even as their superstar is declining. The Phillies mixed and matched Charlie Hayes and Steve Jeltz after Schmidt retired after 172 plate appearances into 1989 before stumbling upon Dave Hollins in that offseason’s Rule 5 draft to shore up the Hot Corner for a sizable chunk of the next five seasons.
What I have not seen a whole lot of are a lot of words written about who these superstars replaced. (Note: Being a baseball reading junkie, please correct me if I am wrong because I would love to read more). Yes, the Lou Gehrig for Wally Pipp change is well documented and Mickey Mantle famously took the reigns in center field at Yankee Stadium from Joe DiMaggio after sharing time there in 1951, but there is little else, particularly about our favorite red pin-striped ballplayers.
The Phillies have had a few of these type of replacements, however. For the purposes of this series, I will focus on a Phillie who is a popular, franchise-level player and play with the what-ifs. Because of the historic futility of the franchise, however, there will not be a giant list of “Gehrig for Pipp” level changes, but I will start the series off today with one: Schmidt replaces Don Money at third base.
Our hero, in this case, needs no introduction. The 110.6 fWAR as a Phillies’ third baseman was 68 more than his closest competitor, Dick Allen and is the highest among players playing third base full-time. Schmidt’s WAR numbers, which place him 24th All-Time at Baseball Reference and 19th All-Time at FanGraphs among hitters, were aided by both his incredible bat but by his ridiculously great glove at third base. According to FanGraphs, Schmidt saved the Phillies 127 runs in exactly 2,400 games at third base, good enough for ninth all-time among third baseman. Schmidt was a three-time MVP, twelve-time All-Star, nine-time Gold Glove winner, and a World Series MVP in what was the Phillies’ first World Series championship.
Entering 1973, the Phillies were in search of answers. Lots of them. After trading Rick Wise for Steve Carlton, who accounted for over 46% of the 1972 clubs wins, the club went 59-97. With the season lost, the Phillies began to play Schmidt, wearing number 22, at third for the remainder of the ’72 campaign on September 12 against the Mets. Schmidt would go 1-3, striking out twice. The 22-year old Schmidt would strike out in 15 of 34 at-bats in ’72; he would hit .196/.324/.373 in 1973 with 18 HRs and 136 Ks in his first full season at third base with the club. While his .177 ISO put him firmly in the upper-half of third base power hitters, his defensive prowess was not yet recognized and his low average and high strikeout totals became an eyesore in a baseball world not yet ready for Sabermetrics.
Technically, Larry Bowa was the first to replace Money, but through the ’72 season, Bowa was found to be a better fit at shortstop and Money re-assumed his duties at third.
Money’s 1972 season was his age 25 year and he was coming off a career-low triple-slash of .222/.278/.343 versus a career high 15 home runs in the brand-new Veterans Stadium. By the end of 1972, Money was splitting time with Schmidt at third base, starting some games and finishing others as a defensive replacement. In his second-to-last start with the Phils, Money would hit two home runs in Chicago before being replaced in the fifth by Schmidt in support of Carlton’s 27th victory.
Like Schmidt, Money had a lot of value in his glove. In a little over four seasons with the Phillies, Money saved the club a net 11 runs per FanGraphs and, by that measure, was tied for tenth best fielding third baseman between 1968 and 1972, a group that includes Brooks Robinson, Graig Nettles, and Clete Boyer. And per FanGraphs, Money’s total WAR was good enough to rank him 23rd among 83 third baseman, a list that is unfortunately but understandably littered with folks who played both corner infield spots.
Money, in his age 26 season, bounced back, posted a 2.9 WAR, and posted a career-best line of .284/.347/.401 with 11 HRs and a career-high 22 steals. Money did, however, have a -21 run defensive contribution, getting dinged for 11 runs just a season after contributing 10 surplus defensive runs for the Phillies. Money became a four-time All-Star with Milwaukee, three times at third base and once at first base and played with the Brewers until his retirement in 1983. From 1973-1983, Money was the 61st most productive Major Leaguer per WAR. Schmidt, as mentioned earlier, would go on to become among the greatest, if not the consensus greatest third basemen of all time. In that same time period, Schmidt led all of Major League baseball in WAR, was third in runs saved in the field among all Major Leaguers, led the Majors in home runs, and trailed only Willie Stargell in slugging.
How Hard Was The Decision to Replace the Incumbent?
Historically, Money’s stat lines rank him as the 505th best hitter of all-time according to Baseball Reference, right in front of Baby Doll Jacobson. While that doesn’t scream “greatness”, there are a few indicators that Money was, and would likely become, a very good player. Unfortunately, because Money played during perhaps the richest era of fielding third basemen in history (Schmidt, Robinson, Boyer, Buddy Bell, etc.), his very-good-but-not-great fielding would not stick out as much as it would perhaps today. Also, Money walked and struck out at nearly the same clip during the prime years of his career, offering a lot of value by not only walking but increasing his productive outs.
For the 1972 club, anything that was not nailed down, like Bowa or Greg Luzinski, and not named “Steve Carlton” should have been shipped out in box cars. And rightly, it was. The Phillies got great value when they pared Money with Bill Champion and John Vukovich and sent them to Milwaukee Ken Brett, Jim Lonborg, Ken Sanders, and Earl Stevens. Brett went 13-9 with a 3.44 ERA in 1973 and was traded for Dave Cash in the offseason in what proved to be a coup in its own right. Lonborg never found the magic that helped him win the 1967 Cy Young but was a strong number two starter for the team from 1973 until 1978 before quietly fading away in 1979, posting 17 wins in 1974 and 18 in 1976. Sanders was packaged and shipped to Minnesota for an aging Cesar Tovar and Vietnam veteran Stevens was selected by the Expos in that year’s Rule 5 draft.
For a team that needed to turn around any talent they had into future talent, the 1972-73 offseason provided a lot of great opportunity. In the 1973 season, the team improved by 12 wins, but Money outperformed Schmidt in Milwaukee. The initial sting of watching Money have a career year was well worth the the eventual payoff of having the greatest third baseman of all time and the club’s first World Series championship.