The Philadelphia Phillies are quickly becoming a laughing-stock. Not by traditional standards; or, at least not yet. But by the standard of modern day, successful, winning front offices (read: maximizing assets), the Phillies are in the dark ages.
We could rehash each of general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr.’s greatest mishaps in detail, but this piece will largely focus on how Amaro’s recent past gives us more than a hint of how the 2013 trade deadline will play out in the City of Brotherly Love.
A couple of the larger mishaps made by the Phillies in recent years: First, Ryan Howard’s 5-year, $125 million extension signed in April of 2010. Howard’s nearly four years since signing the deal have easily been the worst four years of his career — a bad deal at the time that looks even worse now. Secondly, Jonathan Papelbon’s 4-year, $50 million deal before the 2012 season. A declining pitcher at an overrated position with obviously plummeting trade value.
So where do they go from here? Well, that’s the issue. Does anyone really see the Phillies selling? I certainly don’t. Right or wrong, they won’t be conceding anything. Which, of course, is a mistake — Philadelphia is sitting in third place in the N.L. East, 11 games back of Atlanta with a 49-56 record and a -78 run differential. In other words, they’ll be lucky to finish ahead of the Mets (-33 run differential).
What should they sell? For starters, you can’t tell me that a there isn’t a contending front office that wouldn’t love to acquire Veteran Hitter Michael Young. Of course, Young is currently hitting just .277/.342/.402 and playing a horrid third base, but a team like the Yankees or the Indians that has likely-futile dreams of making the post-season might pony something up for him. Really, receiving anything in return for Young would be wonderful.
Young is an impending free agent, so there is no excuse for a non-contender like the Phillies to not acquire a low or mid-level prospect and maximize the “asset” that is an aging Michael Young. Despite the reality of his poor performance, there are no shortage of teams that like to acquire serviceable, veteran hitters who have “been there before”. It will absolutely be a waste if Young is not moved soon.
While Young not being moved would be an embarrassing blunder (albeit of marginal proportions, if that makes any sense), the Phillies could, and should, take a more calculated leap. Cliff Lee is still owed $25 million in each of the next two seasons before he has a club option for $27.5 million in 2016, plus the $9+ million still owed in 2013. He will turn 35 years old before the end of the season. And he’s pitching great — 10-4 with a 3.05 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP over 144 2/3 innings thus far.
Realistically, the Phillies will not be contending again in the near future (Baseball America ranks the Phillies’ organizational talent as #24). This is a) exactly why a Lee trade makes a ton of sense and b) why it probably won’t happen. The Phillies and Amaro are not likely to concede this season, much less the next two-plus seasons. It just isn’t their style.
Of course, they could have avoided this issue by not mis-allocating their assets in the first place. However, the only way to restock a mostly barren farm system is by trading legitimate MLB-caliber players like Lee. Sure, Lee’s inevitable decline may not be all that steep, but does a middling, potentially cellar-dwelling team like the Phillies want to be paying $25 million per season for an aging ace?
In theory, the Phillies have another two-plus seasons to move Lee, but what if he gets hurt? What if his decline begins in the coming weeks, or early in 2014? His trade value is high right now, and even if Philadelphia has to pick up some cash in the deal, they should absolutely pull the trigger.
What other moves can Amaro make? Chase Utley is a possibility, as an impending free agent. He’s playing pretty well this year, his age-34 season, hitting .274/.337/.498 with 13 home runs, and although aging and not the defender he once was, he could certainly help a number of contenders in some capacity.
What about Papelbon? He’s pitching well, with a 2.21 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 20 saves. So well, in fact, that his overall numbers are as good or better than he’s pitched since 2009 with Boston. His strikeout rate has plummeted, dropping from 11.8 K/9 innings last season to 8 K/9 this year, so that may deter some teams. More likely, however, the stubborn Amaro won’t be moving his closer.
So what will the Phillies ultimately do? My prediction: nothing. Sure, there have been some rumors about the Phillies moving Lee, but I’m not sure they can bring themselves to pull the trigger. Young? Can’t see Amaro parting with a Veteran Hitter like him, even if he’s useless to a non-contender. Papelbon? He won’t admit a mistake, even when the probable return on a solid closer is measurable and probably somewhat significant.
Here’s to the Phillies standing pat and refusing to try and rebuild. They won’t admit that they need a rebuild, which will only draw out the process and potentially throw the club back into the doldrums of the mid-1990′s through the early 2000′s, when Philadelphia bounced around the middle and lower parts of their division.
Believe it or not, Mr. Amaro, this is the last thing your fans want. A couple of years of 90 to 100 losses are no fun, but they just may be a necessary evil. Just ask Washington, or teams that will be on the rise in the coming years, like Minnesota, the Chicago Cubs, and eventually Houston.
You just may have to be bad for a short time in order to be good for a long time. If you refuse to give up your only trade chips, however, then you will find out the hard way. And long, cyclical stretches of poor play does not always guarantee a fruitful and happy ending. Just ask the Kansas City Royals.