Unlike many recent years, when the Fightin’ Phils were “buyers” and that talk centered on who they might acquire, this year it is clear that the team is a seller.
The speculation now revolves around which players, if any, will be dealt away before the trading deadline. It is also possible that some could successfully pass through waivers, and be dealt away in August. A couple more could go in the off-season as well. One thing is certain, the years of contending are over.
From 2001-2011, the Phillies were legitimate playoff contenders nearly every single year. That’s more than a decade of consecutive excellence from a franchise whose history prior to the mid-1970’s was overwhelmingly horrendous. But the players who formed the core of the 2008 World Series champions, the five consecutive N.L. East Division crowns, are pretty much finished now.
Over the last two years, Phils’ fans have slowly, grudgingly come to grips with the reality. The glory of the record-setting 2011 team evaporated short of the goal for that “Four Aces” paced club, thanks mainly to Chris Carpenter, the pitcher who barely out-aced Doc Halladay by 1-0 in an NLDS Game 5 pitching gem for the ages. And when Ryan Howard crumpled to the ground in agony as that game ended, it was more of a watershed moment than any of us could possibly realize at the time.
Howard was the big bopper for those contending clubs. He was the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year and then the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player. From 2006-09 he hit more than 40 homeruns and drove in more than 130 runs every single year. Even through 2010-11, he continued to be a 30+ homer, 100+ rbi threat in the middle of the order. But Ryan Howard is now 35 years old, and while he still has power, he is a shell of the hitter who once terrorized opposition pitching staffs.
All across the diamond, the Phillies have aged. Joining Howard in the 35-year old club are fellow 2000’s heroes Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Carlos Ruiz. A returnee to the organization, Marlon Byrd, is now 36 years old. Newcomer Grady Sizemore is 31 years old and was out of MLB for all of 2012 and 2013 with injuries. John Mayberry Jr is now 30 years old.
On the mound, A.J. Burnett is 37, Cliff Lee is 35, Roberto Hernandez is 33 in the rotation. Cole Hamels is now 30 years old, and Kyle Kendrick turns 30 next month. Jonathan Papelbon is 33, and his perpetually injured erstwhile setup man Mike Adams is now 35.
Being in your 30’s for most of us is still pretty young. I remember my own 30’s as years where I felt and looked pretty much as I had for most of my 20’s. But things are different for a professional athlete. For any athlete at any level, the 30’s are when you begin to lose your effectiveness. It happens slowly for some, rapidly for others, but it is inevitable.
The aging problem is only one problem for the Phillies. Another is that they simply do not have enough young talent coming up from their minor league organization to help ease a transition to a new era of contending, and the younger players in the current lineup have been largely ineffective, to put it mildly.
Domonic Brown is 26 years old. He was supposed to be the key player, the impact bat that would take over in the middle of the lineup by now and keep the team contending. As time passes it becomes more and more clear to anyone who knows anything about this game: Dom Brown is awful at baseball. He is a terrible outfielder, an undisciplined hitter, and repeatedly makes bone-headed plays in the field and on the bases.
I am not totally giving up on centerfielder Ben Revere. He has no arm whatsoever, but he does have speed that could play on a regular basis. He could very well be in the midst of a .290+ hitting, 50 stolen base season. The next 3-4 years will be his prime. With the right players around him, he wouldn’t be a weak link.
Darin Ruf is now 27 years old. He has not been able to take a regular role with the big league club and run with it. He definitely has shown some right-handed pop, but may be a man without a position, not quite good enough for the outfield, and stuck behind the untradeable Howard at 1st base. Even if he did get regular at-bats, he might be nothing more than a poor man’s Pat Burrell type.
Cody Asche is just 24, and he is a generally heady player who makes occasional tremendous plays at 3rd base. But he also has very little power, and is a below-average hitter overall. That, and he is going to have to move eventually, either to 2nd base or the outfield. If he can handle the position defensively, his bat might actually play at 2nd. As an outfielder, his type of offensive production would make for a 4th or 5th guy at best.
Perhaps the one area where the team may turn out to have some young, impact talent is in the bullpen. 23-year old Ken Giles looks like he could be the closer-of-the-future. Jake Diekman (27) and Justin De Fratus (26) seem like they can be effective out of the pen over the next few years. Jonathan Pettibone (23), Ethan Martin (25), and even Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (27) may also be able to provide productive innings there.
Asche is going to have to move due to the looming presence of the Phillies current top hitting prospect, 3rd baseman Maikel Franco. Coming off a tremendous season in 2013, the soon-to-be 22-year old has had a disappointing season with AAA Lehigh Valley. In ideal circumstances, he could probably use another full AAA season to really get himself ready. These are not ideal circumstances, and odds are that he gets rushed into an early call-up.
Among the other top prospects for the team with the most potential impact, shortstop J.P. Crawford, who could be the JRoll heir apparent, is just 19 years old and playing in ‘A’ ball. If not rushed himself, he is probably at least 2-3 years away. Starting pitcher Aaron Nola was just drafted last month out of LSU, and at 21 years old he could reach Philly by 2016. It is hoped that he eventually teams with 22-year old Jesse Biddle in the longterm rotation. Biddle suffered a setback this year, and may also not reach the big club until 2016.
Every other prospect in the Phillies system has major questions to answer, either health-wise or developmentally, before they can even be in a discussion as potential help for the team in the next couple of years. Cesar Hernandez? Roman Quinn? Tommy Joseph? Aaron Altherr? Carlos Tocci? Severino Gonzalez? Will any of these guys be impact major leaguers?
It is possible that in two years, Cole Hamels is fronting a competitive rotation that features some starting pitcher(s) acquired by the team, supplemented by Nola and Biddle emerging for the future. The bullpen could have jelled into a formidable group. But that’s only half the game. In the field, it’s hard to imagine a productive infield with Howard, Utley & Rollins at 37 years of age. Maybe Franco is here playing well, maybe Revere is a solid centerfielder.
Of course, there is the possibility that Hamels may not even be here by then himself. Multiple reports as the 2014 trade deadline approach are saying that the team would deal Hamels away, if they could get 3 top prospects in return. That might actually not be a bad move, but would be completely dependent upon who those prospects were. Hamels is the one elite, in-his-prime piece. If the club deals him, it must receive multiple premier prospects in return, players who will help in the long-term.
There appears to be only one way for the Phillies to get good again in a hurry: spend money and acquire young free agent talent. The team will indeed have plenty of money to spend, thanks to their new TV contract with Comcast. But other teams are locking up their best young position players with longterm deals. Dream boy Mike Trout is not a free agent until 2021.
Perhaps as much of a key as anything will be the individual making the decisions as the team attempts to re-tool or rebuild. I have seen nothing whatsoever from Ruben Amaro Jr. as a General Manager that leads me to believe with any confidence that he is capable of making the best decisions. But it appears that, at least for now, he has the support of ownership. In the end, that fact may be what finally sinks this once majestic ship.
With the former champions aging rapidly, no prospects appearing that they will be fully ready in 2015, the likelihood that even if traded, none of the aging players will yield many good, young players in return, and the fact that the person making all of the decisions appears incapable of doing so successfully, the situation with this team is likely even worse than many people realized.