Phils President David Montgomery, with one of his huge mistakes. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
It has been said a tiger can’t change its stripes. But can the Phillies change theirs?
Since Charlie Manuel was fired on Friday, there has been a lot of not-very-nice things written about the franchise. In perhaps the most brilliantly written piece of the year, The Daily News’ David Murphy called them a “fossilized dinosaur,” a team set in their own ways of traditional, stuck-in-the-mud thinking.
"The easy course of action is to call for the ouster of Amaro, who effectively painted himself with a well-deserved bull’s-eye by dispatching Manuel. But firing the GM won’t do a thing if the philosophy that resulted in his hiring remains the same. When the Phillies traded Lee before acquiring Roy Halladay, it was a panicky move indicative of a franchise not yet comfortable with life as a big-revenue power player. Four years later, that sensibility remains in an environment where contracts sometimes seem as if they are awarded as much for patronage as for merit, where players’ past performances are valued more than their future projections, where exhaustive data and proven trends are ignored because of an unwillingness to do things in way that is different from the way they have always been done."
And it’s all true. The Phillies are a team that does not embrace new data. They are a team that do not think proactively. They do not make long-range plans. They are still playing the MLB game that was played 15 years ago, not the one that is being played today.
And they are getting lapped because of it.
Teams like the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays have laid out a road map for success.
Embrace new information, avoid old narratives, use sabermetrics in conjunction with advice from scouts, pay at the bottom of the market and sell at the top.
These are the hallmarks of successful franchises, ones that build from within and maintain success by making smart decisions.
That is not what the Philadelphia Phillies are. Sure, they had a terrific run from 2007-2011, mainly because they got very lucky with Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard,and Cole Hamels, and made some smart moves by acquiring Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Jamie Moyer and others. The man in charge during that time, Pat Gillick, was perhaps the smartest general manager the team has ever had and, not coincidentally, came from OUTSIDE the organization.
That’s not to say Gillick didn’t make some mistakes. He signed Brad Lidge to an ill-advised contract extension in the middle of that perfect 2008 season. He didn’t get much for Bobby Abreu during a salary dump trade. And he didn’t do enough to get Chase Utley into the everyday lineup soon enough. And there were, of course, others. But on the whole, Gillick is a Hall-of-Famer for a reason.
So if we accept the fact that the Phillies are a fossilized dinosaur, the question is, can they be re-born? And can that phoenix-like reincarnation happen sometime before Mike Trout‘s children turn 20?
As most people know, the Phils do not have one single owner. They are owned by multiple people, as detailed here, which can sometimes make decision-making a tricky process. But at the end of the day, team president and part-owner David Montgomery calls the shots. Oh sure, limited partner and billionaire John Middleton has a lot of cash at his disposal and is rumored to have been one of the few dissenting voices in the past, pushing the team to do more and break free from their spend-thrift ways. But at the end of the day, it’s Montgomery who’s in charge.
And if the Phillies are going to change and become a different franchise, one of two things is going to have to happen. Either Montgomery is going to have a drastic change of heart and be willing to once again look outside the organization for help, or he’s going to have to take a step back and let an owner like Middleton make some decisions.
A metamorphosis of this kind is not unprecedented. In fact, the Cardinals were a “traditional” ballclub that changed and started to focus on the non-traditional stats that have become the norm in baseball, as ESPN’s Anna McDonald noted back in February…
"“In 2004 the Cardinals made a conscious effort to build an analytics department. A baseball team can’t become sabermetric-minded overnight; it takes time to establish and then time to work out the kinks.”“At the time we called it Baseball Development,” Mozeliak said of the initiative. “We still have that department in play. It’s evolved quite a bit. We no longer solely have people in that department that don’t have some baseball background. It is a diverse group, and that group is looking at how to best combine advanced metrics as well as traditional scouting.”"
Albert Pujols, another smart decision by St. Louis. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
The Cardinals did not have a change in ownership. They did not have a change in team president. The ownership is still the same, nine years later. Yet in those nine years, the St. Louis Cardinals have evolved.
And you can see the results.
Their minor league system is teeming with prospects. I mean REAL prospects, not “Sebastian Valle” prospects. And their major league roster consists of many home-grown players, all of which has helped the Cardinals become a perennial World Series contender.
No, the Cards are not small market. They have the 11th highest payroll in the Majors. But they’re not spending $170 million on their payroll either, and the money they do spend is smart money. And even when they make a mistake, they aren’t stubborn enough to try to force a bad decision to a damaging end point.
For example, for reasons passing understanding, St. Louis signed Ty Wigginton to a two-year contract before the start of this year. However, when the Cardinals realized Ty Wigginton stunk on ice, they chalked it up to a sunk cost and got rid of him, released him, with more than a year and a half left on his contract.
Contrast that to the Laynce Nix fiasco.
And here’s another example. Despite being their franchise player and, at the time, widely regarded as one of the five best hitters in baseball, St. Louis decided not to re-sign Albert Pujols to a monster contract extension after the 2011 season. Their WORLD SERIES season. They chose to let their World Series hero walk, despite the fact he had a career 1.037 OPS during his 11 years with the organization. Instead, Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels, where, over a year and a half, he has posted an OPS of .823.
The Angels still have $212 million to pay Pujols over the next eight years.
Meanwhile, St. Louis promoted Allen Craig to be their new first baseman. Since becoming the everyday starter in 2012, he has posted an OPS of .846. The Cardinals are paying him $1.75 million this year, and signed him to an extension that will pay him $28.25 million over the next four years, with a $13 million team option for 2018 or a $1 million buyout. The contract takes him through 33rd birthday at the latest.
If only the Phils had followed this line of thinking with Ryan Howard. Or Jimmy Rollins. Or perhaps with Chase Utley.
What the Cardinals have shown is that a tiger CAN change his stripes, if he wants to. The Phillies CAN become a different team if they decide they want to be. They have examples they can follow.
It’s going to take a change in David Montgomery. Firing Ruben Amaro and promoting an Amaro clone from inside the organization isn’t going to change anything. There needs to be a fundamental sea change in this franchise’s direction, and it will have to come from Monty.
It’s going to take hiring a general manager who knows what xFIP and wOBA means, one who doesn’t sign closers for $50 million, and one that doesn’t use data that’s seven years old as his main source of information to sign a free agent outfielder.
And it’s going to take hiring a manager that can work hand-in-hand with a sabermetric-savvy GM and one who doesn’t worship at the alter of “you can’t use a closer in a non-save situation on the road.”
If the Phillies were smart, they would try to pillage the St. Louis and Tampa organizations and offer them positions with the Phillies that would be huge promotions, making it impossible for them to say no.
Other teams have made this transformation. It CAN happen. But it’s fair to be skeptical if it ever actually WILL.