The Phillies Rebuild, Part II: It’s All Part of the Plan
Don’t sweat this guy; It’s all going according to plan. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Note: This article is a spiritual successor to this previous post of mine from about a month ago. Not necessary to read it, but the same philosophy is espoused throughout, and a couple of overlapping points are mentioned.
So. Here we are, mid-December, and no one is particularly excited about the Phillies’ 2014 season.
Many of the big name free agents have passed the team by, and it appears the entirety of moves made by GM Ruben Amaro Jr. this offseason include: re-signing C Carlos Ruiz & OF Marlon Byrd, signing SP Roberto Hernandez & backup C Will Nieves, and trading for RP Brad Lincoln.
Many have questioned the team’s motivation for these moves, going as far as to say that management is incompetent, has no plan, and is too cheap to commit to winning.
While fans have many legitimate gripes about talent evaluation within management, that’s a different story from the team having a long term strategy and knowing where they have holes (they just pick the wrong players to fill them; which IS bad).
Additionally, as I predicted, the absolute payroll ceiling’s going to be $170 million; that’s hardly cheap. That’s an issue of poorly allocating more than enough money, and trading away young talent.
The Phillies were a 73 win team in 2013. There is no possible interpretation of the above signings (plus players returning from injuries) that add 17 wins to the team in 2014 (roughly enough to be in contention) – and management knows this.
To assume otherwise would be unfairly insulting management’s intelligence. Hell, listen to how Amaro described the signing of Hernandez to Philly.com’s Matt Gelb:
"It’s more of a depth guy. This is not someone who is going to slide into the top of the rotation. He’s in the bottom of the rotation. But we need some depth. Again, we’re trying to get the best bang for our buck. In this marketplace, it’s tough because the prices have soared pretty significantly."
That’s hardly an endorsement of the only starter signed, from the guy who acquired Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Jonathan Papelbon, and Cliff Lee twice.
More bluntly, Cole Hamels described his expectations for the team in 2014 to Philly Magazine’s Richard Rys:
"We won’t win 100 games next season. But with another wild card, we can definitely get into the playoffs."
No one in the organization is delusional enough to believe the Phillies will win the NL East in 2014. But if that’s true, what’s the plan? Why aren’t they selling everything, getting a big prospect haul, and tanking the season for the best draft position?
There are several factors preventing this.
1) In this off-season, there is no such thing as a “big prospect haul.”
Ian Kinsler, Prince Fielder, Brett Anderson, Mark Trumbo, Hector Santiago, Norichika Aoki, Jim Johnson, Craig Gentry, Luke Gregerson, Dexter Fowler, Doug Fister, David Freese, Peter Bourjos, and Addison Reed have all been traded since November 1.
The only 2013 preseason top 75 prospects to be traded in return are Tyler Skaggs (who saw one of the biggest drop offs in prospect stock in the past year), and Adam Eaton (notably also from the Diamondbacks, but in a different trade).
In a time where even #4-5 starters are signing $30+ million deals, teams are beginning to more strongly value prospects as younger, controllable alternatives. They just aren’t willing to part with the prospects, even if the Phillies were putting out feelers on all of their players.
2) They ARE putting out feelers on all players.
Since the Winter Meetings, there have been rumors about the Phillies willingness to trade Papelbon, Domonic Brown, Lee, Hamels, and Jimmy Rollins. That’s basically every veteran with value except Chase Utley.
God help them if they trade Chase Utley.
The problem is, you can’t just sell to sell – if you aren’t getting a decent return for the players, it hurts the team more than keeping them.
Given the mediocre performance of some (Papelbon, Rollins), and size of contracts to others (Lee, Hamels, Papelbon again), it isn’t necessarily practical to trade them right now. You’ll eat a ton of their contracts, and you won’t get a ton back in terms of prospects.
3) The still yet unsigned, massive looming TV contract.
I’m sure Comcast, Fox, or whoever is negotiating for the TV rights, is smart enough to understand the logic behind a rebuilding process (how it sets up long term success, and therefore better ratings down the line).
However, it is still potentially multiple BILLIONS of dollars in revenue; it can’t help but throw a shadow over every major decision made – especially with regard to some of the more marketable commodities in the company (AKA the big name, trade-able players).
It puts the team in a difficult position. That’s why trading players just to trade them is counter-productive – they have off the field value to the organization in addition to their playing production.
The Phillies saw what happened with Astros’ television ratings this past season as a result of rebuilding.
You can bet a similar result in the largest single-team market in America (in the middle of major television rights negotiations) wouldn’t provide the Phillies with much in the way of leverage. It just won’t happen unless the team as constructed starts losing at a similar rate.
So, if they aren’t going to sell everything now, and know they can’t win, then what? What’s the plan? If they can’t take decisive action, why shouldn’t fans be scared about languishing in the standings’ middle purgatory for the next 5-10 years?
Let’s take a look at how the team has behaved in the past two off-seasons (2013-2014).
Acquisition / AAV Salary / Years / Prospects Traded or Draft Pick ForfeitedCarlos RuizBen Revere /$500k / 5 / Trevor May, Vance WorleyMichael Young / $6 Million / 1 / Josh Lindblom, Lisalverto BonillaJohn LannanMike AdamsDelmon YoungMiguel Alfredo GonzalezMarlon ByrdCarlos RuizRoberto HernandezWil NievesBrad Lincoln / $500K / 4 / Erik Kratz, Rob Rasmussen
This list excludes in-season extensions given to Utley and Hamels. Despite the big price tags on both, they are still-productive faces of the franchise who accepted deals below market rate to stay. You make those deals 10 times out of 10.
In the above list though there are certain characteristics about all of these acquisitions that follow a pattern. For the last two years, (1) Ruben Amaro & Co. haven’t signed a single player to a contract with an AAV over $10 million.
By extension, (2) they also have not forfeited any draft picks to sign free agents (even despite having a protected first-round pick in 2014).
(3) Additionally, the only prospects traded away were traded for equal youth (Vance Worley and Trevor May for Ben Revere).
They were both overrated by the Twins (they wouldn’t have been ranked nearly as highly in 2013 as the year before), and the Phillies easily came out on top in that deal.
The effect of these three principles is that, even after only one season, the farm system is on the mend.
A year after being among the bottom three teams in farm system health, with a single season of preserving prospects and the first first-round draft pick in years, the team looks to have jumped up into the 20-22 range.
2013’s Smart Alternative to Big-Name Busts. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
In addition, the team has avoided all of overpriced insanity of the free agent market – last year the Phillies were tied to players like B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan, and Josh Hamilton. They wisely abstained from these players, going for the cheaper Ben Revere instead*.
Avoiding high-priced, long contracts means that while the farm system develops, the Phillies’ long term commitments have shrunk, affording more financial flexibility when a new core has been developed.
In 2012, the Phillies had $63 million committed to players following three more seasons in the future (the 2015 season). In 2013, 2016 commitments had decreased slightly to $61 million (Both figures courtesy Cot’s Baseball Contracts).
Presuming the Phillies are about finished with offseason moves (all indications say they are), guaranteed commitments to players in 2017 have dropped significantly to only $33 million (my calculations; Cole Hamels: $22.5 million, Ryan Howard: $10 million buyout, Chooch: $0.5 million buyout).
This leaves a lot of long term flexibility to add around prospects.
Even if management doesn’t trade assets and just run out the contracts, the simple act of not signing more bad ones and preserving draft picks will be a boost to the club’s future health.
Let’s presume, however, that the 2014 team starts losing. Badly. There’s something to point out about those cheap contracts signed this offseason. They all avoid the problem currently facing players the Phillies want to trade: they’re very move-able.
This great article by John Stolnis at The Good Phight illustrates the situation the Phillies find themselves in, with regards to players currently on the trade block. In the current climate, no one on the roster is a very easy sell.
However, after all the free agent dust settles, the season begins, and contending teams realize where their holes are (without a free agent market to fill them), their value begins to creep up.
Other GMs will remember off-season rumblings about the availability of a consistent closer, two stud aces, the sturdiest short-stop in the big leagues, and a young, cheap LH power bat (all of whom are former All-Stars, by the way).
Also: have a hole at catcher? Chooch is a relatively cheap, consistent commodity on a 2 1/2 year deal. Byrd could fill any hole from a 4th OF to a DH to an everyday RH power bat, and is a low cost as well.
If he’s around his 2012 numbers through half a season, Kyle Kendrick would have decent trade value (although given the price of pitchers this year, he might actually have qualifying offer value once he hits free agency).
Jimmy isn’t likely to waive his no-trade clause until he gets a chance at 200 HR and the all-time franchise hits record (59 short of Mike Schmidt). By mid-season, chances are good he will have those in hand, and might waive his clause to a contender, given some nudging.
Don’t be surprised if Jake Diekman or Ethan Martin see some save opportunities instead of Papelbon in the event of 3-run leads, or if Sandberg stretches out an 8 IP performance to a complete game for some starters.
They’ll want Papelbon to look good, but keeping his games finished count relatively low so potential trade suitors think his 2016 vesting option is slightly out of reach.
If the Phillies are well out of the race by mid-July (and as scary as it is to say, even the Marlins and Mets have made significant upgrades this offseason; we could be in for a tough year in the standings), you’re not only going to hear trade deadline rumors heat up, you’re going to see some trades.
If you endorse selling, don’t distress that Amaro hasn’t made any this offseason; he’s doing due diligence now and listening. However, it’s just a fact that sellers have more leverage in July, than December. You don’t want him making trades now.
If you DON’T endorse selling, get your head checked.
Just understand, the reason it hasn’t happened yet is purely because of timing. Timing in TV negotiations, timing in the trade market, and timing in certain players’ careers.
The conservative approach to the last two off-seasons signals a management with realistic expectations of the team as currently constructed, and a change in philosophy that, if not Mozeliak-ian in terms of player evaluation, is at least Mozeliak-ian in terms of roster construction.
This is a management that (appears) to be preserving draft picks, maintaining the integrity of the farm system, and acquiring outside players with skill sets that, at least on a superficial level, best match the needs of the core it supplements (and, while rebuilding, cost effectiveness is a significant factor in that “skill set”).
As sabermetric evangelist Brian Kenny succinctly stated:
Now, if I could just explain wRC+ to Ruben, we’ll have something to start cheering about, sooner rather than later.
*fun fact: Revere’s rWAR (0.8) in a partial, injured season was higher than all three alternatives (Upton, Hamilton, and Pagan) combined (-1.9 + 1.5 + 1.0 = 0.6 rWAR).