Why a Total Rebuild Won’t (and Shouldn’t) Happen for the Philadelphia Phillies


Image Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a growing sentiment among Phillies fans that the team is directionless.  Coming off a disappointing 2013 season, they didn’t make any big moves as part of an “all in” push to contend, nor did they discard all of their veterans as part of a rebuilding process. Instead, they made a series of mid-level moves like signing Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett that might make the team a little better, but certainly don’t make them the favorites in the National League East.

It seems like the Phillies are trying to remain competitive while not jeopardizing their future. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, and yet they’ve done a decent job of it with their moves this offseason.

Some fans are unconvinced. They feel that if the team isn’t willing to go the Yankees route and try to outspend their past mistakes, then they should go in the opposite direction and begin a complete rebuilding process. Get rid of every veteran that they can in exchange for prospects. This will allow the next wave of great players to develop and lead the Phillies back to the promised land.

Many fans point to what the local basketball team is doing and want to see the Phillies follow suit. They feel that the way the Sixers have torn down their roster so that they can build from the ground up is an approach worth emulating.

I disagree.  There are several reasons why a total rebuild is unlikely to happen, nor why Phillies fans should want it to.

A bad and cheap team is not any better than a bad and expensive team

Some fans seem to take offense to the fact that the Phillies aren’t expected to contend, but they still have one of the highest payrolls in the majors. I need to remind these people that baseball teams don’t get extra points for winning with a lower payroll.

The Phillies have a high payroll. So what? The Phillies could cut their payroll in half, but the fans aren’t going to see much (any?) of the money they save.  They’re not going to lower ticket prices, nor do I think that the team will offer Comcast a refund on that big television contract.  And even if they did, I certainly wouldn’t expect Comcast to in turn reduce your cable bill.

Jettisoning their pricey veterans likely wouldn’t make the financial situation much more appealing, because if the Phillies were to trade any of their players, they’d almost certainly have to pay a portion of the traded salary. If the thought of paying players a lot of money to play for a losing Phillies team is unpleasant, it is probably even worse to pay them to play for a different team.

Tanking doesn’t guarantee success

There’s no Andrew Wiggins of baseball

In the NBA, tanking makes some sense, since teams need a legitimate franchise player in order to compete for a title. There’s a reason why the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat are always among the top contenders in the league.

The best way to obtain one of these franchise players is via the draft. Unfortunately, that means when a potential franchise player like Andrew Wiggins is thought to be available, it gives teams plenty of incentive to lose and gain a top pick.

There are three main reasons why this makes much more sense in basketball than in baseball:

1. Top talent doesn’t always win out in baseball

The NBA Playoffs rarely feature major upsets. The title almost always goes to one of the most talented teams who are usually led by one of the aforementioned franchise players.

Billy Beane once called the MLB playoffs a “crapshoot,” and thanks to the advent of a second wild card team, that appears to be more true than ever. These days, the “best” team is rarely the one that celebrates at the end of the season. It seems just as likely that a barely above average team will sneak into the playoffs, enjoy a two-week hot streak, and walk away with a championship.

Obviously a baseball team still needs to have a number of good players on the roster. But a franchise player is far from a necessity, so there is no need to sacrifice an entire season – or more – in order to acquire one.

2. NBA Draft picks are much easier to project as professionals

The NBA has its fair share of draft busts, but still far fewer than you get in the first round of a typical MLB amateur draft. Projecting the fate of high school and college baseball stars – even the ones at the top of the draft – is difficult. Some of the game’s best prospects have flamed out due to injuries or being unable to adjust to higher levels of competition.

3. Young players can make an immediate impact in the NBA

Even when a baseball team drafts well, they rarely feel any immediate effect. All but the very best prospects require at least a couple of seasons in the minor leagues, and it often takes at least a season or two beyond that to make a real impact. This means that a bad baseball team is likely to stay bad for at least a few seasons.

Some teams do successfully emerge from years of losing. After many seasons of last place finishes, the Tampa Bay Rays broke out and won the American League pennant in 2008, and they’ve remained contenders ever since.

On the other hand, there are teams like the Kansas City Royals. Over the past few seasons, their farm system has been rated as one of the best in baseball, but they’ve yet to see the results on the field. They finally had an above .500 record in 2013, but that came after a ten year stretch  in which they only had one season of fewer than 90 losses. That’s a long time for a franchise to be bad, even if it does eventually result in a championship.

Heck, the Phillies had a lot of horrendous seasons after 1980, but it still took them 28 years to win another championship.

After a Twitter exchange with Matt Winkelman and Spencer Bingol yesterday, my feelings on this have changed a bit. Under Major League Baseball’s new rules, the amount of money a team is permitted to spend on both the draft and international signings is based on their record. The worse a team finishes, the more money they are permitted to spend.

It will be very interesting to see how this plays out, and we’ll likely get our first test case with the Houston Astros. Before the 2013 season, the Astros jettisoned almost all of their major league players, leaving them with a husk of a team that only won 51 games. But they have used much of the money they saved on amateur signings.

If this allows the Astros to eventually a build a winner, then it is almost guaranteed that other teams will follow suit.

Rebuilding is best done around a solid foundation

Carlos Carrasco has not panned out. Image Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Some people would say that the Phillies should have traded their veterans in exchange for prospects. But as I mentioned earlier, prospects – even those who appear close to major league ready – are far from sure things.

If they were to trade Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels, what are the chances are that the players they got in return would equal the production that Lee and Hamels will likely provide over the next couple of years?

What do Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Jason Knapp, Lou Marson, Tyson Gillies, Phillippe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez, Matthew Lawson, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and Justin Smoak all have in common? They were traded in exchange for Cliff Lee. While there’s still time for some of those players (most notably Smoak) to develop, thus far, the highest single season WAR any of them have recorded is 1.2.

The Phillies have a solid top of the rotation in Lee and Hamels (Assuming Hamels comes back in relatively short time).  This past offseason, they needed to find viable third and fifth starters, which they were able to adequately do.  Now imagine if they had to find a replacement for Hamels or Lee at the top of the rotation. I don’t think the Phillies could have accomplished that quite as easily.

I’ll admit that my stance is based on my suspicions that the economics of baseball are soon going to become very favorable for the Phillies. If I’m correct, then the Phillies will certainly be glad they have some talent already on hand.

The fans will abandon the team

If the Phillies bottom out and get rid of most of their veterans, it’s a pretty safe bet that both attendance and ratings will plummet.

While some fans would surely trumpet the rebuilding effort, many others would be upset that their favorite players were sent away, and the old “The Phillies are cheap” narrative will return.  (Heck, it’s already returned based on the reaction to the Phillies not pursuing a marquee free agent this offseason.)

Not a lot of Sixers fans have turned out to watch Henry Sims and company. Image Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Supposedly, everyone is solidly behind the Sixers’ and their plan to tank this season. However, the fans haven’t shown that support by actually going to games, as the Sixers currently rank last in the league in attendance.

Some people will read this and think, “Well I won’t abandon the team!  I’ll stick with them!”  Maybe you will, but I have a suspicion that you won’t be going to quite as many games as you did when they were making the playoffs every season.

Look at it this way: It’s a pleasant evening, and you think, “Hmm…maybe I’ll go see the Phillies tonight.  Who’s pitching?  Cole Hamels?  Yeah, let’s do this!”  On the other hand, if the scheduled starter is Roberto Hernandez, you might be just fine with watching on TV or finding some other way to pass the time.

Rebuilding is unpleasant

Maybe you’re one of the diehards who legitimately will stick with the team. Earlier, I used the Rays as an example of how years of losing can ultimately turn out okay. But do you really want to endure multiple seasons of the Phillies as a 90+ loss team?

Perhaps I’m just being foolishly optimistic about the chances of the 2014 Phillies. I know that a fair share of pundits think they’re about to embark on a 90 loss, last place season, but I don’t think the situation is nearly that dire. Admittedly, there are a lot of questions surrounding the team. But sometimes, those situations work out well for the team. I still see a lot of talent on hand, and at least on paper they appear to have improved from last year.

It’s nice to have at least some hope. Let’s say that the Phillies traded Cliff Lee at the 2013 trade deadline. Chances are, the team wouldn’t have signed A.J. Burnett. Heck, they probably don’t even sign Roberto Hernandez. Assuming that Cole Hamels still has his offseason “setback” (We could also assume that he jumps off a cliff because the outlook for the 2014 Phillies would be so depressing), then your likely 2014 Opening Day starter is…Kyle Kendrick.

It would hard to find any way to be optimistic about that team.

Obviously, this “rolling rebuild” plan could fail as well, and we may be left with years of mediocrity.  But I don’t think that a total rebuild necessarily improves the future outlook that much, and it will assuredly make the present much more difficult to deal with.