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May 17, 2012

The Process

Fixing the Phillies

by Bradley Ankrom

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As Ben Lindbergh noted in April, the Phillies have maintained one of baseball’s oldest rosters in recent years, and 2012 has proven to be more of the same. The only everyday players on the roster born in the 1980s are Freddy Galvis, Hunter Pence, and Shane Victorino, and Galvis wouldn’t be playing regularly if 33-year-old second baseman Chase Utley were healthy.

Percentage of Plate Appearances by Age Group

YEAR

<= 28

>= 29

2007

56%

44%

2008

26%

74%

2009

17%

83%

2010

7%

93%

2011

18%

82%

2012

18%

82%

Percentage of WARP by Age Group

YEAR

<= 28

>= 29

2007

74%

26%

2008

36%

64%

2009

25%

75%

2010

13%

87%

2011

22%

78%

2012

15%

85%

Phillies pitchers have maintained superior levels of performance as they’ve aged, but the same can’t be said about their hitters. First baseman Ryan Howard had the worst year of his career in 2011 and has missed all of this season recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. Knee troubles have sidelined second baseman Chase Utley for much of the last two seasons, and Jimmy Rollins, at age 33 and in the first season of his new three-year deal, has been below replacement level through his first 160 plate appearances.

Philadelphia has $104 million committed to six players next year, plus buyouts and options on four others that could bring the total commitment as high as $121 million, and that doesn’t include a fourth-year arbitration raise to right fielder Hunter Pence. Starting pitchers Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton, along with center fielder Shane Victorino, are scheduled to become free agents this fall. All three players have been instrumental in the Phillies’ decade of dominance, but there has been no reported movement in talks to bring any of them back to Philadelphia.

The Phillies now find themselves in the basement of the National League East, the only team in the division that has lost more games than it has won. Injuries and aging have neutralized Philadelphia’s once-potent offense, and this year’s Phillies are on pace to average fewer than four runs scored per game for the first time since 1991. Three of the four clubs ahead of them in the standings are younger and, arguably, more talented, which could spell the end of an era in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, their roster is built to win right now. The trouble is that the position players who have signed long-term contracts— and who will consume large chunks of future seasons’ payrolls—are in steep decline. Howard and Utley both experienced year-over-year drops in WARP in 2010 and 2011, and that trend isn’t likely to reverse itself as both players approach their mid-30s and return from significant injuries. Rollins’ skills were deteriorating rapidly before he rebounded in 2011, only to dip again this year.

Philadelphia’s market size (and commensurate revenue) enables the Phillies to sustain one of the league’s highest payrolls, and a new TV deal after 2015 will mean even more money coming into the team’s coffers. But with more than $100 million tied up in aging veterans, is it possible for the club to remain competitive in the near future? More importantly, is the current administration willing to sacrifice a year or two for the chance to be more competitive in 2014 and beyond?

In order to avoid a lengthy period of losing, the Phillies should strongly consider selling off their expiring assets now. However, it’s one thing to move impending free agents when you’re out of contention, and another to receive the right pieces in those deals. The Phillies’ farm system is heavily unbalanced, favoring pitchers, and the Phillies would be wise to target high-ceiling position players in the upper levels of the minor leagues.

The Phillies’ rotation, anchored by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Vance Worley, should continue to rank among the league’s best. Blanton’s vacated turn could be filled next season by top prospect Trevor May, who has made strides with his command and mechanics at Double-A this year. The offense is another story, however. Domonic Brown is the sole potential star currently playing in the upper levels of the Phillies’ farm system, and talent evaluators are hesitant to predict what his future will be as he struggles as a 24-year-old in Triple-A. Catcher Sebastian Valle has taken a step backward at the plate and, even at his best, projects as a solid-average big leaguer.

All three prominent Phillies in their walks years have intimate ties to the organization. Hamels was drafted and developed by the Phillies after they made the San Diego high schooler their first pick of the 2002 draft, capitalizing on other clubs’ hesitation due to Hamels’ health record. Philadelphia selected Victorino from the Dodgers in 2004’s Rule 5 draft, and he became a starter after one season. Blanton was acquired from Oakland in July 2008, and he contributed six wins, including two in the playoffs, en route to Philadelphia’s first championship since 1980.

Hamels and Zack Greinke are the cream of this year’s free agent starting pitcher crop, and both are expected to fetch deals in excess of $100 million. Philadelphia’s efforts to extend Hamels have failed, and it appears likely that the 28-year-old left-hander will test free agency for the first time in his career. Several clubs could see their playoff odds increase substantially with the addition of Hamels to their rotation, most notably the Red Sox and Yankees. The surprising success of Drew Smyly, coupled with Doug Fister’s impending return to the rotation, makes it unlikely that Detroit would be willing to ante up for Hamels, but they may be interested in acquiring Blanton as insurance.

San Francisco, always in search of offense, could be interested in Victorino as an upgrade over Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco in center field. The Red Sox have been without MVP runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury since the start of April, and a timetable for his return hasn’t been established. Boston acquired Marlon Byrd from the Cubs to hold them over, but he’s struggled to perform above replacement level. With the American League East in tumult, Toronto may sense an opportunity to seize a playoff spot and look to replace the disappointing Colby Rasmus in center field.

Boston could offer a package for Hamels built around third baseman Will Middlebrooks or center fielder Jackie Bradley. Since taking over for an injured Kevin Youkilis, Middlebrooks has hit .300/.340/.640 as the Red Sox’ every day third baseman, but he could be headed back to Triple-A when Youkilis returns. Bradley has torn through the Carolina League in his full-season debut and could be ready for the major leagues by next summer.

The Yankees have less upper-level position player talent to offer, but Mason Williams and Gary Sanchez, currently playing in the Class-A South Atlantic League, could prove enticing. Third baseman/outfielder Brandon Laird won the Eastern League’s MVP award last year but has struggled to adjust to Triple-A pitching. At 24, he offers limited upside and is a stretch to stick at the hot corner.

During Dave Dombrowski’s reign in the Motor City, Detroit has not shied away from dealing blue-chip prospects in exchange for proven major-league talent. Pairing Hamels with Justin Verlander atop the Tigers’ rotation would fit with the organization’s “all-in” approach to the current era, but it’s more likely that they would pursue a depth piece like Blanton. Alex Avila has established himself as the club’s long-term solution behind the plate, but the Tigers have a pair of catching prospects in Rob Brantly and James McCann who could be on the cusp of the big leagues by the end of 2013. Brantly is currently hitting .347/.395/.534 at Double-A while McCann, last year’s top draft pick, has struggled with consistency at the plate for the Advanced Class-A Lakeland Flying Tigers. Nick Castellanos leads all of professional baseball with a .405 batting average and is the crown jewel of the Tigers’ farm system, but he wouldn’t be in the discussion for a Blanton deal.

The Blue Jays could be dark-horse contenders for Victorino’s services, though they can’t match what Boston has in terms of upper-minors positional talent. Colby Rasmus is currently patrolling center field in Toronto, but he’s been a massive disappointment (-1.2 WARP) since coming over from St. Louis at last year’s trading deadline. Behind Rasmus on the center field depth chart, the Blue Jays have an unrefined Anthony Gose figuring things out at Triple-A and Jake Marisnick settling in after a slow start at Advanced Class A. Toronto also possesses depth behind the plate, including second-year catcher J.P Arencibia in the major leagues, former Phillies prospect Travis d’Arnaud at Triple-A, and 22-year-old A.J. Jimenez at Double-A. Travis Snider, the American League equivalent of the Phillies’ Domonic Brown, has been exiled to Triple-A in favor of Eric Thames and could be worth a gamble.

None of the scenarios outlined above are obvious wins for Philadelphia, and the team may take its chances with the roster it has, with the hope that Halladay, Lee, and Hamels could lead it to a sixth-consecutive postseason appearance. The addition of a second wild card this year makes it less likely that Ruben Amaro & Co. will consider cashing in their chips before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, even if it means settling for the compensatory draft picks when Hamels, Victorino, and Blanton depart as free agents. However, deciding to sell sooner rather than later would put Amaro in a position to dictate the market before other potential free agents like B.J. Upton, Ryan Dempster, Brandon McCarthy, and Anibal Sanchez become available. 

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