July 11, 2013
Painting the Black
Time for Phillies to Rebuild, or Refill?
Over the past week, the Phillies have taken series from the Pirates and Braves and at worst split a four-game set against the Nationals, thus improving their positioning in the playoff race by moving them to within 5 1/2 games of the second wild-card spot. Positive results tend to boost confidence, and that's exactly what's happened in Philadelphia. While our Playoff Odds Report says the Phillies have a 6 percent chance of making the postseason, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is flirting with the idea of adding a piece or two at the trade deadline.
Amaro's stated plans have, predictably, gone over poorly. Too many authors have penned too many pieces about why the Phillies should sell over the past 12 months for any other reaction. The arguments go like this: the Phillies are a mediocre, veteran-laden team with too many big-money, long-term commitments and too few worthwhile prospects; they aren't good enough to compete for a title, but not poor enough to bottom out and force a clearance sale. Amaro seemed to acknowledge this last July, when he traded Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, and even Hunter Pence, who had team control remaining. The stripping down stopped there, however, and in the time since the Phillies haven't done much to change their talent level.
Urging Amaro to sell further is a popular, reasonable perspective. Which is why examining the Phillies' plausible reasons for buying could produce something of value. So, let's do it. Here are some potential reasons why Amaro is talking about adding a new player or two in the coming three weeks.
Possible explanation No. 1: The Phillies believe they are contenders
The preceding paragraph provides reason to discount the Philllies as serious contenders. The reasons to think otherwise seemingly center on the Phillies playing better than their projections, and the Nationals and Braves playing worse. Perhaps Amaro sees the Nationals' first-half struggles as an incurable flaw rather than an aberration. And maybe Amaro thinks the Braves are closer to the 35-29 team since May, as opposed to the bunch that won 65 percent of its April games. If so, then a few prudent additions could be enough to put the Phillies ahead of the Nationals and close enough to the Braves to make things interesting with some head-to-head wins. To state the obvious: it's not a good value or an even-monied bet that those scenarios play out exactly as the Phillies would need them to play out.
Possible explanation No. 2: It's a buyers' market
In a similar spot last July Amaro traded Victorino to the Dodgers for Ethan Martin, Josh Lindblom, and Stefan Jarris. While the trade didn't appear to be a total lost cause at the time—Martin had the potential, Lindblom the safeness—it's unraveled in quick fashion. Not even a full year later, Martin is the last remaining piece, and he's walking six per nine in Triple-A. Meanwhile, Lindblom went to Texas as part of the Michael Young trade, and Jarris was released in March, before he played in a game with the org. Selling for the sake of selling—just to have something to show for a player—is unappealing, and can work out worse than letting the player walk. Of course the calculus changes if the quality of prospect increases, but if the market says that's what a non-star veteran player is worth, then Amaro has more incentive to go forward with buying.
Possible explanation No. 2.1: It's a buyers' market
Possible explanation No. 3: The Phillies don't believe they need to rebuild
Possible explanation No. 4: The Phillies want to put off rebuilding just a bit longer
Possible explanation No. 5: The Phillies don't believe they can rebuild—at least not quickly
Say the Phillies did shop a package of Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jimmy Rollins around. They'd be due more than $100 million from 2014 moving forward. The Red Sox moved more than $270 million in future money owed to the Dodgers last August, and the Marlins shipped about $160 million of their own future commitments to the Blue Jays during the offseason. So it's possible a team would willingly take on that much money. Just not likely. Think about the other variables that would need to align. A team would need the budget room, the need for those players, and the players to make the deal more than a pure salary dump.
Shy of that, Amaro is looking at choosing between taking lesser prospects or eating more money. The former route leads him down the same road of handing out big money to free-agent players in order to compete now, while the latter gives him young talent and little wiggle room. Either way, he'd be better off embracing a long-term rebuild, but that's only workable if upper management is also on board. Otherwise Amaro is writing his own pink slip.
Possible explanation No. 6: The Phillies are bluffing