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August 1, 2013

Skewed Left

The Last Time the Phillies Considered Selling

by Zachary Levine

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And here I was ready to write an obituary for the Phillies dynasty.

It’s been more or less over for a while, and “dynasty” might be a little linguistically liberal for a team that won five consecutive division titles and the 2008 World Series. This group will always be the one that brought crowds in the 40,000s to Citizens Bank Park and gave the Phillies a place in their city’s sporting landscape to ensure financial security and then some in the looming television negotiations.

Anyway, I had the obit all planned out for when they moved Chase Utley, shipped out Michael Young, maybe even Cliff Lee too, and set about rebuilding a farm system that had been depleted by trades in the other direction.

Problem was that a year after extending Cole Hamels rather than starting the process then, they held on once more, and on a deadline day of relative silence around baseball, theirs may have spoken the loudest. They weren’t quite ready to give this up despite a 50-56 standing as of 4:00:00 p.m. Wednesday afternoon.

So there will be no marked end of the Phillies dynasty, such as it is, at least this year, which is a far cry from how it began. It was at the trade deadline seven years ago when the Phillies last embarked on a teardown process, only to tear down the teardown less than two weeks later and get right back into go-for-it mode.

For as much as the 2007-11 teams did to capture headlines, none had a month as fascinating as the 2006 team, which both set the stage for the sustained run of success and may explain some of the reluctance to sell by this year’s teams.

With a young core including would-be MVP Ryan Howard ready to take over, the 2006 Phillies traded away the old guard—Bobby Abreu, David Bell, Cory Lidle, Rheal Cormier and Ryan Franklin—in a clear sign of wanting to move on. Pat Gillick even said as much that July after the trade of Abreu, who was the franchise’s best player for most of a decade.

“Realistically, I think it's a stretch to think that we're going to be there in '07,” Gillick said on the day Abreu was traded, warning fans of a drawn-out rebuild. “I think probably right now, it's going to take longer than that. We've got some younger people in the pitching staff, especially, that we're going to plug in. With young people you have inconsistency, so it's going to take time to get their feet on the ground. I think it's probably going to be a little slower."

In the end, not only were they trying to contend in 2007, but they were trying to contend two weeks later, having the little-mentioned seller’s remorse that most teams will avoid this year.

The story of the 2006 Phillies’ trade season began with the club nowhere near the first-place Mets and ninth in the wild card standings. As much as it’s a caution against selling too soon, it’s also just a strange story of how a team traded its veterans as one of the hottest sellers, got absolutely nothing back, and then shifted on the fly into a mode that yielded five years of playoffs.

July 28: 46-53, 6.5 games out of the wild card with eight teams to pass
Traded David Bell to the Brewers for Wilfrido Laureano
The narrative:
While the Phillies had some baseball reason to move Abreu and give Shane Victorino an everyday spot, the same cannot be said about Bell, which was strictly a money-saving endeavor, putting almost $2 million onto Milwaukee’s payroll. Bell was hitting .278/.345/.398, while his replacement Abraham Nunez was hitting .150/.186/.221 and wasn’t highly regarded in the organization. This was just getting out of a contract two months before it ended and the first step of this disassembly.
What they said: "We're still look to improve the position and the team as much as possible. We won't stop because Abraham is at third base. [But] we're going to give [Nunez] a chance to play." —Pat Gillick
What they got: A tall relief-only right-hander, the Phillies kept Laureano at low-A after the deal in his age-22 season, and he never played after 2006.

July 30: 47-54, 6.5 games out of the wild card with eight teams to pass
Traded Bobby Abreu and Corey Lidle to the Yankees for C.J. Henry, Jesus Sanchez, Carlos Monasterios and Matt Smith
The narrative:
This was the real white flag, as the Phillies traded one of the best and perhaps most underrated players in franchise history in Abreu. His decline had clearly begun, but he was still playing up to his contract. Aaron Rowand, Shane Victorino, and Pat Burrell were all there, though, and with a chance to give Victorino some everyday time, Abreu was scratched from the lineup for the first game of a doubleheader against the Marlins, having waived his no-trade clause. He would hit .295/.378/.465 for his three-year Yankees career.
What they said: "We haven't won with this group, so consequently I think you've got to change the mix. When I came in here, I said that we've got to squeeze five more wins out of the group. We haven't looked like we're going to get to 93. At the moment, it doesn't look like we're going to get to where we were last year." —Pat Gillick
What they got: Nothing, and that’s part of why this deadline bust-turned dynasty is so fascinating. You’d expect a big sell that was followed by so much prosperity to produce some of that talent, but it didn’t. Henry was supposed to be the centerpiece, a former first-round pick and brother of basketball star Xavier Henry. He crapped out in high-A ball in 2008 and went to play basketball at Kansas, where his brother played. Monasterios didn’t reach the majors for four years and a few organizations, somehow starting 13 games for the 2010 Dodgers as a Rule 5 pick. Sanchez was released and is still hanging around the Brewers farm system. All the major league appearances the Phillies got were from Smith, who had a 4.97 ERA in 23 outings in 2006 and 2007.

July 31: 49-54, 5.0 games out of the wild card with five teams to pass
Traded Rheal Cormier to the Reds for Justin Germano
The narrative:
After the Phillies swept the doubleheader the day before, the actual deadline came with a whimper. Jon Lieber, the only other semi-major piece rumored to be available, stayed put. He took the mound amid all the rumors and got lit up, giving up nine runs on 13 hits in 4 1/3 innings. Cormier, the Canadian reliever having a terrific (1.59 ERA) but terrifically lucky (5.83 FRA) season got moved to another ultimately failed chaser of the 2006 postseason.
What they said: "All my friends are leaving." —Mike Lieberthal
What they got: Germano, the one guy from this crop who actually turned into something of a regular. It happened elsewhere, as San Diego grabbed him on waivers before he ever played a game for the big league club, but they didn’t miss out on much. Despite playing parts of eight seasons in the majors, he’s yet to crack 1 WARP for his career.

August 7: 53-57, 3.5 games out of the wild card with four teams to pass
Traded Ryan Franklin to the Reds for Zac Stott
The narrative:
It wasn’t so much that the Phillies had climbed into the race as much as the race had backed up to them. The National League was bad that year—remember, this was the year the 83-win Cardinals not only took a playoff spot but also a World Series title. The 3.5 out told a pretty good story, but they were still sub-.500 and had just lost two out of three to the Mets.
What they got: About what you’d expect for a middle-innings guy with a 4.58 ERA who had just been designated for assignment—this was before Franklin’s revival with the Cardinals. Stott never pitched above high-A ball.

But then a funny thing happened in the midst of the dreariest wild card race in recent memory: the Phillies started winning. Their changes weren’t much. Nunez played third base but didn’t play all that well. Scott Mathieson replaced Lidle in the rotation and was eh. Victorino, for whom a spot was nicely cleared, actually split time with David Dellucci in Abreu’s absence.

What really happened was that Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins went nuts. Howard hit 14 home runs in August alone, slugging .750 and jumping to the front of the conversation for MVP, which he would ultimately win. Rollins hit .344/.405/.580 and went 9-for-9 on the bases in August. Lieber and rookie Cole Hamels, who had already been up well before the deadline, both had sub-2.50 ERAs.

When Gillick said the Phillies wouldn’t get there in 2007, he was almost right. Even after trading everybody, they looked like they could get there in 2006, and that’s when seller’s remorse set in.

In the following two weeks after the last sell, the Phillies hadn’t been playing much better, but the leaders had come back to the pack even more, putting them a good series or two away from a playoff spot.

And that’s when the great sale and rebuild reversed itself with the acquisition of a key piece of their eventual championship team in 2008.

August 19: 59-62, 2.5 games out of the wild card with three teams to pass
Acquired Jamie Moyer from the Mariners for Andrew Barb and Andy Baldwin

"The way that we've played since the July 31 deadline put us in a different position," Gillick said at the time.

It’s a scenario that teams certainly fear, and even more so now, in the age of the second wild card. Increased chances to make the playoffs with mediocre records combined with no change in the trade deadline makes for some reluctance to part with talent.

This year’s traditional sellers really numbered just three, and the Astros, White Sox and Cubs probably aren’t going to pull an about-face in two weeks like the Phillies did and start gearing up for a wild card run.

But the Phillies did, and their run continued after Moyer:

August 22: 62-62, 2.5 games out of the wild card with two teams to pass
Acquired Jose Hernandez from the Pirates for cash

August 27: 65-64, 1.5 games out of the wild card with two teams to pass
Acquired Jeff Conine from the Marlins for Angel Chavez

September 1: 67-66, 1.0 game out of the wild card with one team to pass
Acquired Randall Simon from the Rangers for cash

In all, the Phillies went 36-22 after July 31, the second-best record in the National League, despite effectively giving up at the deadline. Eventually, the Padres became the team to stand out in the wild card, and after the Dodgers caught them in the West, San Diego finished 20-9 in September to earn that last spot.

For the 85-77 Phillies, who had won 86, 86, and 88 the three years prior and still not made the playoffs, it was another excruciating miss. But gone was the idea that 2007 was out of reach, and they started acting like it. After their August waiver spree, they went through an offseason befitting a contender. They traded top prospects for Freddy Garcia, they signed Jayson Werth, and they signed Adam Eaton. They weren’t all good moves, but they weren’t coming from a team that was thinking for the long term.

In just 12 days that had changed, and ushered in the Phillies dynasty that seems content just to fade away.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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