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July 11, 2013

Painting the Black

Time for Phillies to Rebuild, or Refill?

by R.J. Anderson

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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
Most teams that buy at the deadline are in the playoff race. The Phillies, as mentioned earlier, are on the margins—within six games of a Wild Card spot, within eight of the division lead. PECOTA gives them slim odds of making the tournament due to the current deficit as well as the perceived quality of the teams involved. The Phillies are projected to win 79 games, which would not earn them a postseason trip. The Phillies are the third-best team in the National League East, according to third-order winning percentage.

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
The Phillies have the usual mix of short- and long-term veterans that double as appealing trade chips. Take Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Jimmy Rollins, and Jonathan Papelbon out of the picture for a second and that leaves Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, and Michael Young as the most attractive and (likely) available trade chips. None of those players—sans perhaps Utley—are likely to net a qualifying offer, meaning the Phillies would need only to consider the weight of their probable contributions versus the quality of the offered packages; or, in simpler terms, get something or let them walk for nothing after the year.

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
Think about how the Pirates approached the 2011 deadline. They were in the picture, though everyone believed they would get cropped out before long. Rather than mortgaging the future, Neal Huntington feigned the appearance of being a buyer by netting two cheap veterans in Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. Those moves didn't move the needle much, but did improve the Pirates in the short term without costing them in the long term. If the Phillies follow suit there'd be little downside.

Possible explanation No. 3: The Phillies don't believe they need to rebuild
This is perhaps the least believable explanation. It requires accepting Amaro as myopic and stubbornly ignorant of his own roster. Beyond that, it necessitates that the Phillies think the money coming off their books—about $45 million in 2013 commitments, assuming Utley, Ruiz, Young, and Roy Halladay walk—is enough, after other players receive raises, to fill the holes and add impact talent through the free-agent market. Without knowing the details it's hard to say there's no chance the Phillies could overhaul their team this route while remaining competitive. Let's just say it's hardly a given.

Possible explanation No. 4: The Phillies want to put off rebuilding just a bit longer
Remember those veterans procured in long-term deals? In theory, the Phillies could ride out this season as buyers and then, if things go poorly, look to move those players for the right packages during the winter. Waiting would give Amaro the opportunity to consider all routes available to him with time in greater supply.

Possible explanation No. 5: The Phillies don't believe they can rebuild—at least not quickly
There should be two primary goals in any Phillies trade: gain talented young players and/or gain salary relief. Unfortunately, it's hard to do both in the same deal. The Red Sox' quick deconstruction then subsequent rebuild is a tempting, albeit normally unattainable template. Ben Cherington is no dolt. He took over an underperforming team and after it continued on that route he dismantled it. He then signed a number of free agents with the money saved. Though both the Red Sox and Phillies were big-market teams facing a second consecutive missed postseason, the similarities end there, as Cherington inherited most of his problems, unlike Amaro, and had a better farm system in place to draw from.

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
That's right—all the interest in buying is little more than a smoke screen. Hence the Papelbon-to-Detroit rumblings that won't go away, and will instead intensify the longer the Phillies have high-level scouts checking out the Tigers' Triple-A team. It's possible Amaro has considered all of the above lines of reasoning and arrived at the same conclusion many others have during the past 12 months: it's time for the Phillies to undergo a retooling.

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

Related Content:  Phillies,  Trade Deadline

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