There’s something distinctly seductive about the idea of faking one’s death. That, I’m convinced, is the real vicarious appeal of Mad Men’s Don Draper—not the womanizing or the preternatural cool or the getting blackout drunk at work or the creativity or even looking like a cartoon of a handsome man—the idea that no matter how bad things are at any given moment, you could punch out and start your life over. New name, new job, new home, new everything.
Or even better than faking one’s own death would be the option to simulate part of the calendar, like in a video game, to hibernate through the groundwork and wake up at the critical moment.
The potential to clean the slate must have appealed to new Phillies GM Matt Klentak, and to his boss, that venerable baseball institution and country club John Denver, president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail—they take over a team with substantial financial wherewithal, less than a decade removed from its last pennant, and an entirely clean slate.
But they’ll probably want to simulate 2016.
For years, writers and fans in search of a cheap laugh could point at Ruben Amaro’s profligacy with future assets, but a quick look into the future shows how conclusively those days have ended. The Phillies, this time last year a bad team bogged down with two of the seven highest salaries in baseball, plus at least $100 million still owed to Cole Hamels, have $24.7 million on the books for 2017—less than their drop in payroll from 2014 to 2015.
That $24.7 million goes toward buyouts for Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz and Charlie Morton, as well as a $13.2 million salary for Matt Harrison, who has bones made of soft cheese and will almost certainly not pitch in 2016, if ever again.
A trivial future salary commitment for a big-market team, plus no playing time distributed by the principles of throwing good money after bad. That’s as close to a clean slate as you can ask for in baseball.
But the change in identity is going to be even more drastic than the lack of veteran turnover would make you think. Just for fun, here’s a best-case scenario for what the Phillies’ lineup and starting rotation will look like when the team gets competitive again, say, in 2018 or 2019, assuming the Phillies don’t sign any high-profile free agents or make any more significant trades:
- Catcher: Jorge Alfaro
- First base: Rhys Hoskins
- Second base: Scott Kingery
- Third base: Maikel Franco
- Shortstop: J.P. Crawford
- Left field: Cornelius Randolph
- Center field: Odubel Herrera
- Right field: Nick Williams
- Rotation: Aaron Nola, Vincent Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, Jake Thompson, Mark Appel
It will almost certainly not look like this. Maybe Alfaro moves to the outfield, or Franco to first base, or Roman Quinn, Aaron Altherr and Carlos Tocci force their way into the lineup, or Herrera moves back to second base, or Randolph grows all the way into a first baseman. The point is this: Even among the Phillies’ young talent, the fruits of the rebuild that started midway through the 2012 season are only now starting to bubble up to the big league level.
Of the names I listed, only Franco, for all of 16 games and 58 plate appearances, had any big-league experience coming into the 2015 season. Only Herrera is at a full year of major-league service time. At the start of the 2014 season, most of those players were either amateurs or in different organizations.
The future for the Phillies really starts when Crawford—the team’s first franchise player-quality prospect since Domonic Brown, not that that’s going to make anyone feel better—makes his regular-season debut, either late this year or next.
Until then, it’s all about preparing the kingdom for his arrival: developing prospects and young major leaguers whose timetables are slightly ahead of Crawford’s, which means as many at-bats as possible for Franco in the meantime, and focusing more on developing Nola and Eickhoff than on winning games in the short term. It means uncovering potential contributors in unexpected places, as they did with Odubel Herrera last year, and hoped to do with Altherr before a wrist injury at the very least severely truncated his 2016 season. It means wringing the last possible ounce of potential from Freddy Galvis, Cody Asche and Cesar Hernandez, making absolutely certain that they can’t turn into average regulars.
And beyond that, it means sacrificing Morton, Jeremy Hellickson and Brett Oberholtzer on the altar of the God of Somebody’s Gotta Pitch Those Innings. Which is pretty much the equivalent of simulating the season.
All of that makes it hard to write a credulous short-term 2016 preview of the Phillies. It’s hard to answer questions like “Does Carlos Ruiz have anything left in the tank?” and “How will the Phillies fill the hole left by Altherr’s injury?” when the answer to every question that can be answered in the next 18 months is “I don’t care because it couldn’t possibly matter less.”
So here’s a partial list of players who ought to be making their debut between now and the end of 2017: Crawford, Williams, Thompson, Quinn, Alfaro, Andrew Knapp, Ben Lively, Zach Eflin and Kingery. That’s seven of the Phillies’ current BP top 10 prospects, as well as the entire remainder of the prospect return for Hamels. The harvest isn’t for a while, and the only thing left to do is ward off the locusts.
Because the present is irrelevant, and the future is a long way off. But when the future comes, it will come in a big hurry.
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