If anything good (besides Cliff Lee) came out of the Phillies' protracted give-and-take, dance-of-death with J.P. Ricciardi and the Toronto Blue Jays during the Roy Halladay "negotiations," it's that pretty much every casual Phillies fan is now versed in the top prospects in the Phillies' farm system.
The two most discussed position players in those negotiations -- outfielders Michael Taylor, now with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, and Domonic Brown, now with Double-A Reading Phillies -- have shown little reason for fans to doubt their abilities.
Taylor, a left-fielder, has been sidelined with a strained oblique since August 15th and, despite a typically slow start for him at the Triple-A level, was 14-for-40 in his last ten games, including hitting for the cycle on August 12th versus Louisville. About the only qualms with Taylor right now are that some scouts and experts don't quite know what to make of him; he's a gigantic contact hitter who hits for power due to his incredible physical strength. He doesn't fit any prototypical prospect mold, so he's hard to project. The numbers, however, speak for themselves (combined .320/.395/.549 at two levels this season). Add in his intelligence (he's a Stanford man, don'tchaknow) and the sky is the limit. He's going to be ready by mid-2010, if not sooner. He'll be 24 in December, so he's not exactly a young prospect.
Right-fielder Domonic Brown avoided the new level slow start and has been absolutely tearing it up in Reading (.320/.378/.587). Brown missed a significant stretch earlier this summer due to a broken finger but barely missed a step. Scouts and stat mavens both rave about the guy, his makeup is off-the-charts great, and his teammates love him. And he doesn't turn 22 until early September. If there's one Phillies prospect destined for superstardom, this is the guy. Barring injury or any hitches in his development, Brown projects to be ready for a spot in Philadelphia in 2011.
Sounds great! What's the problem? After the jump...
Well, there just happen to be three guys in Philadelphia right now named Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth, all three All-Stars having excellent (overall) seasons. And the Phillies are committed to all three through at least the 2010 season.
Ibanez is signed through 2011 and is owed a base salary of $11.5MM in both 2010 and 2011. Werth signed a two year extension in the offseason through 2010, when he is owed $7MM. Victorino is still in his arbitration years and is under team control through 2011 and is earning just $3.125MM this year. With the numbers he's putting up this year, his performance in the 2008 postseason, and his outsized personality (ahem), he's likely to get a substantial bump in his salary for 2010.
Although the team sheds the salaries of Jim Thome (yup, Phillies paid him $3MM in 2009), Adam Eaton, Geoff Jenkins, and possibly Brett Myers before next season, Chase Utley, Victorino, Werth, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels all get substantial raises next year, bumping the team very close to its likely upper limits of payroll tolerance and thereby limiting the Phillies' ability to retool in the event of an injury to one of their key players. Shedding a few million dollars from the payroll would not be the worst thing the team could do.
So what should the Phillies do?
Yup, it's a complicated situation, compounded by the sentimental feelings the organization and fanbase have for Werth and Victorino as 2008 Champs.
The Raul Ibanez signing, which looked like a masterstroke as recently as July, has lost some lustre with the .746 OPS he's posted since July 1st. He's probably still somewhat hobbled by his groin injury, but that's what happens to 37 year olds -- they get injured!
Ibanez is the player we thought he was -- a solid hitting outfielder, prone to blistering hot streaks and Arctic cold stretches. From an actuarial standpoint, trading the 37 year old Ibanez and getting another team to take his salary could be a coup. However, thanks to his hot start, he's become a fan favorite, and a P.R. conscious organization isn't likely to jettison a beloved player and an equally good human being.
Letting Jayson Werth fly the coop after 2010 seems like an obvious solution, compounded by the fact that Werth is blossoming as a player this season, and is on track for his first 30 HR/100 RBI season, along with fine defense in right field and the ability to play a solid center field as well. Losing that production is a risky proposition.
Victorino could net the team a solid return on the trade market, and is in the midst of what's likely to be a career season. While he's a fine player, he's eminently replaceable, postseason hero status notwithstanding.
Another option this offseason is to revisit the Roy Halladay situation with J.P. Ricciardi, with Michael Taylor as a centerpiece for a much-reduced package required for a single year of the superstar righthander. Which brings us back to the payroll question. Or pursue a third baseman from another organization, with Taylor as trade bait.
Blocking Michael Taylor and keeping him in the minors is more than a little unfair to a player who has shown that he's a capable hitter and fielder, but the Phillies have reaped the benefit of keeping solid position players in the minor leagues and allowing them to fully develop there. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley entered the league as complete players, and were All-Stars from the moment they entered the league. There was virtually no major league learning curve, and the Phillies have received the benefit of their peak seasons at manageable cost. Sucks for them, I guess, but it's good for us.
Conclusion: This is a nice problem to have. And I have no idea how to resolve it.
Nonetheless, I have a headache. Aspirin please!