The Deadline Dilemma: Stand Pat or Sell the Farm?

Sunday, July 31st marks the final day major league baseball clubs can make a trade in hopes of improving their franchise.  Although players can be claimed off of waivers after the deadline (as shown by the Giants picking up last season's post-season surprise hero Cody Ross from the Marlins and the Phillies grabbing now folk-legend Matt Stairs before making their World Series run in 2008), the biggest moves tend to happen before this annual deadline.

The approach of the trade deadline leaves behind it a dark line dividing big league sellers and buyers.  Sellers are teams out of the playoff race, giving up the large contracts of players they will probably lose to free agency for younger, often minor league talent.  Buyers eye up their competition in the playoff hunt and hope to upgrade with proven talent to give them an edge.  Over the past decade, the Phillies have gone from being sellers, unloading an ace pitcher Curt Schilling for four lower priced prospects, to buyers, giving up their own highly regarded yet unproven talent for top of the rotation pitchers Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt.

Making big moves to land these two members of the "Four Aces", along with the huge off-season acquisition Roy Halladay (as well as Cliff Lee again), has created high expectations for Phillies' general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. to pull another rabbit out of his hat and bring a talent to Philly that improves their already excellent chances to regain their place on top of the baseball universe.

What these trade deadline debates usually come down to is how much potential future talent should a team give up for what may be a short-term fix.  For example, the biggest name in trade talks this summer is Carlos Beltran.  As of July 27, he is slated to go from the Mets to the Giants, where he will finish the season before entering the free agent market to go to the highest bidder.  In short, he's a three month rental.  Is it worth sacrificing the future for immediate gratification?  In most aspects of life, the wise sage will tell you the answer is no.  But in the world of baseball, a sport where timing is everything, sometimes now is the time.

The papers, sports talk radio stations, and social networking websites throw names around like they’re playing soft toss, with the proposed scenarios ranging from the realistic to the ridiculous.  Players and managers are asked for their opinions, rarely admitting that the teammates they go into battle with daily are not quite good enough (interestingly, both Charlie Manuel and Roy Halladay have gone on record in the past week saying they hope the Phillies front office make moves to improve the team).  This time of year, every baseball writer and fan becomes a GM that knows better than anyone what is best for their team.

The biggest challenge for both actual and arm-chair GMs is gauging the real value prospects.  Will a pitcher tearing up the competition on a single A farm team translate his skills to the next levels and eventually the majors?  Can a young masher crushing the two-pitch repertoires of most AAA pitchers make the mental adjustment to facing big leaguers with three, four, or even five bullets in their finely calibrated guns?  Whether analyzing statistics or swings, earned run averages or arms, no one can be sure just what each prospect will eventually bring to the game.  Yet we expertly put their names into potential deals or adamantly argue that they are "off the table."

With this in mind, I won’t offer my trade ideas to Amaro, leaving the mounting pressures of his job to him for now.  Instead I want to take a look back on the young prospects the Phillies have given up over the past few years for the pieces that have given them a dominant pitching staff and the best record in baseball this season, attempting to make an early evaluation of just what we sacrificed to enjoy our current success.

July 2009: Phillies obtain LHP Cliff Lee and OF Ben Francisco from Cleveland Indians for RHP Jason Knapp, IF Lou Donald, C Lou Marson, and RHP Carlos Carrasco

  • Jason Knapp: A flame-thrower with a fastball that hit the high nineties, Knapp was the ace of the Phil’s single A affiliate, the Lakewood Blue Claws.  A 6-5, 242 lb second round draft pick, Knapp is currently out for the season after his second major surgery since joining the Indians’ organization, this one on his throwing shoulder.  The brief glimpse the Indians have seen of Knapp prior to the injury still showed promise, with him amassing 29 strikeouts in 16 innings of single A ball.  At 20 years old, they hope he has the time to bounce back from the setbacks, but two surgeries in as many years can’t have them feeling overly optimistic.
  • Lou Donald: The 26 year old Donald who drew the attention of the Indians with his .300 at the AA level.  Getting the call to the majors last year, Donald played hit .253 with 19 doubles, three triples, and four homers in 296 at bats.  He has spent this year back in the minors keeping his average around the .300 mark for the Indians’ AAA affiliate Columbus Clippers.
  • Lou Marson: Since being selected by the Phillies in the 4th round of the 2004 draft, Marson has been seen as a good catcher with the potential to be a decent hitter.  He has caught 43 games for the Indians this year with a .242 average and one home run.  Although the 25 year old’s numbers don’t blow anyone away, the Indians still feel he has the ability to be a solid player both behind the plate and with his bat.
  • Carlos Carrasco: Going into the 2009, Carrasco was ranked by many as the #1 pitcher in the Phillies farm system.  Since the trade to Cleveland, Carlos has pitched with the big league club with some success.  Since the end of the 2009 season, he has a record of 10-14 with a 4.72 era.  In the 181 innings he has pitched in the majors, he has stuck out 128, walked 59, and allowed 201 hits.  Nothing particularly stunning here, but at 24 years old, he has plenty of time to improve. 

December 2009: Phillies obtain RHP Roy Halladay from Toronto Blue Jays for C Travis d'Arnaud, RHP Kyle Drabek, and OF Michael Taylor

  • Travis d’Arnaud: Another first round pick with high hopes from the Phillies, Travis became expendable with the emergence of a few other catchers in the Phillies’ system.  Still viewed by many as one of the best catching prospects in the minors (Baseball America had him at #36 rated prospect of 2011), although he hasn’t made an impact with the Blue Jays yet.  Currently he is hitting .313 with 24 doubles and 12 home runs in 291 plate appearances at the AA level.  At 22 years old, he is probably still a year or two away from any time in the majors.
  • Kyle Drabek: The word “untouchable” was most commonly attached to this highly touted pitcher during the Phillies push to get Halladay before the July 2009 trade deadline.  The 23 year old Drabek started this season with the Jays, going 4-5 with a 5.70 ERA in14 starts.  Control problems (53 walks/48 strike outs/72.2 innings) got Kyle sent back to AAA in June.  In the minors, the Blue Jays have been encouraged by his play, but have no timetable set for his return to the big league club, citing they need to see more consistency before that happens.
  • Michael Taylor: The biggest disappointment of the Halladay deal for the Blue Jays, Taylor has since been traded again and is now in the Oakland A’s farm system.  The 6-6, 250 lb outfielder was seen as a future power hitter, but the 25 year old has yet to deliver.  In 690 at bats with Oakland’s AAA team, Taylor has only 18 homers, causing many to wonder where the power he showed coming up in the Phillies’ system has gone.  In the past few weeks he has shown some signs of bouncing back, but he’ll have to put together a longer string of success than that before he sees any time in the majors.

July 2010: Phillies obtain RHP Roy Oswalt from Houston Astros for RHP J.A. Happ, OF Anthony Gose, SS Jonathan Villar

  • J.A. Happ: Like current Phillie Vance Worley, a rookie pitcher with surprise success that finds himself in the center of many trade rumors this season, Happ went 12-4 in 2009 and finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.  Since joining Houston, however, Happ has struggled to find that same form, going 9-16 with a 5.18 ERA in 33 starts.  His recent starts offer little signs of return to his 2009 form, with him allowing at least five runs in his last six starts.
  • Anthony Gose: Gose actually bounced from Houston to Toronto on the same day the Phillies made the trade and has shown some promise with the Blue Jay’s AA team.  Although only hitting .257 this year, the 20 years young Gose has made the most of his speed, stealing 47 bases in 98 games and covering a lot of ground in center field.  With some improvement to his approach at the plate, the Blue Jays are hopeful they will get to benefit from Gose’s quickness some time in the future.
  • Jonathan Villar: Another 20 year old, Villar plays short stop for Houston’s AA club, posting a .239 batting average and seven homers in 44 games this season.  Great speed, agility, and a strong arm give the Astros hope that he will develop into an excellent defender and threat on the base paths, but at this point his skills are still far too raw to get any sense if this will ever come to fruition.

The final ruling is far from final for all of these young players, but even in the short time since their trades, ideas about their potential have undergone changes, some drastically.  At this point, it is almost impossible to imagine the Phillies' front office ever regretting any of these trades.  But does that mean the same formula will work for them this time?  After all, the fourth and youngest member of the Four Aces, Cole Hamels, was once a highly regarded prospect in the Phillies' farm system, and there would have been no World Series victory in 2008 without his MVP performance.  As Hall of Famer and late Phillie outfielder and broadcaster Richie Ashburn may have put it, the final verdicts on these midsummer maneuvers will be left up to those often fickle and always unpredictable Baseball Gods.

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