Phillies Whittling Away At Mortality While Window Closes?

Get used to it. (Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images)

In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming. He will return, and reduce the mighty Phillies to dust.

The Phillies are old. Older than Cthulhu. Older than the Precambrian. Older than Jamie Moyer, Phil Niekro, and Satchel Paige. Older than Jose Contreras' real age. Older than owners of Oldsmobiles. Older than the Over the Hill Gang. Older than the Wheeze Kids. Older than customers of that stodgy steak house in your town where everyone has blue hair. Older than condiments in my fridge. Older than Danny Almonte.

And, oh!, the contracts!  The horror, and, specifically, the horror...

How can this team possibly be competitive in 2012, or 2013, or further down the line?

IS BEING OLD A BAD THING?

First of all, old is not in and of itself a "bad" thing.  Look at this list of teams, and sort by age.  What do you notice about the first six teams?  If you thought, "They include 5 playoff teams and one second place team, as well as the top four teams in run differential..." then you win a prize.  Younger teams (by comparison to the six oldest), such as the Braves and the Rays, can make a run, but even those teams are not the youngest teams.  Atlanta, for all its vaunted youth, is in the top half age-wise.  Derek Lowe, Chipper Jones, and Tim Hudson will do that.  The key appears to be having older players who are productive and, importantly, not injured.

 

ARE THE PHILLIES REALLY GETTING "OLDER"?

A second point is that the Phillies, while old right now, are not as old as they were last year.  At least as a team. Largely as a result of the departure of Jamie Moyer from the roster after 2010, the Phillies dropped two full years off their average pitching age.  That and they added a gaggle of young guns to the bullpen, replacing older guns.

But even the hitters dropped .3 of a year, year to year, which is remarkable.  A static team would be a whole year older from 2010 to 2011.  Instead, the team went 1.3 years in the other direction (.3 + the expected 1 year added to "the core"). Lookit.  The Phillies will likely let Raul Ibanez go after the year ends (39) and Brad Lidge probably won't be back (34).  Danys Baez (33) and J.C. Romero (35) are already gone, replaced by younger, lither arms.  Ross Gload (35) is likely done, too, probably to be replaced, functionally (back-up 1B, sometime OF, and PH), by a combination of the talents of John Mayberry and Domonic Brown.

"Sure," you think, "but what about the starting pitchers and the everyday players! They are all nearly dead!  And they are irreplaceable!" Well, aside from Chase Utley, the answer is "not exactly -- everyone can be replaced." 

 

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

For starters, being "set" in baseball means a horizon of what, four or five years?  A great player can be with a team for longer than that (See: Rollins, Jimmy) but baseball years are like dog years.  No team in baseball has a perfect plan for the next decade for 8 fielders, 5 starting pitchers, 3 - 4 good bullpen pitchers, and a bench and fillers.  Maybe they have some good thoughts, but after five years, and all bets are off at the MLB level.  At some point, you have to rely on a productive player development system.

Player Development:

The tasks on a to-do list of a team's player development unit are pretty obvious:

1. Find talent.  You need scouts and money.  There is the draft.  International free agents.  Rule 5 picks.

2. Sign talent.  You need money.

3. Develop talent.  You need good facilities (money) and good teachers.

By any measure, the Phillies' farm system has found, signed, and developed a great deal of talent over the last decade+.  They have found/developed/acquired: Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Vance Worley, David Herndon, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Michael Schwimer, Ryan Madson, Carlos Ruiz, Domonic Brown, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence, Cliff Lee Prime, wait, what?  I lost you after Brown? Well, Halladay didn't come to Philadelphia from a cabbage patch. The Phillies traded useful assets to get him.  The assets didn't come from the cabbage patch, either.  They had to find, secure, and develop those assets and trade them to another team to get Le Roi, King of Pitchers.  And Lee Prime.  And Oswalt and Pence.

Acquiring MLB Talent:

When the raw talent inputs are developed to some extent, three options remain:

1. Use it, or

2. Trade it for parts you need, or

3. Let it languish in the minors while buying free agents.

At some level, the success of the Phillies, while attributed to many factors, ultimately can be traced to developing lots and lots of young players, making wise Rule 5 picks, and signing above-average players to long-term deals.  Halladay is an achievement of the Phillies' player development system.  So is Hunter Pence.  So was Cliff Lee in 2009.  This is obvious to most readers of this site, but lots of casual fans don't understand this.  Some teams that have more limited modes of operation don't understand this.  Still, it's absolutely a fact.  The Phillies aren't just a high-payroll team - they are an exceptional team at finding and developing players.  They may not have pitcher cloning vats like the Braves, for instance, but they do pretty well.  Somehow, over the last 2 - 3 years, the Phillies effectively "developed" Bastardo, Stutes, Worley, Schwimer, AND Halladay and Pence.  That's a damn productive pipeline.

If the Phillies are to continue their success, they obviously need to continue that pipeline.  No team with ambitions to be permanently good can simply sit back and milk the current roster.  The team needs to constantly assess what assets it has, how long it has them, and how it will replace them.  Are the Braves "set" to dominate the Phillies in 3 -4 years?  It appears that they have excellent, young, cheap pitching and some good players.  But honestly, nobody really knows what they'll have in 4 - 5 years.  Or what the Phillies will have.  

It's useful to consider that Utley, Rollins, and Howard, while not surprises, were not putting the Phillies' minor league system at the top of anyone's radar early last decade.  So what the Braves have, for instance, or the Royals, in the minors now may be useful to consider, but it doesn't mean that things are set in stone.  Instead, to prognosticate whether a team is going to "fall off a cliff" you have to look at the whole picture, including the MLB roster, contracts, player development productivity (past and present), and financial resources.  And then make the call.  Without doing these things, you're just talking out of your ass. 

Phillies Roster Review:

First Base:

Howard is a fixture.  His contract, at $25 million a year for the next five years, is an overpay.  But he's not a horrible first baseman who is worth nothing.  He's probably worth something around $15 - $18 million, with a decline that you can figure over the lifetime of the contract.  And as discussed below, the Phillies can afford an overpay like that, as long as Howard stays on the field in a reasonably productive, .265/30HR/100RBI type of way. In some respects, his best attribute has been either his work ethic or his willingness to change himself or his game in response to fair criticisms: He lost weight.  He worked hard on his defense, though it will never be great.  He has never been a malcontent.  And he still just murders right-handed pitching.

Second Base:

Utley is a generational talent at second base, and any replacement will be of a lesser quality.  But excellent players who suffer regular injuries can be productive for long careers. Chipper Jones, though most of us loathe him for the beatings he has administered to the Phillies over his Hall of Fame career, is Exhibit A.  And Utley isn't going anywhere, barring a career-ending injury, until the end of 2013, so there are three offseasons (a baseball lifetime) to prepare.  But this is an issue.  And there is no obvious answer.  It may be that extending an increasingly fragile Utley may be the best option. Half an Utley is better than a whole Marlon Anderson.  If Utley can play, it is difficult to imagine he will go anywhere else.  If he cannot play, then the Phillies will almost certainly have to develop or acquire a lesser player.

Shortstop:

Jimmy Rollins still has significant value at shortstop. I was very pessimistic about him at the outset of the year, and I am very happy to be wrong. He's old and he plays a demanding position, but his performance has been very good.  Getting 3.3 WAR (B-R) to date in 2011 from him is great.  And a plausible replacement for him exists in the form of one Freddy Galvis.  Not an MVP Rollins replacement, but a capable, cost-controlled player with a gee whiz glove.  Extending Rollins reasonably while letting Galvis play the role of utility man and "Rollins understudy" for the next few years lets me sleep at night.  And the Phillies drafted this Tyler Greene guy, too.  Keeping Rollins increases payroll and age, but if he can't be retained or if he breaks down, there is a plausible Plan B, though a drop off in performance is highly likely.

Third:

Third base is a problem now.  Not an awful one, but it is hardly a settled position. Every Wilson Valdez at bat hurts the team. Polanco keeps breaking down, and he's 35. His WAR (I use B-R numbers throughout) is only 1.3, and most of that is defensive.  Replacing him should not make the wheels fall of the wagon, and may present a WAR upgrade opportunity, though any upgrade will likely cost more.  A healthy Polanco is one thing, but a constantly dinged and aging one is not an answer beyond 2012.  And there is nobody waiting in the wings on the farm who is MLB ready.  There are plausible future bodies in the minors, but nobody that is even at Polanco's diminished level yet. His very reasonable contract runs out at the end of 2012, so the "to do" list includes "find a 3B."  And that's ok -- nobody replaces every position from within.

Catcher:

Carlos Ruiz plays the toughest position on the field, and he is aging.  He is still fabulously productive, largely because he gets on base.  Claims that his BABIP-fueled OBP from 2010 would collapse have been largely wrong, though there has been a bit of a dropoff.  The likely reason for his sustained OBP success is that he is protected in the batting order by Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels on many days.  He is making $2.75M this year and has put up 2.6 WAR in 112 games, mostly on offense.  In short, he has been a steal.  He's under contract through 2012 with a club option for 2013.  

To do list? Keep a marginally capable backup in place and ride him.  Sebastian Valle is among the top prospects of a much-depleted Phillies farm system, so it is not implausible to think that Ruiz may be replaced in-house by a cost-controlled replacement.  Barring physical collapse, he may continue to be useful past his current contract.  He should be reasonable to re-sign.  My basis for this is that he doesn't have headline offensive skills (power, for instance) and he will hit FA as a 34 year old catcher. In the short term, catcher seems to be under control, but questions exist past 2013.  Not insurmountable ones, but questions.

Outfield:

It is possible that the OF may be Pence, Mayberry, and Dom Brown after 2012, unless Victorino agrees to an extension. Raul Ibanez, though a loyal soldier, has had a rough year, though we all note the joecatz periods of greatness.  I'm guessing he goes, unless he wants to be Gload II next year. I'm not sure that there is a place for Ben Francisco in Philadelphia next year, since "fifth outfielder" doesn't really resound with me.

Captain Obvious says, "A great deal depends on Brown panning out." Despite popular criticism of his 2011 MLB season, I saw a player who was getting on base at over the MLB average.  His hand injury may have robbed him of some power - .393 vs. Mayberry's .519 for SLG.  That was the concern when the injury occurred, and guess what? It happened! A re-boot for 2012 may do him some good.  And he is *so* young still.  Give the kid some time, Philadelphia. Fortunately, the Phillies have the luxury of time to be patient. There's no urgency here.

Mayberry hasn't sold me yet, but I am at least Mer-curious now.  He plays a decent CF and can spell Howard at 1B (and possibly against some LHP...).  And he's cheap, cheap, cheap.  At worst, he's a good backup.  At best, he might be a late-bloomer who finally figured it out.  Which would be awesome.  Except 250ish at bats doesn't sell me.  Again, with the known quantities in the near term of Pence and Victorino, the Phillies can afford to wait and see.

Victorino probably never has a year like this again, but he's not ancient and he's really good.  An extension, if not egregiously long, may be merited here.  There's some time to figure this out though, and to see what the Phillies really have in Mayberry/Brown.  It may be that the team won't be hurt much if Victorino goes, depending on what Brown and Mayberry do.  If one or neither is the answer for an outfield spot (particularly Mayberry, who would slot in for Victorino), then that should be obvious by the time a decision needs to be made on Victorino.

Pence will be flinging his elbows and knees all over CBP until at least the end of 2013 when he clears arbitration, if he is not extended before then.  Right field is in capable hands for now.  Not "long term" yet, but the Phillies have time to decide whether to buy out some arbitration and lock up Pence for 4 - 5 years, which would help fix the OF for an eternity in baseball years.

I am not concerned about the OF -- there are four plausible, ++ options for the three slots for the near and intermediate future among Pence, Brown, Mayberry, and Victorino.  The first three may provide cost control and long-term, useful offensive parts.  The future OF compared to the 2011 version is probably LF+, CF-, RF+, netting gains to help offset the inevitable declines in the infield. Arguably, the Phillies could expect a full year of Pence/Victorino/Brown/Mayberry to produce much more than the OF this year.  And the minors hold some plausible OF help 2 - 3 years out.  It is a good prognosis on production, cost, and team control.  I can imagine realistic scenarios avoiding the need for a huge payroll leap to maintain or improve current OF productivity.

Bullpen:

It is pretty obvious that the bullpen is going young, and that this has been a good move in 2011.  There is no reason to expect that this will change going forward. The Iron Pigs did their best veni, vedi, vici this year.  Bastardo probably can't get better, but he's got electric stuff and will continue to be a force. Herndon, Kendrick, and Stutes will be cheap, workable parts. Schwimer will be back in MLB next year, too, and he looks promising based on early returns.

Lidge goes, along with his contract, though I am not opposed to him returning at a reasonable price.  I've written off Contreras for 2012 and the future, unless he zombifies his elbow before spring training.  I think Madson goes, unless he takes less than top dollar, and I don't see that as likely (Boras'd).  Had Bastardo not turned out so well this year, I think the Phillies would be more pressured to work out something with Madson, but I don't see the need at this point, especially with payroll in the nosebleed range already.

The Phillies will scrounge for odd parts each year to fill in the cracks, but a good bullpen core is in place and cost-controlled for some time.  And there are plausible parts in the minors in case established players falter. Phillippe Aumont, in particular, may be helpful sooner rather than later, or Justin De Fratus, or a reinvented Joe Savery.  The bullpen, like the OF, looks to be pretty solid for now and the future.  

There's a lot of cost control and service time control here.  Buying a bullpen this way makes much more sense than gambling free agent dollars on highly volatile assets each year.  If the Phillies somehow retain Madson, then they have a real area of strength in absolute performance terms and in financial terms for a long time. Even without Madson, they appear to be in good hands.  And the Phillies stand to gain lots of payroll flexibility with the Iron Pigs taking the roles formerly served by expensive veterans.

Starting Pitching:

Starting pitching is in the hands of Lee, Halladay, and whether Amaro can work out a deal with Hamels' agent.  With those three arms, the Phillies have, barring injury, one of the top rotations in MLB for at least 3 years. Signing Hamels long-term is absolutely critical.  The team has bet a great deal on the health of Halladay and Lee.  Another bet on Hamels may seem odd for a team that had long resisted giving out long deals to pitchers, but Hamels, to a lesser extent than Utley, perhaps, is a remarkable talent that can't be allowed to leave.  And making a big bet on him mitigates the risk associated with the bets on Halladay and Lee by virtue of diversification.  Blanton and Oswalt will leave as their contracts expire in 2012 and 2011, respectively. That's pretty obvious to everyone for many reasons, not the least of which is that Moyer is coming back next year.

Worley, Kendrick, Herndon, May, Biddle, and some of the other wild card arms in the minors will fill the cracks around the big three for the next 3 - 5 years, assuming Hamels stays.  It's hard to go out beyond that, but the Phillies appear to be pretty tied down with what they have in place, both in the majors and waiting in the wings, and that is most likely a "good thing."  

Roster Prognosis:

With the starting pitching and the bullpen that this team has for the next 3 - 5 years, the team will compete for the playoffs every year, almost without any consideration given to the performances of the aging core, by which is usually meant Howard/Utley/Rollins.  Whether the Phillies are as elite as they have been in 2011 will depend on the health and productivity of HUR, but whether they are a playoff team depends less on HUR than most of us probably casually think.  I discuss this more below, but your takeaway is "portfolio theory."

 

MONEY CAN'T BUY YOU LOVE, BUT IT BUYS A CLOSE FACSIMILE

This really can't be overstated, but the Phillies have money.  And loads of it.  Not crazy money like some owners, with massive wealth independent of the baseball operation.  Not big old loads of corporate money.  But cash flow from the baseball operation.  It comes from being in one of the biggest markets in the United States with only one MLB team.  The Texas Rangers are similar in this respect, as are, oddly, the Houston Astros, for all the good it has done the latter.  

Here's an interesting look at the relationship of market size and team performance from waaaaaaay back in 2004.  Look at the predicted wins column -- the Phillies should have been 8th, but performed far worse.  This analysis includes periods before the cash spigots were turned on by the new ballpark, of course.  Also, this counts Baltimore as Baltimore/DC, obviously, since the chart also lists "Montreal" and since Baltimore, minus DC and Northern VA, is a small market.  

The Phillies also have fan momentum resulting from a successful team.  It's a virtuous cycle, and one that gives them more flexibility than a team such as, say, the Phillies going into 2007.  The Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay deals really show how this has meaning.  Washington had to overpay for Jayson Werth.  The Phillies underpaid to get Cliff Lee.  Organizational momentum has its benefits.  And I suspect, though I can't back it up, that it helps when signing draftees and international players.  This leverages the money even further.

 

A "WINDOW" IS NOTHING BUT A HOLE IN THE WALL

Are the Phillies trying to rush through a closing window?  Perhaps.  I think it would be fair to say that 2012 may not be as successful for the Phillies as 2011 has been. 2011 may well be the best regular season year in the history of a franchise that is 129 years old.  A decline from that is hardly the second division.  Minka Kelly is over 30, but she's still hot. Got it?

Will 2012 be funner?  Probably not.  Which means that the window is closing.  But there are many possible states of the window other than "wide open" and "shut tight."  This is a quantum window, rather than a binary one.

Rather than an open or shut window, think of a hole in your wall leading outdoors.  Every team has a window like this that changes in size each year based on circumstances inside and outside the control of the team.  Getting through the window to the outside (the playoffs) is the goal at the start of each year.  And the Phillies have made it through the window for five straight years, including this season.  

The window won't shut next year, though.  And it won't shut in 2013.  Because there is no window to close.  It is just a hole in the wall of varying size.  It might be a smaller hole in 2012 and 2013 than in 2011, but it will still be there, letting in sunlight.  Some teams, like the Astros this year, had a window the size of a needle's eye rather than the Phillies' panoramic picture window.  So it's never "open or shut", rather it is a probability game based on how much WAR a team is likely to produce in a given year.

The Phillies' actions during any given year affect both that year and future years.  To the extent that the Phillies treat each year in a stand-alone manner and heavily discount the future, the short term bias creates problems down the stretch.  But Dave Montgomery and Ruben Amaro do not think of just "this year." Honest. Management of responses to changes in circumstances in an ad hoc mode or in response to an immediate crisis prevent a team from making sure that the size of present and future windows is maximized in an optimal way.  And this leadership team evidently does not think only of the present.

It is probably a good idea for the Phillies, at least during some years, to have the leadership courage to step back, assess the long term position of the team, and act with the future in mind.  Sometimes, you have to pay down the credit card.  It is not yet clear whether this is something the team is willing to do, but there are clues.  Whether the Hunter Pence trade tells us anything about the mindset of the Phillies brass on this point is murky, but possibly helpful.  A Beltran trade this year would have screamed, "selling out to WIN NOW" but the Pence trade was, while very costly to the future, more of a hedged bet.  And this is consistent with what is known about the Phillies.  In addition to the Pence example, consider Halladay: they weren't going to trade for him unless he could be extended, which he was, and favorably.  It's smoke from the Vatican chimney, but we have some data points.

 

HATERS GONNA BE HATING...FOR A LONG TIME

The Phillies have been portrayed as heading off an age-related cliff.  Sorry to say, but it just isn't happening.  There will be a decline from this historic season, but the 2011 Phillies are, as I write this, 19 games up in the loss column on the second-place wild card team in the NL.  They can decline quite a bit and still be a playoff team.  Arguably, if you accept the validity of WAR, the Phillies could lose 10 WAR worth of players (Howard, Utley, and Rollins, for instance) for the season and still be in the hunt for not only the wildcard, but also the division.  They could lose 20 WAR and still be duking it out with St. Louis for the wildcard.  That's a breathtaking talent gulf between the Phillies and the out-of-contention pack (but less so vis-a-vis other playoff teams).

 

THE MONEYSHOT

The genius, or perhaps good furtune, of this Phillies team is that it does not depend on a Bagwell/Biggio combination.  Or a Kent/Bonds combination.  Or Spahn and Sain.  Virtually every major role is filled by players who are above average, by a little or a lot.  Maybe, my straw man, you think the Phillies arrived where they are solely as a result of  good fortune, but that is breathtakingly naive.  Good fortune was certainly required to have things work out this well, but this team, and its current organizational configuration, is the result of some exceptional planning and execution at all levels.

Injuries, free agent losses, and ordinary variations in performance cannot take the wheels off the wagon.  The Phillies organization is not indestructible, but the team it has constructed is pretty close.  It is because there are so many eggs in so many baskets that a catastrophe is unlikely.  This is classic portfolio theory, folks.  The risk of sustained, team-wide, poor performance has been minimized.  And from year to year, the team has the resources to anticipate, prepare for, and find replacements when it becomes obvious that a need will arise.  The wheels can fall off, but I wouldn't bet on a collapse by the Phillies to a non-contending status any time soon. It can happen -- look at the massive exogenous Black Swans that ate the Mets (injury plague + Madoff + the combined brain damage of Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya).  

The Nats are comers, the Mets need to dig out, and the Braves must continue to rely on working their player development strategy because their uncaring corporate owner won't play to win.  Worthy opponents, all.  All can mount challenges, and will, but I really like the ground that the Phillies hold.

Haters gonna be hating for a long time.

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