Blowing Up the 2012 Phillies: A Thought Experiment

Look at the bright side: a Hunter Pence trade would make those PENCE-SYLVANIA shirts collectors items! Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

So, this piece is what you think it is: a therapeutic exercise inspired in part by the unpleasantness of following the 2012 Phillies and in part by concern that the futility we're watching now is all too likely to become the norm in years ahead, as an old and expensive team continues to sink. But before we start weighing the goods of a sell strategy, a few starting points.

  • In no way at all am I suggesting they should do this now, or necessarily at all. Having gone all-in with an aging team, you just can’t pull the plug after 65 games, however excruciating they’ve been; this would be true even were there not reason to believe (as there is) that they've had some bad luck that could well normalize. What the front office should be doing is gauging interest around baseball, figuring out the parameters of possible deals, and setting a deadline—let’s say July 21, ten days before the actual trade deadline—and a decision point, say 10 games out of the second wild-card, to make a go/no-go call.

  • It's important to understand that a move to blow it up not only isn’t very likely to work in terms of better positioning the team to win in 2013-14, but could do unintended long-term damage. First, most prospects disappoint: just to take Indians examples, you're more likely to trade for Matt LaPorta or Jason Knapp than Carlos Santana. For another thing, the act of selling could have a chilling effect on recruiting (or retaining) free agents. Worse, it will alienate the fan base (those tickets aren’t cheap), depressing the revenue with which to add players this winter, and accelerate the undoing of all the goodwill and community support the Phillies have built over the last five great years. That’s a big, very possibly unjustifiable price to pay for the gratification of knocking down a flawed construction.

  • Another powerful argument against "sell" moves such as trading the guys I name below is the near-total absence of likely difference-making young players currently in the higher levels (or maybe any levels) of the minor-league system. The very unlikely best-case scenario is that you have one above-average guy, one solid regular, and perhaps two worthwhile contributors among the position players at Lehigh Valley, Reading and Clearwater who might show up by 2014. (Think Domonic Brown, Sebastian Valle, Tyson Gillies, Jiwan James, Darin Ruf, Cesar Hernandez and Cody Asche as the possible universe… then remember that none of them are top-100 guys. Honestly, if two of them prove useful, that will be a lot.) The situation among the pitchers is only slightly better: Trevor May’s recent struggles underline how far away he probably still is from being ready to contribute in a big-league rotation, Jesse Biddle might be a valid #2 starter eventually but it won’t be in the next couple years, and even the relievers we were so optimistic about (Justin DeFratus, Phillippe Aumont) mostly have gotten hurt or performed badly. Adding two or even three or four good prospects won’t change the short-term trajectory of the team, certainly not in the window when you’ll still have your impossible-to-trade aging stars.

With all that understood, let’s unpack the saws and dynamite.

You might not remember, because it’s been awhile since the Phillies have been sellers, but a team looks to swap its established stars for younger players or minor leaguers when it determines the odds of successfully competing for the postseason have fallen so low that it’s worthwhile to further depress short-term prospects to raise the odds of success in future seasons. Generally, teams look to trade players who are approaching free agency and either aren’t likely to re-sign, for budgetary or other reasons, or for whom they have plausible internal replacements. Other categories can include guys who simply aren’t deemed to be worth what they’ll cost going forward or who have a specific skill/fill a specific role of value to contenders but not to also-rans.

With that in mind, here are the guys the Phillies would most likely put in the store window were they to hang up a For Sale sign:

  • C Carlos Ruiz (age 33, controlled through 2013)

  • INF Placido Polanco (age 36, controlled through 2013)

  • OF Shane Victorino (age 31, controlled through 2012)

  • OF Hunter Pence (age 29, controlled through 2013)

  • LHP Cole Hamels (age 28, controlled through 2012)

  • RHP Joe Blanton (age 31, controlled through 2012)

  • DH Jim Thome (age 41, controlled through 2012)

There will be enough time to get into possible trade partners and how strong the market would be for each; this exercise is just from a Phillies perspective.

Ruiz. Probably the most popular player on the team and certainly the most valuable through the miserable first two and a half months of 2012, Chooch is having the best year of his career and carries a superb postseason pedigree. He’s under control for $5 million in 2013, a serious bargain even if his offense declines toward his career norms.

Why they’d trade him: His value never will be this high again, and with the possible exception of Hamels he’ll bring back the biggest return. He’s also at an age and a position where decline will become ever more likely.

Why they wouldn’t: There’s no obvious internal replacement—Valle is barely holding his own at AA—and the pitching staff loves him. Plus this move would really anger the fans.

Polanco. Injury prone and mostly punchless, the veteran still commands very high regard within the game and brings superior defense to two infield positions. His offense also is closer to career norms than the awful bat he showed for most of 2011.

Why they’d trade him: Polanco has become the embodiment of the Phillies’ offensive decline, a decent-enough average hitter without patience or power. But his defensive work and rep as a great situational hitter might at least mean enough value to bring back a second-tier prospect. Plus if Freddy Galvis is healthy, maybe you try him at third base in the second half.

Why they wouldn’t: Watching Ty Wiggington play defense at third for months on end might raise the suicide rate in the Philadelphia area, and if you are going to bring in young guys, Polanco is the sort of player you want them modeling and learning from.

Victorino. The hope was that Shane would continue building upon the down-ballot MVP form he showed for much of 2011 before an awful last month, beasting against lefty pitching while playing his gap-power-and-speed game against righties and bringing superior defense to the table in all circumstances. It hasn’t yet worked out that way, as his approach at the plate has faltered; he’s also played through some minor injuries.

Why they’d trade him: It makes less and less sense to consider signing Victorino long-term for his age 32 through 35 or 36 seasons. The Phillies actually do have some possible replacements in centerfield, and Victorino’s well rounded skill set could be appealing to a contender.

Why they wouldn’t: Removing Victorino would further drop the team’s already-low energy level, and advance the process of disconnection from the 2007-11 glory years.

Pence. Last year’s big trade deadline addition makes a lot of sense as the centerpiece of a sell-off. In a different situation (like that of the 2011 Phillies, come to think), his virtues are highly appealing and his flaws are much more easily overlooked. It might make sense to keep one of Victorino and Pence and deal the other.

Why they’d trade him: He’d be one of the best power bats on the market, and while he’s not cut out to be The Guy in a lineup—as these last couple months have shown—he’s a great supporting piece, as he proved after joining the Phils in 2011 with the best stretch of his career. Plus he’s under team control for another season after this one, at a reasonable price.

Why they wouldn’t: Unless Ruben Amaro Jr. could get a return for Pence close to what he dealt away for the gawky outfielder last July, I have trouble seeing him make the move—the comparison would be too damning.

Hamels. It’s painful to even think about this one: *the* signature player of the 2008 champions, the organization’s best home-grown pitcher since Robin Roberts, the symbol of hope finally realized through the back half of the 2000s. But if he’s not going to stay around after 2012—more likely than not at this point—and he could bring back a king’s ransom, it makes sense to swallow hard and pull the trigger.

Why they’ll trade him: Hamels is a proven difference-maker in a pennant race and playoff series, and whoever acquires him presumably would have an advantage in signing him this winter—not least the exclusive negotiating window after the season. The package the Mariners got for Randy Johnson back in 1998, led by Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen, might actually be low compared to what Cole could bring back; he’s five years younger than the Big Unit at the time of that trade.

Why they won’t: Duh—it’s Cole Hamels. There’s no move the Phillies could make to show that the days of wine and roses are over than dealing Cole. Forget the "trade in July, re-sign in November" scenario; why would he come back to what likely would be a 70-win team that almost certainly wouldn’t offer the most money? The baseball truism is that if you send away the best player in the trade, you lose the trade; the odds are very, very high that Hamels, a 28 year old ace with his best years ahead of him, will be the best player in any trade including him.

Blanton. It’s been a weird ride for Big Joe—from widely panned pickup, stretch-drive supporting piece and unlikely World Series hero in 2008 to rotation anchor in 2009 to injured enigma in the next two years and whatever he’s been in 2012. He’s still more or less a league-average innings guy with a lot of big-game experience, and a good month before the deadline could raise his value.

Why they’ll trade him: It’s hard to see Blanton as a key member of future Phillies contenders, and depending on what other arms are out there he might look appealing.

Why they won’t: Dread of seeing what’s behind Blanton and Kyle Kendrick on the waiver wire or the high minors (Tyler Cloyd? Scott Elarton?) could explain it, but more likely it would be because no team wants to pay $3.5 million for two-plus months of Blanton’s okay-ness.

Thome. The dream was that the future Hall of Famer and once-upon-a-time harbinger of better days for Philadelphia baseball would go out on top with that elusive trophy in hand, hugging his baseball mentor Charlie Manuel as champagne flowed and confetti descended. You wanted it, I wanted it, Big Jim wanted it. But it ain’t happening, or at least not here.

Why they’d trade him: Thome showed in the Orioles interleague series that there’s life yet in that old bat, but once the Phils leave AL ballparks he goes back to a pinch-hitting role for which he’s sadly unsuited. His power and patience make him a value for any AL team needing quick thump. Plus I promise that whichever AL team that got Thome would become the second-favorite team of everyone connected to the Phillies.

Why they wouldn’t: As with Polanco, Thome is a pretty exemplary guy to watch and learn from. Also, somebody needs to keep Charlie sane.

Others? It’s possible that some of the same guys Amaro picked up to support his core this offseason—Juan Pierre, Laynce Nix, Wigginton, perhaps Chad Qualls if he somehow reels off 12 straight scoreless innings—could command attention as trade targets. But they’d more likely go as throw-ins than main pieces (think Ben Francisco in the 2009 Cliff Lee deal), or otherwise bring back nothing more than a fringe prospect or minor-league roster filler. None of them make enough money to justify that kind of a dump. I guess it’s also possible that the Phillies could look to move one of Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman, both young lefties with strikeout stuff, but my guess is that they’re more appealing to hold onto whatever the short-term trajectory of the team.

As discussed ad nauseum, the Phillies’ biggest problem in structural terms is that they’ve got an enormous amount of money tied up in Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee and to a slightly lesser extent Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins. Of those five guys, Pap is the youngest and healthiest and most likely to be a difference-maker for someone in 2012—but with four and a half years and about $45 million left on his deal, he’ll be tough to move. Howard and Utley obviously aren’t movable. Halladay would be, if he comes back strong in the second half… but probably not until the winter because of the timing. Lee is too expensive with too many years left, and Rollins has been too lousy in 2012 for anything but a straight salary dump, and even that seems unlikely.

No, the Phillies’ best hope for winning in 2013 (the last year of guaranteed deals for Halladay and Utley) is that all those guys stay healthy and productive. It could happen: all six are, or were, among the best in the game, and none is so old that decline is certain or even more likely than not. But the vexing part is that the next tier of performers is comprised of all the players we’ve just mooted trading: take out either or both of Victorino and Pence, and you’ve further doubled down on rebounds from Howard and Utley and Rollins, and/or very unlikely leaps forward from the likes of Dom Brown and Galvis into offensive stardom. This also holds for Ruiz, who additionally happens to be loved by his pitchers.

The ideal scenario—other than the team going on a monster run that obviates this whole discussion, of course—probably would be to re-sign Hamels, move whichever of Pence and Victorino brings back a higher return, deal Blanton and Thome and Polanco for whatever you can get for them, and see what happens. There’s probably a case to be made that this is a good plan even if the Phillies retain hopes of contending through the sort of second-half charge they’ve made most every year under Charlie Manuel. But if they determine that Hamels isn’t going to re-sign, and they really aren’t close in mid-July, and the signs suggest that the injured stars aren’t coming back soon or in top form, then the calculus would be such that the greatest team in the Phillies’ 130-year history should be taken apart.

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