Sunday’s loss in Miami marks the third time in the last month that the Phillies have served to catch a falling opponent. Going into their early June series at Citizens Bank Park, the Dodgers had lost six of seven; they took four straight from the Phils. Before their mid-month vist from the Phils, the Blue Jays had lost six of seven; they too registered a sweep. And the Marlins had dropped 17 of 21 to briefly overtake the Phillies in the NL East basement before dispatching Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton to make it crystal clear just who’s the least in the East. The Phillies reach the exact halfway mark of the season on pace to lose 90 games and register their worst record since the utterly miserable 2000 season.
The sale arguably began on Saturday, with the "bittersweet" news of Jim Thome’s trade to the Orioles. Bitter for the Phils, who wanted nothing more than to win one more title with the man who started the franchise turnaround ten years ago as an arriving free agent; semi-sweet for Thome himself, who will see regular action as an AL DH albeit with a team few expect to hang in the race. Sunday, the other shoe dropped: the news that the Phillies are shopping homegrown ace Cole Hamels before he departs via free agency, a clear sign that the team has concluded it either can't or shouldn't ink the homegrown ace to the massive contract he justifiably desires. Consider the white flag raised: there will be no sixth straight division title.
So it's time to start working on making it six out of seven for 2013.
It was pretty clear a crash season was coming in one of the next few years, as they always do after sustained success: think the Braves in 2006, or the Astros and A’s and Cardinals in 2007. The question now is whether the pothole of 2012 blows out a tire or eats the whole car. The answer will depend a great deal on what happens over the next month, and then what happens next winter.
If it’s been determined the Phillies are sellers, there’s no reason to half-ass it: anything they can move, for value, they should. Hamels clearly will yield the greatest return, and as I noted a couple weeks ago I’d try to deal Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, or both. Maybe some team wants Joe Blanton to munch innings like cookies, or the useful skill sets of Juan Pierre and Ty Wigginton. The point is that with the possible exception of Pence, none of these guys are going to be members of the 2013 Phillies, so you may as well get what you can for them.
Next year’s team is set, in terms of having allocated serious money for guys with track records of success or clear upside value, at five of eight positions, three rotation spots, and about half each for the bench and bullpen. Here’s how I believe Amaro and his team should be thinking about the 2013 roster right now:
C Carlos Ruiz ($5m)
1B Ryan Howard ($20m)
2B Chase Utley ($15m)
SS Jimmy Rollins ($11m)
RF Hunter Pence (~$13m)
SP Roy Halladay ($20m)
SP Cliff Lee ($25m)
SP Vance Worley
(all payroll info from http://www.baseballprospectus.com/compensation/cots/?page_id=116)
Figuring an average of $0.75m for everyone named above who doesn’t have a number attached, the Phillies have about $133 million committed to 14 players for next season. I’m assuming a slight dip in payroll from this year’s record number, thanks to the loss of playoff revenue; but that still should leave them about $30 million to fill out the rest of the roster.
There are some inexpensive and plausible internal options for left field (Domonic Brown, Nix and Mayberry who might be a reasonable platoon); the last starter spot (Kyle Kendrick, Tyler Cloyd, Julio Rodriguez, Trevor May); backup catcher (Erik Kratz), and bullpen (Jake Diekman, Michael Schwimer, Phillippe Aumont, Justin DeFratus, Justin Friend, Lisalverto Bonilla, Michael Stutes, David Herndon).
So essentially they’re trying to solve for a starting third baseman, a starting outfielder, a third starter, and a setup reliever. Their venues to do this are basically in trade over the next month and in free agency and trade next winter. I don’t claim to be enough of an expert on other teams’ farm systems to speculate with great confidence on who might bring back what, but for the purposes of this exercise—and hoping I don’t embarrass myself too badly—I’m going to assume the following trades in July:
Victorino to the Dodgers for OF Joc Pederson and P Angel Sanchez
Pierre to the Pirates for P Clay Holmes
Olt, a ready-now third baseman with pop, patience and a solid glove, checks off one of the boxes for 2013. The rest of these guys add depth and upside to a depleted Phillies farm system that needs both, and represent inventory to trade from this winter or next season.
Fast forward five months—trust me, you’ll want to do this—and now it’s free agency time. The Phillies still have a rotation spot and two starting outfield jobs to fill. They’ve got an aging but talented core to which they’re committed to paying serious money. They’re negotiating a new TV deal that’s obviously predicated on the team competing. And they’re looking at a transformed landscape in which teams that add free agents don’t lose their draft picks.
Why not go all out? Let’s say they bring back Michael Bourn to lead off and play center field, and ink Milwaukee’s Shaun Marcum as their number three starter. (If you don’t like Bourn and Marcum, maybe it’s B.J. Upton and Matt Garza. If you don't like those guys, think about every team in limited or all-out salary-shedding mode this winter that might have pieces to match with the Phillies' needs: the Rays, Brewers, Padres, Indians, Athletics, etc.) They can backload both deals, with Chase Utley and possibly Roy Halladay coming off the books following 2013; assume that the two free agents combine to cost $24 million in 2013. Going with internal options for the left field spot and bullpen, that leaves this roster:
C Ruiz ($5m)
1B Howard ($20m)
2B Utley ($15m)
3B Olt ($0.5m)
SS Rollins ($11m)
LF Nix/Mayberry ($2.5m combined)
CF Bourn ($12m)
RF Pence ($13m)
Bench: Kratz or veteran, Nix/Mayberry, Galvis, Brown, veteran corner IF ($1.5m)
SP Halladay ($20m)
SP Cliff Lee ($25m)
SP Marcum ($12m)
Bullpen: Papelbon ($13m), veteran setup man ($2-3m), Bastardo, Aumont, Diekman, DeFratus, Kendrick ($4.5m)
This is an Opening Day payroll of about $160 million, or $10-12 million less than the 2012 number. Behind it is a farm system that’s still not top shelf, but is probably squarely in the middle (and about to draft in the top ten for the first time since 2001) with more depth and upside than at any time in the last five years. There’s also payroll flexibility, enough to make a big move in-season if there’s a need for corner outfield help or another starter. And the team’s getting younger.
2012 is gone, victim to a combination of magical thinking and bad luck. But to a greater extent than you might think, whether this proves to be a one-year detour from excellence or a long-term trip to the bottom of the standings is up to the team’s front office.