Last night, the Phillies walloped the crap out of the Washington Nationals behind a great starting pitching performance from Cliff Lee and an offensive performance that was equal parts opportunism (a self-created run from left fielder Juan Pierre on two steals and a throwing error) and straight-up thump (homers from the shortstop and third baseman). If you’d told the average fan three months ago that this would be the outcome of the game on July 31st, there wouldn’t have been much surprise.
Of course, this is burying the lede like Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill Vol. 2." The win was only Lee’s second of the season; the third baseman was Kevin Frandsen; and the win brought the Phillies’ season record against their NL East foes to a sub-putrid 12-25. Oh, and hours before the game they traded two former all-star outfielders, finally admitting to the world what had been obvious for weeks: only fiery wreckage remains of a 2012 season that can’t end soon enough.
That said, I find myself more or less satisfied with how the team navigated a trade deadline utterly unlike what they must have expected even a month ago, let alone back in the spring. They evidently got under the luxury tax threshold, added two players who are now probably among the top five prospects in the system plus a potential sleeper and two cheap usable big leaguers, and set themselves up to throw the dice again this winter. After the jump, a few thoughts on what happened yesterday and what’s coming next.
- In a narrative sense, there was something perfect, about Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence getting shipped out hours before the deadline. As soon as we knew the Phillies would have to endure the first half without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, it became clear that Victorino and Pence, both strong supporting actors in last year’s offense, would have to emerge as true leading men if the team was to stay above-water until the superstars returned. Their disappointing performances, while far from the only problem for the 2012 Phillies, helped seal the team’s fate.
- Even so, I doubt there are many Phillies in the team’s 130 year history who came in with more modest expectations and delivered more value than Victorino. The one-time Rule 5 pick won multiple Gold Gloves and all-star berths, hit two ridiculously huge home runs in the team’s 2008 championship run, and delivered a total of 22.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for the Phillies, while earning about $16.5 million. If you accept the idea that each WAR is worth about $4.5 million, it’s clear that Victorino’s contributions over his Phillies tenure exceeded his earnings by something like 500 percent. That’ll play.
- Then there’s Pence. I’ll be honest: I couldn’t stand the guy as a player when he was with the Astros, I felt like the Phils surrendered far too much for him last summer, and his plate approach and erratic defense drove me crazy this season. Clearing his salary—both for this year, to get under the threshold, and next year, when he’ll likely make around $14-15 million—was absolutely vital for the team’s chances going forward. But his addition made sense a year ago, and his departure makes sense now. The Phillies evidently sent $500,000 to the Giants to finish the deal, which isn’t particularly painful; think about how much the Astros sent with Roy Oswalt two summers ago.
- Coming back for Pence was a three-player package highlighted by catcher Tommy Joseph. He’s often listed as a "catcher/first baseman," but the emerging consensus seems to be that he’ll stick behind the plate—which is an enormous boost to his value. Joseph has played most of this season at AA at age 20, and has held his own offensively (.260/.313/.391) while dramatically improving his defense. He put up gaudier power numbers in high-A last season, slugging 22 homers at age 19, but in a league that famously inflates offense. He displaces fellow catcher Sebastian Valle as the Phils’ best position prospect, and it’s at least debatable that he’ll be more valuable going forward—given his more important defensive position—than Jonathan Singleton, the slugging first baseman who led the package the Phils sent to acquire Pence last year.
- Yesterday’s deals strengthen Amaro’s hand this winter, both by adding some payroll flexibility and deepening his stock of prospects to trade. My strong guess is that by next April, one of Valle and Joseph is an ex-Phillie; the team now has two bona fide catching prospects with power and improving defense. To paraphrase Rod Blagojevich, that's "a... valuable thing."
- Similarly, Ethan Martin, the pitching prospect who came back for Victorino, represents added inventory at a position, starting pitcher, where the Phils’ system is already fairly deep. The encouraging thing about Martin is that his results have improved as he’s ascended the minor league ladder. He joins Trevor May, Julio Rodriguez and the newly promoted Brody Colvin in a Reading rotation that will be heavily scouted down the stretch, and as with Joseph (to whom they’ll all be pitching), he might stick as a Phillies prospect or be moved in another deal this winter.
- Finally, there’s Seth Rosin, the pitcher acquired in the Pence deal. He’s performing well in high-A, though he’s old for the level, and boasts a very impressive K/BB ratio while striking out nearly 11 per 9 innings. As a former college draftee, he could move quickly going forward. Again, a nice inventory addition.
- The major leaguers added in the deals, outfielder Nate Schierholtz and reliever Josh Lindblom, look like solid complementary parts at reasonable cost with a bit of upside. They’re not difference-makers, but they’re the sort of guys every team needs to deliver some value in the bottom half of a roster, filling roles for which it’s all too easy to overpay. Think of Schierholtz as Ty Wigginton (positional difference aside) and Lindblom as Chad Qualls, then consider that the two new guys combined will make something like half as much as their vet predecessors and are very likely to outperform them.
- Some are already suggesting the lefty Schierholtz as a platoon option in the outfield, but check out his career splits: he’s got a .731 career OPS against right-handed pitchers, and a .733 against lefties. He’s a superior defensive outfielder—certainly an upgrade from the adventure that was Pence—and has some power. He’s also a career .296 pinch-hitter, the role I hope he primarily assumes for the Phillies.
- Lindblom is your basic hard-throwing righty with good control but home run issues. Under team control pretty much through the duration of Ryan Howard’s contract, he’s a good bet to deliver value in excess of his cost, and at age 25 could yet emerge as a setup option. Adding him to the mix helps reduce the team’s dependence upon Phillippe Aumont, Justin DeFratus, Michael Schwimmer, Michael Stutes, Jake Diekman and the rest to emerge as key arms in next season’s bullpen, which beats the hell out of paying millions for another potential Chad Qualls.
- Of the deals that weren’t made, I was a bit surprised but not unhappy to see Joe Blanton stick around. I don’t think Big Joe has been underappreciated per se, but I do believe his Phils tenure has been a lot more interesting than is generally understood: he got here in 2008 as a durable, low-strikeout guy whose numbers had been inflated by a pitcher-friendly home park, and he’s since turned into a somewhat fragile guy who attacks the strike zone for better (league-best K/BB ratio) and worse (league-worst home runs allowed). He would have been, and might still be, a nice addition for a fringe contender; on the other hand, if he would come back next year for a bit less than what he’s being paid now, I’d be very happy to have him.
I think Amaro went into this deadline understanding that the team’s chances for 2013 really depend upon his veteran core—Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins—staying healthy and productive. Of course, this itself partially depends on how Amaro surrounds them on the roster: a stronger bench grants greater leeway to rest the infielders, a better bullpen eases the strain on the starters, and so forth.
Victorino and Pence came into the season as fringe members of that core. They could have been saviors this year, but weren’t; as such, they best served the team at this unfortunate point by their departure. The sum effect of yesterday’s moves is probably to subtract a win or two for the rest of 2012, while setting up a potentially much larger positive return next year and beyond by the talent acquired and payroll cleared.