So you’re probably a little deflated, or simply pissed off. They reeled you in: four straight series headed into the all-star break, 13 runs in the first game back to go over .500, and then… SPLAT. In losing
seven six straight and counting, they’ve also seen their only two all-stars, Domonic Brown and Cliff Lee, sidelined with evidently minor but certainly ill timed injuries. A week ago we were gearing up for a second half run; now we’re bracing for a sell-off.
I get it. I’m with you. I watched the last two games of the Mets series, when their young guns beat our aces, and since then I’ve been dying remotely as the losses piled up and relevance in 2013 drifted out of reach. I write not to bury the Phillies, though, but to tell you why you shouldn’t—at least not for next year and beyond.
Think back to last winter. The team was coming off a season in which their win total dropped by 21 games. The roster was both very expensive and very old, and everyone from Ruben Amaro to your dad agreed that the 2013 team primarily would rise or fall based on whether or not the big-name guys already on hand—Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon—could stay healthy and perform well.
As of last December, the best case scenario for the Phillies was that most or all of those guys would live up to their contracts and baseball cards, they’d add a few solid complementary parts, and the team would return to dominance in the NL East. The worst case was that most or all those guys would continue to decline, AND they’d double down on expensive older players and further deplete a thin farm system while falling short of contention. Lousy as things seem today, they avoided that path, and 2013 could prove to be a transition year rather than the start of an extended stay at the bottom of the standings.
Yes, the non-tender of Nate Schierholz turned out to be a pretty dumb decision… but signing Josh Hamilton (5 years, $125 million, .683 OPS) or B.J. Upton (5 years, $75 million, .565 OPS) would have hurt much more, not just for 2013 but for years to come. Lost in this summer’s disappointment has been the fact that some of those winter moves actually worked: Ben Revere looks like a long-term answer in center field, Michael Young has been the team’s best hitting third baseman in a decade, John Lannan’s done pretty much what you can ask of a fifth starter. And they were all cheap. (To be sure, Mike Adams got hurt and Chad Durbin was a disaster. But compared to the deals for Hamilton, or Upton, or Edwin Jackson, we got off pretty cheap.)
The better news is that reinforcements to the aging core finally have started to show up. Six months ago, Dom Brown was a huge question mark: check out his 2013 projections. He now looks likely to anchor the middle of the order for the next five years. Revere might not be the guy who hit .350 over his last 231 plate appearances before the injury,but at age 25 with four more years of team control after 2013, he doesn’t have to be. Jonathan Pettibone wasn’t really expected to be in the majors at all, and what projection there was for him wasn’t optimistic. He now looks like a solid #4 starter going forward, with maybe a bit more than that as upside.
Then there’s the minor league system. Last winter, Maikel Franco was an intriguing prospect who’d turned in a decent year in his full-season debut at age 19. Now he’s a 20 year-old putting up an OPS near 1.000 in AA. Yeah, there are concerns with his swing and his speed; he seems to be doing fine so far. Jesse Biddle has had an up-and-down year at the same level, but remains a top 50 prospect in the game, on track to reach the majors sometime next year.
Further down the chain, outfielder Kelly Dugan is healthy and showing big-league regular upside, and the prospect mavens seem to love the team’s 2013 draft class led by shortstop J.P. Crawford, hitting .370 with an absurd walk rate in his pro debut. And while they’re not getting the attention of Biddle and Franco, there are actual prospects at triple-A for the first time in almost ten years: infielders Cody Asche and Cesar Hernandez as well as Freddy Galvis, starters Ethan Martin and Adam Morgan. All five should compete for significant roles with the big club next spring, if not sooner.
It’s unlikely that any of these five players have star upside. But for a large-market team, there’s enormous value just employing league-average players making the minimum. If Asche and Galvis can approach the overall performance of Rollins and Michael Young, that’s about $17 million the Phillies can reallocate elsewhere.
Which brings me to the final reason for cautious optimism: a sense that the team might be figuring out how to utilize its current financial advantage for something other than jumping out ahead of the free agent market for a Papelbon or Lee. Friday’s bombshell news that the Phils had signed Cuban free agent Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez marks a huge departure for an organization that had stayed out of the international free agent pool since missing on two Korean signees more than a decade ago. It’s too late to give huge bonuses in the amateur draft without unacceptable consequences, and even young international talent is now regulated with a bonus cap; this is the last frontier for big spending, and the Phillies finally, wisely crossed it.
As the team hopefully prepares to sell off veterans over the next week, Amaro should be ready to adopt a similar approach. If they really are shopping Cliff Lee, and sending $15 million with him makes the difference between decent and elite prospect return, that’s a no-brainer. Likewise with Papelbon, if any team is unwise enough to take him on (though, myself, I’d give him away to get out from under that foolish contract). For that matter, he should be looking to move Rollins and Kyle Kendrick, before or after the deadline, if the return is right.
None of this is to guarantee that happy days will be here again in 2014. Amaro has a big few days coming up before the deadline, and if he fails to make some of the most obvious moves—dealing Michael Young above all—it’s another data point in support of the loud and insistent faction arguing that he’s an idiot. They’ll have to be smart in their moves this winter as well, adding two solid bats at catcher and in right field and filling out the bullpen. And the decisions to keep or deal Lee and re-sign or trade Utley must be made with the head, not the heart.
Personally, I think both will be back next year, and if the plan is to contend, that’s probably the way to go. A Lee/Hamels/Gonzalez/Pettibone rotation, with a re-signed and healthy Roy Halladay rounding it out and Morgan, Martin and Biddle available for depth, looks pretty good from here. The trio of Revere, Utley and Brown represents a decent start for the lineup, with Howard hopefully returned to some semblance of health and usefulness, one or more of the Asche/Galvis/Hernandez cohort chipping in, and some reinforcements from the outside. We’re not seeing 2011 again anytime soon, but the Phillies retain some significant talent as well as solid organizational assets. Better days are coming.
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