With the off-season winding down and pitchers and catchers set to report to Clearwater in a few weeks, now seemed like a good time to step back and take a look at the state of the Phillies.
I'm talking big picture here. The Phils are coming off their greatest run of success in team history and appear to be a team morphing into something less than what they were. The future is uncertain. The present is unpalatable. They are loaded with cash, but are hamstrung by memories of past glory and other miscalculations to do much with it.
The Phillies are moving from their golden era to something else.
Which mean, the State of the 2014 Phillies is one of... "Transformation."
Regardless of which direction the Phils ultimately go, whether they quickly re-tool and become a playoff team once again or fall into the depths of the cellar, much as they have throughout most of their history, this team is changing.
The core group from 2007-2011 is trying to give it another go this year, but it seems for all the world like the engine is out of gas. New kids are coming up. Older vets will soon be leaving. And for those players in the middle of their careers, they're waiting for the transformation to be complete.
There are good things about the Phillies, and bad things. But let's take a look at just where various aspects of the team stands here in late January of 2014, as they begin their "transformation" in earnest.
THE MANAGEMENT: INCH-WORMING TOWARDS PROGRESS
The team owners are still the same and still largely unknown (except for John Middleton). David Montgomery is still team CEO, Bill Giles is still Chairman. and Ruben Amaro is still senior vice president and general manager (more on Amaro in a bit). Montgomery is the general partner of the organization and runs the team with that authority.
And forever, it seems, it shall be. The Phillies have cornered the market on front office stability, and nothing is likely to change there. We'll all be dead and buried before we see the words "front office shakeup" and "Phillies" in the same news story.
Criticism of the team's management is that they are slow to change. The team just hired Scott Freedman, their analytics "extern," as a full-time employee, signalling they may finally be ready to embrace some of the analytic aspects of the game, which is a good thing. And although the Phillies are still woefully behind other teams in this regard, their begrudging acceptance of some things mathematical is a step in the right direction.
But largely, these are people who like doing things the way they've always done them, and have to be dragged kicking and screaming to move into a new direction. In today's changing game of baseball, it's risky to be one of the few teams standing still.
FINANCIALS: BIG IMPROVEMENT
While average attendance was understandably lower in 2013 (37,190 average) compared to 2012 (44,021, 1st in MLB), the team is still a strong draw and ranked 8th in MLB in attendance last year. They play in a beautiful ballpark, with first-rate amenities, and will probably continue to draw decent crowds next year.
Last year, the Phillies were valued by Bloomberg as the 9th most valuable team in baseball, worth a little over a billion dollars. And that was BEFORE the Phillies signed their 25-year, $2.5 billion cable deal with Comcast Sports Net last month. They were 5th in team revenue, 3rd in gate receipts, 5th in concessions, and 18th in media rights. That number will skyrocket once the new deal takes effect.
Without getting into too many more specifics, it is a deal that should prevent the Phillies from ever having to worry about spending on the payroll ever again.
There should no longer be any financial reason not to sign a big-time free agent. There should be no obstacles to creating one of the largest scouting departments in the league. There should be no limit to spending money on developing amateur talent. The Phillies largely have a blank check that gives them a big advantage over every team in the National League not named the Los Angeles Dodgers.
GENERAL MANAGER: JURY'S OUT
Ruben Amaro's contract doesn't run out until after the 2015 season. So, he's safe for this year, no matter how the team does. And we all know the Phils are reluctant to fire long-time organizational guys unless they're really forced to.
Amaro's off-season this year has been a confusing one. On the one hand, he's been touting his expensive core, saying he believes they can compete for a playoff spot if they stay healthy. He believes they can do so and signed another aged veteran in Marlon Byrd in the hopes he can be a much-needed power bat. Yet, as was mentioned by the Daily News' David Murphy on Monday, the team enters the first week of February with a huge hole in their starting rotation. After Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, there are a slew of #5 starters (Kyle Kendrick, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Jonathan Pettibone, Ethan Martin, Roberto Hernandez) battling it out for rotation spots.
Which begs the question... if Ruben Amaro truly believes this team has a chance to contend, why won't he sacrifice a second round pick and shell out a contract for a starter like Ubaldo Jimenez? It appears as if Amaro doesn't really believe his own words. As was mentioned by Justin Klugh on Philly.com, Ruben is caught between two paths... rebuilding and contending. He's trying to do both at the same time, which is a virtual impossibility.
However, he's avoided making any huge contractual mistakes this off-season, which is a good thing. He largely did the same thing last season, too. If he truly doesn't believe this team is going to be any good, then his Luke-Warm Stove moves this off-season make sense by not backing the team into a corner that would prevent them from rebuilding.
Not only that, it seems as though Amaro is finally, ever-so-slowly, beginning to embrace a little bit of sabermetrics, something that is long overdue.
Frankly, the jury is still out on Amaro. He could be one of this teams' weakest links. Or, perhaps he's learned from his past errors and is finally resolving to modernize his approach. This 2014 season should tell us a lot.
THE ROSTER: DECLINING
This is obviously the biggest obstacle to team success moving forward. The roster just isn't what it used to be.
In 2008, the Phillies had six position players with a negative WAR, none higher than -0.2 and had six pitchers with a negative WAR.
In 2011, the Phils had 10 position players with a negative WAR, and had just three pitchers with a negative WAR, non higher than Danys Baez at -0.8.
In 2013, the Phils had 15 position players with a negative WAR, and 10 pitchers with a negative WAR. That's 25 players who played games for the Phillies last year who were below replacement level.
Will that trend continue in 2014? It's hard to see how it won't. Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley, Cliff Lee and Jimmy Rollins will be 35. Ryan Howard will be 34. Marlon Byrd will be 36. That's a lot of prime talent getting older really fast.
Domonic Brown, Ben Revere and Cody Asche are all young players who need to perform in 2014 for this team to have a prayer of contending. Cole Hamels must continue to do what he does. And Miguel Gonzalez has to be a viable starter, unless the Phillies pick up a free agent in the next couple weeks.
So many things have to go right for this group to have a prayer in 2014. Howard has to truly be healthy. Utley has to stay healthy once again. Rollins needs a bounce-back year. Chooch has to stay off the DL. Byrd has to prove last year wasn't a fluke.
This was a great roster once. But age and injury have made them a giant question mark heading into Clearwater. It's certainly possible they can pull off one more magical run. Clearly, Phillies fans and the front office are hoping they can ride this group one last time.
But I'm not putting my money on it.
MINOR LEAGUES: VASTLY IMPROVED
It's largely agreed the Phillies have two Top 100 prospects in Maikel Franco and Jesse Biddle. Some may put last year's first round pick J.P. Crawford in their Top 100s as well. Surprisingly, ESPN's Keith Law had the Phils' farm system in the top half of the league, at #14. That's a huge improvement over last year, when he had them ranked 27th, and is especially impressive when you consider injuries to top prospects Adam Morgan, Roman Quinn, Shane Watson and Tommy Joseph over the last year.
Law noted a very strong draft by the Phillies last year, one of the best in all of baseball. The team has a ton of high-ceiling youngsters in the low minors that could catapult them in the rankings over the next year or two. When you join those things with a seeming willingness to invest in higher-end international talent (like MAG), you've got the makings of a farm system that could provide real sustenance in a few years.
Bottom line, the farm system is vastly improved from last year, which is excellent news.
At the end of the day, most believe the 2014 Phillies are not a playoff team. And, most believe they are at least 3-4 years away from returning to the postseason.
Of course, teams can go from worst-to-first in baseball. Maybe this year will be a pleasant surprise. Everyone certainly hopes so.
But when assessing the State of the 2014 Phillies, the word to use is "Transformation."
The team is changing into something else. Here's hoping we'll like what we see when the transformation is complete.