Reading the coverage of Ed Wade's firing in the Philly and suburban papers, it's hard not to get a sense of accomplishment: everyone seems to be saying that the phans did this by staying away in droves from CBP this season, and threatening much more of same for 2006.
The Phillies evidently have stopped the bleeding; now the question is whether they can restart the building. Some of the names floated for GM might win short-term points with the phan base; others--Messrs. Amaro and Arbuckle, I'm looking in your direction--would be on an almost immediate collision course with the same real and virtual boobirds against whom Wade lashed out yesterday in his pitiful farewell. Brian Cashman and Gerry Hunsicker are the "name" guys; I'd personally be okay with either.
In the long run, though, it's not who gets the job, but what they do that will tell the tale.
Here's my top-four winter wish list for the Phils' next GM. Feel free to chime in with your own, or (of course) to tell me why I'm smoking the proverbial crack here.
1. Restaff and restock the farm system.
In his first years, without any money to spend, Wade actually did a fine job in this crucial but oft-overlooked aspect of a GM's work. He hired good scouts and got unusual value out of his top draft picks: every Phils first-rounder from his first four drafts has reached the majors, and the first three (Burrell, Myers, Utley) look like cornerstones. Deeper down, the team found value with picks like Ryan Madson and Ryan Howard. Marc Bombard was an incredibly successful AAA manager. But in recent years, the Phillies' addiction to free-agent signings has thinned the draft pool, and Wade has been too quick to deal prospects for vets. The tack taken by the Yankees to make up for the foregone picks--paying big bonuses to foreign amateurs--has only rarely been employed by the Phils, and often with lamentable results. (Where have you gone, Il Kim?)
Stories like this one are beginning to crop up; already, the organization's putrid collective .429 winning percentage has drawn attention. (On TGP, we've discussed the Phils' farm woes at some length here and here.) Too many players have stalled out, and the free-agent veterans signed to support the organizations' few prospects have failed terribly.
The next GM has to initiate a purge of both the front-office minor league staff, and the coaching and development personnel with each affiliate. Last week's announcement that Reading manager Steve Swisher wouldn't be back in 2006 was a good start, but he was just the tip of the iceberg.
2. Thin the herds and shed some contracts.
It's been overlooked in the focus on the Thome/Howard situation at first base--which I'm getting to--but the Phils have interesting log jams in both the outfield and the rotation. Let's start with the pitchers. Taking it as a given that Jon Lieber and Brett Myers will be back at the front of the '06 rotation, how do you sort between Cory Lidle (one year left at just over $3 million), Vicente Padilla (heading to arbitration), Gavin Floyd, Robinson Tejeda, and Eude Brito? In the outfield, sandwiched between Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu (and the possibility of Ryan Howard sliding into a corner slot), you've got Jason Michaels, free agent to be Kenny Lofton (who would probably want to come back, if the Phils made a decent offer), and International League MVP Shane Victorino, with AA standouts Chris Roberson and Michael Bourn close behind.
You can't play all these guys. But it might be possible to swap one or more of the young pitchers and outfielders for a need elsewhere or minor-league depth--and maybe to attach a bad contract, like that of David Bell or Mike Lieberthal or Rheal Cormier, in the process.
3. Don't go closer-crazy.
Ed Wade's greatest flaw as GM was undoubtedly his obsession with the save statistic and those who seek it. A couple of his relief acquisitions--Jose Mesa for a year out of his three, Rheal Cormier for one out of five, Billy Wagner when he was healthy, Ugueth Urbina for a few months--worked out. Most of them--need I really list them here?--did not. The first high-profile challenge for the Phils' next GM will be to withstand the already rising groundswell that urges signing Wagner at whatever price the voluble little closer names. But do you really want to lock up close to $30 million over three years for a guy who might pitch 200 innings over that time... if he stays healthy?
The best thing to do is offer arbitration to both Wagner and Urbina, and either secure whichever accepts (probably Ugie) and take the picks for the other, or try to make a closer out of one of the surplus starters. Remember, it ain't a popularity context.
4. Swallow hard, then deal Jim Thome or Bobby Abreu.
I put this last here because I'm not certain it should, or even can, be done before camp opens next February. But if there's a deal out there to either get rid of most of Thome's contract, or land real value for Abreu, the GM should pull the trigger. Long-term, the team can't find room for both these 30-something slugging lefties and Howard; Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus just thinks the Phils should deal the Rookie of the Year hopeful, but I both doubt the wisdom and the utility of that move. If you can land a cheap, young, talented catcher, starting pitcher or third baseman for Abreu, you have to do it; if you can ship out more than 75 percent of Thome's cost, for almost any return, that's also a must.
The new GM won't have a lot of the issues Wade would have faced in making these moves--parting with players he'd gone hard after, with the tacit admission/s of failure that might imply. It's an enviable job; he'll be both cleaning up a mess and inheriting a team with tremendous strengths and a large-ish payroll. The Phils have given themselves a great opportunity to remake their image in a cynical town; this is almost the off-field equivalent of a leadoff double. Now they just have to make sure the run gets plated.