The Philadelphia-area press weren't alone in picking up on GM Pat Gillick's recent statement that his Phillies aren't currently good enough to win the NL East. Today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution makes the same case:
No matter what the team did, it couldn't beat out the Braves in the National League East.
Now, the bar is apparently been set lower. Veteran general manager Pat Gillick, who replaced Wade, has decided to try honesty rather than hype.
Gillick, who built the Toronto teams that won consecutive World Series in the early 1990s, admitted publicly that the Phillies aren't good enough right now to unseat the Braves.
Gillick concedes that the Phillies need a legitimate No. 1 or 2 starter if they realistically expect to finish higher than third in the NL East, behind the Braves and New York Mets.
Getting a top starter would obviously require trading outfielder Bobby Abreu. Doing that would just as obviously take away a big piece of the offense, already without Jim Thome.
In addition to the rotation, the Phillies also have questions in the bullpen. Replacing Billy Wagner, who left for the Mets, with Tom Gordon is a big step backwards.
I wish I could take vigorous issue with this assessment. Obviously it's not all indisputable truth: characterizing our offense as "already without Jim Thome" elides the points that, one, Thome was awful in 2005, and two, we've got a pretty decent replacement--arguably, a much younger and cheaper Thome--in Ryan Howard.
But the piece does identify the central problem: to improve the rotation through trade almost certainly means losing Abreu, and it's difficult--bordering on impossible--to imagine a trade in which parting with Bobby would result in a net gain for the team. Just a brief consideration of starting pitching in the majors reveals this pretty clearly.
Think about it this way: if every team runs out a five-man rotation, there are at any time about 150 starting pitchers in the big leagues. Let's say the top 10 percent of that number qualify as "aces" in a given year. From one year to the next, the composition of this group will change: Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are no longer elite performers, but Carlos Zambrano or Jake Peavy might be.
The true aces, the guys you can essentially pencil in every year for at least 16-18 wins and 200-plus innings with great rate stats, are obviously very few in number: Pedro, Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt; probably Bartolo Colon, Dontrelle Willis, Chris Carpenter, and Roy Halladay; maybe Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy and Carlos Zambrano. There's another group of guys who perform at that level now, but are at an age where it's not certain they'll continue to do so: Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens (if he comes back at all--though I think he only would do so if he were convinced he could still dominate), John Smoltz. Curt Schilling would have been in this group a year ago.
With very, very few exceptions (Schilling in 2000 comes to mind), you can't trade for the guys in the first category, and with similarly few exceptions (Randy Johnson last winter, to a team with unlimited payroll) you wouldn't trade for the guys in the second grouping--they're too old and too expensive.
So really the first group of guys you can target are those who seem to have ace talent and maybe have had one great season, but haven't yet shown the year-in, year-out consistency--or durability--of guys like Pedro or Colon. In this group you might find Ben Sheets, Mark Prior, C.C. Sabathia, Josh Beckett, etc. The problem getting these guys is that they're generally too good and too cheap for their teams to deal away. But at least you can call them aces-in-waiting, with something like a straight face. (Of course, one could also argue that the Phils already have a pitcher with this kind of talent and promise; his name is Brett Myers.)
What this winter has shown, though, is that you can't get any of those guys for Bobby Abreu.
The next group, where the targets start to get realistic for a team like the Phils, includes players who are either arguably overcompensated for the performance they'll likely deliver (e.g. Matt Clement, Derek Lowe) or at that next level down in terms of talent/potential/consistency/durability (e.g. Erik Bedard). Sure, you could deal Abreu for one of those guys, and perhaps even get an additional piece--a B-level prospect or serviceable reliever--along with him. But would it strengthen the team? Almost certainly not, unless you've got a nearly-as-good replacement for Abreu handy. With no disrespect intended toward Shane Victorino or Josh Kroeger, the Phillies don't have that guy. There's no outfield equivalent to Ryan Howard a year ago.
One good general rule in considering trades is that when you get the best player in the deal, you probably win the deal. There are other considerations--salary, depth--but . In very, very few of the proposed Abreu deals has the best player been anyone other than Bob Kelly Abreu. Until that changes, Gillick needs to keep his powder dry... even if that means a greater likelihood of looking up at the Braves and Mets, yet again.