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Four Last (?) Thoughts on the Halladay/Lee Trades

I’m struggling to put a cap on this week’s stunning turn of events: one Cy Young Award winner out the door, another coming in, a transfusion of high-ceiling young talent, and the avowal of arguably the best pitcher in the game that coming to Philadelphia to play baseball was "a dream come true"—a sentiment he backed up by leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table in return for the privilege of joining the Phillies. Simultaneously I’m exhausted by this story and still finding new aspects of it that are nothing short of staggering.

So I’m going to try to articulate some of these thoughts, and then shut up about it for awhile. Maybe.

  • The Circle is Now Complete. In the span of two years toward the beginning of this decade, Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen—the Phillies’ two signature players as of 2000—talked their way out of town. Both blasted the organization as insufficiently committed to winning; Schilling thought the Phils were cheap, and Rolen additionally hated the manager, the stadium and the fans, if not the city itself. Much more often than not, players with limited no-trade clauses listed the Phils among the teams to which they would under no circumstances approve a deal. The team began to turn that perception around when they signed Jim Thome as a free agent just months after trading Rolen—but they had to massively overpay the slugging first baseman compared to other offers for him. Now, after seven years of winning records and perennial contender status, three straight division titles, two straight pennants and one world championship, they might be the premier destination in the game: terrific clubhouse, passionate (but supportive!) and loyal fan base, gem of a ballpark, demonstrated commitment to winning. For anyone who’s been a fan since the late ‘90s, it’s almost unfathomable—and pays back with interest all the pain from those days. 
  • Prudent or Insecure?: Like most here, I would have preferred to keep both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee for 2010. If that meant "gutting the system" for the time being, fine—though I don’t think it necessarily would have. (Remember too that the price tag in prospects for Halladay was steeper since the Blue Jays included that $6 million; dealing away the likes of Joe Blanton and Shane Victorino for whatever return they might yield, and non-tendering useless Chad Durbin, just about would have covered Halladay’s 2010 price tag, and that doesn’t even contemplate the possibility that he would have deferred a million of two of that money to future seasons if asked.) But even if the Toronto deal went through exactly as it did, the team would have retained top prospect Domonic Brown, more than a half-dozen nearly ready pitchers in the upper levels of the minors (Antonio Bastardo, Joe Savery, Yohan Flande, Sergio Escalona, Drew Carpenter, Vance Worley, Scott Mathieson, et al), and high-ceiling younger prospects like Sebastian Valle, Anthony Gose, Trevor May, Jared Cosart and Domingo Santana. Granted, the three former Seattle prospects should be ready to contribute in the majors by 2012 or so, as that younger cohort won’t be (and as Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor would have). But it wasn’t a stripped system without them. I keep thinking that the Red Sox or Yankees would have kept both aces, taken the short-term developmental hit, and committed either to doubling their draft budget for the next year or allocating new millions for international signings. That the Phils didn’t do this suggests that they still aren’t quite entirely self-identifying as a big-shot franchise that can surmount whatever obstacles emerge. Part of me sees this prudence as a big plus—it suggests they won’t turn into the Mets—while another part is just bummed that we don’t have the two aces (and still wonders if that was really the best possible deal out there for Lee).  
  • There's No Crying in Hot Stove Baseball: Anyone who remembers the early ‘90s Phillies, particularly the 1993 pennant winner, has to be a bit stunned by the team’s decision to cut ties with Cliff Lee. (As Lee was himself, it turns out.) What Lee did in his first post-season run was astounding, every bit the equal and then some of what Cole Hamels accomplished in October a year earlier. He was an instant Phillies legend—and six weeks later, he was a Seattle Mariner. Compare this to the sweetheart contracts the Phils gave Darren Daulton and Lenny Dykstra, both on the wrong side of 30 with extensive injury histories, after 1993; sentiment, specifically that of ownership front man/buffoon Bill Giles, drove those deals. Ruben Amaro Jr., though, evidently has his blood set at a much lower temperature. Again, this is a good thing—and, more than anything else, it should represent the last shovelful of dirt on the notion that these are in any respect the "same old Phillies."  
  • An End, or a Beginning? It’s worth thinking about why Halladay fixated on the Phillies as the team he wanted to join so much that he took millions less than he might have claimed as a free agent. The results, yes: this is the most successful team in baseball over the last three seasons. But it’s the same set of factors that evidently so impressed Lee when he joined the team: "an ‘unbelievable’ lineup and excellence from top to bottom in Philadelphia’s organization." That’s Amaro in his relentless commitment to making the team a champion; that’s Charlie Manuel in his support for the players and his steady hand at the tiller; that’s Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard and the guys brought in around them who take cues from the leaders, ballplayers who match great talent with even greater desire. That’s Citizens Bank Park, which now confers a home-field advantage equal to that enjoyed by any great team in any great ballyard, and the fans who fill it night after night. The distance this franchise has traveled in the years since Schilling and Rolen pulled their parachute cords is just staggering, and Halladay’s arrival is just the latest validation of what the Phillies have accomplished.