A miasma of pointlessness surrounds the team. Everybody knows it’s not going to work with the guy in charge, but he’s had success a bit too recently to comfortably fire him. The team is coming off its worst record in years, but there are few roster changes of any note, in large part because the decision-makers are near delusional in their optimism that certain vets can return to past glories and their younger guys are better than anyone else thinks they are. An important vacancy on the coaching staff lingers embarrassingly deep into the offseason.
Yes, it’s the Phillies heading into 2014. But it was also the Eagles between 1997 and 1998. Coach Ray Rhodes was losing his grip, but he’d taken the Birds into the playoffs the two previous years before falling to 6-9-1 in ‘97. Rhodes, the de facto GM as well as field leader, remained committed to aging veterans like wide receiver Irving Fryar and linebacker William Thomas, and felt he had his quarterback of the future in third-year man Bobby Hoying, a mid-round draft pick whom few others pegged for stardom. With former offensive coordinator Jon Gruden hired away as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, the team waited months to fill the position and saw many preferred candidates turn down the job before settling on a journeyman college coach named Dana Bible. His offense averaged 10.1 points per game. The team went 3-13 and everyone got canned.
It’s not a perfect comparison, obviously, and the differences favor the Phils. Ruben Amaro isn’t both manager and GM, and I believe that Ryne Sandberg will turn out to be a solid skipper. The veterans in whom the Phillies have invested so much money and faith have stronger bona fides than Ray Rhodes’ guys did. Bob McClure might not be an exciting choice as pitching coach, but he’s got much more business on a professional coaching staff than Bible did; at the least, he’s certainly been hired before.
Still, it’s hard to see how things go much better for the 2014 Phils than they did for the 1998 Eagles. And that’s what I’m struggling with most as a fan: just how faint hope seems to be. How can they win with a GM who’s at least ten years behind his competitors in analytic tools? How is it they keep getting older? How can a self-described "scouting and player development organization" be by far the worst in baseball in terms of contributions from their bench, non-core starters and non-core relievers?
(Seriously, take a minute and look at that last link. It’s astounding. The Phillies’ bench—including Amaro acquisitions like Laynce Nix, John Mayberry and Roger Bernadina—was 10.5 runs worse than MLB average. The non-core starters, a group featuring Tyler Cloyd and Raul Valdes, were 58.2 runs below average, four-tenths of a run less awful than the Twins overall and much worse on a per-start basis. The marginal relievers—think J.C. Ramirez, Michael Stutes and let us not forget Chad Durbin—were 37.9 runs below league average. The weighted total had the Phillies at 73.1 runs below average, more than 25 runs worse than the Rockies. SCOUTING, RUBEN: U R DOIN IT RONG! And recall that the fifth-highest payroll in the game brought us all this.)
The 1998 Eagles were a black hole into which hope disappeared. The unspoken sense seemed to be "let’s get through this unpleasantness, move on from Ray Rhodes, and start fresh." I can tell you that the large cohort of contributors to The Good Phight don’t agree on very much… but we’re all more or less at that point with the 2014 Phillies and Amaro. It’s very unlikely to get better until his dumb ass is in the rearview. Whether they replace him with a new-school GM in the Andrew Friedman mode, a guy like Walt Jocketty or Frank Wren who’s more old-school but actually knows how to run a scouting organization, or a John Mozeliak type hybrid who can do it all, there’s almost nowhere to go but up. (Important disclaimer: this might not be the case if Jack Zduriencik is Amaro’s successor.)
So how does the rationally despairing fan go forward until a new sheriff comes to town? Well, you can root for the equivalent of 3-13 and a subsequent front office purge… and while I can’t really do a full season of Embrace-the-Tank, that’s pretty much what I expect. But the fan brain remains hard-wired for hope, particularly with the Winter Meetings set to begin.
Consider that Friday brought the welcome news that the team is looking to trade the comprehensively odious Jonathan Papelbon, and yesterday it was rumored that the Yankees are fielding offers for Brett Gardner. This got me daydreaming about a series of moves that would ship out Pap, Kyle Kendrick (who has value in a market where Jason Vargas and Scott Feldman are getting multi-year deals at $8-10m per) and Ben Revere and bring in Gardner—a center fielder who has most of Revere’s virtues, plus gap power, patience and a decent arm; and with payroll freed up, go get a cheaper closer like Joaquin Benoit or Grant Balfour, and a front-end starter like Ubaldo Jimenez. Maybe there’s a trade to be made of a guy like Darin Ruf or Freddy Galvis, who are ready to start but blocked by Amaro’s veteran commitments. Shortstops are at a premium right now, as Jhonny Peralta and his agent will tell you, and there’s probably a team (the Rays?) interested in a first baseman with patience and 25-homer power who’ll earn the minimum for years to come...
But it’s not happening. I doubt Amaro trades Papelbon because what he’d get back—maybe $10-12m in salary relief and a player employed in the minors but nothing like a "prospect"—would be tantamount to admitting a mistake, and this is the guy who didn’t cut Nix or Durbin until deep into the season. He won’t make a play for Gardner because the speedy outfielder has just a year of team control left; he wouldn’t move Revere because he probably believes in that .300 average; he won’t trade Kendrick because then he’d have to get creative as far as filling out the rotation… and considering his track record with mid-tier and bargain-bin additions, maybe this isn’t the worst thing. (Consider that he wanted to nab Feldman—who’s had a total of two seasons, out of nine in the bigs, when he was worth more than one win above replacement.)
Amaro’s proven tendencies and shortcomings are a huge barrier to optimism. A week from now we're likely to have another starting pitcher who had one good season and one okay year in the last four or five, at around Vargas/Feldman dollars; and probably a reliever in his early 30s who's coming off a good year but won't merit the $8 million Amaro will pay him for the next two seasons (with, of course, an option).
Still, even the bleakest season offers its pleasures. The 1998 Eagles did acquire one guy who turned out to be important: defensive end Hugh Douglas, who had 12.5 sacks that season and 51.5 through 2002. And they drafted a running back named Duce Staley, who turned in the first of three 1,000-yard rushing seasons as a rookie; both stayed around long enough to help bring about better days for the team. Maybe Brad Lincoln turns out to be Amaro’s Douglas; maybe Maikel Franco or Adam Morgan plays the Duce role.
And maybe our Andy Reid is waiting over the hill. It's impossible not to hope for something.