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A Van Winklean Perspective on the the Phillies Offseason of 2012-13

The Phillies basically did the right thing in their approach to the past offseason.

This is not the cause of our troubles.
This is not the cause of our troubles.

[h/t to Prof. Cohen for the Van Winkle imagery]

From October through February, I took a much-needed sabbatical from the Phillies, the Philadelphia sports media, and baseball in general. I didn't read this or any other Phillies blog, Fangraphs, Twitter, or the Phillies page on, nor did I ever tune into sports talk radio. It was great. Now, this isn't to say that I was utterly clueless as to what was going on. My estimable co-bloggers' e-mail list kept me reasonably informed as to transactions, and I'd see headlines on local news websites too. But it made for an interesting perspective: to hear the bare facts, but with very little framing or commentary. But more on that later.

From my perspective (and, as I understand it, from many others' as well), it seems pretty clear that the 2013 Phillies will not be much better than the 2012 Phillies were. They could very well end up with a better record than the 81-81 of last year: for instance, they could have better luck with injuries. But this is not a significantly more talented squad. So does that mean the offseason was a failure?

No, it doesn't. It's impossible to evaluate an organization's performance during an offseason without first giving some thought to the objectives of that offseason. The proper objective of the 2012-13 offseason was not to improve the major league squad.

The biggest problem with the Phillies organization on October 3, 2012 was that it was out of chronological balance. A healthy organization is one that's in a constant state of internal renewal. It should always have a rough balance between players who are pre-prime, in-prime, and post-prime. If you're top-heavy on pre-prime players and thin on post-prime players, then you aren't responsibly maximizing the quality of your current major league squad, because you're not spending your budget. (Post-prime players are generally the only ones available on the free agent market. There comes a point when you can't really spend more on player development, so if you're not spending any of the rest of your budget on free agents, then you're probably just pocketing it.)

The Phillies were top-heavy on post-prime players and thin on pre-prime players. There were exactly two players with significant playing time on the 2012 Phillies who could plausibly be called pre-prime: Vance Worley and Antonio Bastardo. That is a very dangerous situation for a franchise to find itself in. Not only is your major league squad in a perpetual state of decline, but it's almost impossible to improve it without further worsening the organization's long-term outlook. You're running up a down escalator. Spending even more money on post-prime free agents will only come back to hurt you more. Trading prospects for short-term fixes will ultimately destroy you, just as it did to the Phillies in the early 1980s.

There are only two ways to fix this dilemma. First, you can find free long-term fixes by ripping other teams off or unearthing no-risk, high-reward players from the free agent dumpster (like, say, Jayson Werth in 2007). The problem with this approach is that you have to get lucky. You can't count on ripping people off or having Werths fall into your lap. You can only hope for the opportunities to come, and hope isn't a plan.

Second, you can get off the escalator. Don't try to get better now. Accept the fact that you're facing a low period in your history, and target improvement down the road. Which then just begs the question: how do you do that? The answer is: through player development. Nurture the prospects and young players who are already in your system, and stop trading them away. Invest more in the draft and international scouting. Plant the seeds and wait for them to grow. It's the only way. It's undoubtedly a frustrating thing for any Phillies fan to hear, but it's the truth.

How the Phillies got into this quandary in the first place is beyond the scope of this article, but obviously, it was partly (1) a failure to develop new players, and partly (2) the inevitable long-term consequence of focusing their efforts on contending in the present. How much of #1 is attributable to incompetence vs. bad luck is debatable and impossible to answer conclusively. How much of #2 was foolish vs. an appropriate risk to run under the circumstances is also debatable. Regardless, the point is that the Phillies are now where they are, and if the organization had gone after in-prime and post-prime players this offseason as if they were the Dodgers, that would have been wrongheaded.

So then what should they have done, and how did they do in achieving that? The most important priority of this offseason was don't trade any prospects or young players unless you're getting others in return. The second-most important priority was to avoid tying up long-term resources in older players who would inevitably decline by the time this team was ready to rejoin the elite level. The third-most important priority was to troll the dregs to try to find some Werths. [Note that I'm not saying that the Phillies should have blown the team up. This team is still good enough to get lucky and sneak into the playoffs. If it becomes evident in the spring that the team isn't going to get lucky, then you can always put on a fire sale in the summer - in fact, you'll probably get better offers if you wait until then. What was important was not doing anything that would hurt the team in 2014 or 2015.]

From that perspective, the Phillies did okay. Not great, but not bad either. They did trade a few prospects and young players (Worley, Trevor May, Lisalverto Bonilla, and Josh Lindblom), but two of them brought back another young player in return (one who posted 3.4 fWAR in his age 24 season at that), and the other two are just relief pitchers. They committed a grand total of only $7 million in financial resources beyond the 2013 season. And while they probably didn't find any Werths (unless you're a big believer in Ender Inciarte), that can hardly be considered a major disappointment. The main goal of the offseason was to do no harm to the organization's long-term outlook, and they more or less achieved that modest objective.

So this month I've finally begun checking TGP and occasionally, and while I've yet to listen to talk radio or read other Phillies blogs besides ZWR, I've sort of begun to gather that there's been some sturm und drang this offseason from the online community about the signings of Michael Young, Delmon Young, and Yuniesky Betancourt. All I can say to that is put me on the smug-meter, because from the weird Van Winklean perch I'm currently occupying, my main reaction is bemusement. I disliked the M. Young trade, but when I heard about the other two signings from my co-bloggers' e-mails, I think I may have literally yawned. Two of the three guys are making almost no money, and the team has no commitment to any of the three beyond 2013. Yes, they're all probably going to be bad players in 2013, but BFD.

The main lesson to be learned here, it seems to me, is that every community is a potential echo chamber. That doesn't apply just to commenters or talk radio callers - it applies just as much to "smart" Phillies fans. The title of the book The Best and the Brightest wasn't purely ironic - McNamara, Bundy, and co. really were superstars - but any group that only talks to itself can become self-reinforcing. I really wonder if any of the folks who were incensed by Young, Young, & Yuniesky would have had anywhere near the same reaction if they had just seen the one-line description on the transactions wire, without being bathed in the commentary of their peers. It's worth remembering that last year's sabermetric cause celebre was about how dumb the Phillies were to sign Juan Pierre (even though it was for the minimum salary). As we all know now, Pierre contributed to last year's team far beyond what he was paid. You know what they say about those who forget the past.

This is not a year to be especially optimistic as a Phillies fan, but that was preordained long before this past winter. If there was a time for intelligent Phillies fans to get angry, it was when the organization was making mistakes, not when the consequences became noticeable. This offseason, like the one before it, has gone reasonably well. If the Phillies minor league system can start graduating productive major leaguers (perhaps a big "if"), then the Phillies will return to prominence in due course, and nothing that happened in the winter of 2012-13 will stop that.