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Rebuilding on Air: Why the Phillies Are in Worse Shape Than You Think

An old, expensive, mediocre team is depressing enough. But that same team with a near-total dearth of difference-making young talent at hand or on the way is even worse.

Rich Schultz

The last time the Phillies fully committed to a rebuild was 2000. When ace Curt Schilling missed the early part of the season and supposed fellow rotation anchors Andy Ashby and Paul Byrd faltered, the Phillies stumbled through a wretched first half. That summer, GM Ed Wade pulled the plug, trading both Ashby and Schilling.

The longtime rotation stalwart had antagonized the front office with his constant public criticism of the team’s cheapness, but he struck a grace note on his way out the door. Schilling predicted that the Phillies wouldn’t be down too much longer, because they had young stars at four lineup spots: catcher Mike Lieberthal, third baseman Scott Rolen, right fielder Bobby Abreu, and first baseman/left fielder Pat Burrell. He might have added that the team had a promising shortstop at triple-A named Jimmy Rollins, second-year lefty starter Randy Wolf, and two recent high-ceiling first-round draftees in Brett Myers and Chase Utley. In other words, a strong foundation was already in place, with reinforcements on the way.

Thirteen years later, the Phillies might be approaching a similar moment of teardown. The team is struggling to reach the .500 mark, and has a roster replete with high-priced veterans who seem to have enough left in the tank to attract trade interest. Utley and Rollins have very reasonable contracts; veteran pitchers Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon are all more expensive, but likely have appeal. Other players, from Mike Adams to Michael Young and Delmon Young, all could have value. If the Phillies elect to be sellers this summer, they won’t lack for trade partners.

The problem is in the other half of Schilling’s formulation: there’s really no foundation to build on. It would be hard to identify another organization with as little high-ceiling young talent on the big-league roster or in the minor-league pipeline as the Phillies in 2013.

Cole Hamels is the youngest player among the current core. At 29 years old and under contract through 2018, it’s somewhat plausible that he could remain in place and effective by the time a new Phillies contender rises. Here are the other arguable members of a "new core":

  • OF Domonic Brown, MLB, age 25. Now in his fourth major league season, first as a regular, Brown is finally giving reason to hope he’ll deliver average or slightly above average production as a corner outfielder, and he’s still a couple years from becoming expensive. But compared to NL East contemporaries like Justin Upton or Giancarlo Stanton, he looks like just another guy.
  • IF Freddy Galvis, MLB, age 23. An elite defender who likely would win Gold Gloves given an everyday job… if he could hit enough to hold one. There’s some chance Galvis grows up to be Omar Vizquel with less speed and more power; there’s at least as good a chance he turns out to be John McDonald, a useful late-inning defensive sub who’s been around for 15 years without ever having more than 353 plate appearances in a season.
  • SP Jesse Biddle, AA, age 21. The team’s consensus top minor league prospect could break into the top 50 in the game heading into 2014, and if he stays healthy should make his big-league debut sometime next season. Biddle’s smarts and physical maturation are showing up in his fourth professional season, and prospect experts now peg his ceiling at #2 starter rather than the #3-4 most saw him as before 2013. Again, though, he doesn’t compare particularly well to a Matt Harvey or Jose Fernandez.
  • C Tommy Joseph, AAA, age 21. The prize of last summer’s Hunter Pence trade, Joseph earns praise for his leadership and power potential. But aside from one season in the offense-inflating California League, he hasn’t shown an impact bat, and currently projects to be league-average at best as an offensive producer.
  • 3B Maikel Franco, high-A, age 20. Probably the Phillies’ top position prospect, Franco is putting up his best professional numbers in the Florida State League and beginning to attract some national attention among prospect mavens. He’s expected to be adequate defensively, and might hit for a decent average with plus power—say, .280 with 25 home runs. Think Aramis Ramirez as a best-case scenario. Ramirez is a good player, but no franchise cornerstone: he’s made two all-star teams in his 15 big league seasons. Less happily, Franco also could turn out to be Wilson Betemit. Or Mark Teahan.
  • LHP Adam Morgan, AAA, age 23. Along with Biddle, Morgan is the Phillies’ most advanced pitching prospect. He’s of the type the team has had success with: a college pitcher with more smarts than stuff. J.A. Happ is a good comparison. Useful? Absolutely. Future ace? Very doubtful.
  • SS Roman Quinn, A, age 20. Best-case, Quinn actually is a foundational piece, with off-the-charts speed, strong on-base skills and elite defense. He’s also currently hitting .200 at the lowest rung of full-season ball and making errors at a near-record pace.

This isn’t quite the entirety of the Phillies’ notable prospect inventory. Jonathan Pettibone has performed well through his first three major-league starts; triple-A infielders Darin Ruf, Cody Asche and Cesar Hernandez all look like future big-leaguers of some kind; toolsy high-A outfielder Aaron Altherr is off to a great start; Lakewood outfielder Carlos Tocci is struggling badly but at age 17 has a ton of time and physical development in front of him. And as in every minor league system, human lottery tickets abound: Larry Greene, Jr., Shane Watson, Kenny Giles, Dylan Cozens and others could put it all together and emerge as stars.

But compare this to the young talent elsewhere in the division. The Nationals have Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Wilson Ramos, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon—all 27 or younger, and all on the big-league roster other than Rendon. The Braves have Craig Kimbrel, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Evan Gattis, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, and Upton, all 27 or younger and in the majors now. The freaking Mets have Harvey, Jon Niese, Jeurys Familia, Ike Davis, Wheeler, Travis D’arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. Would you take Brown/Galvis/Biddle/Franco/Morgan over any of those groups?

All this is to say that while it’s tempting and somewhat gratifying to call for the teardown of the Phillies’ veteran empire, the unsettling truth is that whatever young talent came back in return for the likes of Chase Utley and Cliff Lee wouldn’t be supplanting a promising young core already in place; it would substantially be that core. And considering the modest return the Phillies got when they dealt the likes of Schilling and Ashby—Travis Lee, Vicente Padilla, Bruce Chen—it’s far from assured that the return would be particularly helpful in laying a new foundation.

If the Phillies continue to struggle on the field, yet seem hesitant to push the plunger and blow it all up, this is the likely reason why.