[Note: Super, super FanPost. Promoted to front page. RtP]
So, the season is over. Good riddance, many of you are saying.
Clearly, those who had declared "this is a 70-win team!" were pretty much dead-on. Those of us, like myself, who thought the team had a puncher’s chance of competing, at least for the second wild card, were incorrect. Of course, no one thought that they would be "good," certainly not myself. But I think it is very instructive to review "how" they ended up not competing, because I think this will give insight into the challenges the Phils face as they try to "retool" for 2015 and beyond.
First, a review for those who did not read my earlier posts. My original fanpost tried to create some degree of hope for the 2014 season using actual metrics. The exercise was "what if all of the Phils ended up equaling their best (fWAR) performances from 2011 to 2013 in 2014?" Note that the exercise was never about "what would happen if the Phils equaled their career peak performances", since 2007 Rollins and 2006 Howard are not coming back. If each of the Phils equaled their peak fWAR performance from the previous three years, I discovered that the Phils total fWAR would project to 97 wins. Now, I was not predicting that the Phils would actually reach that mark, but instead that it gave some realistic hope if the Phils "caught lightning in a bottle."
My assertion in the original piece was that Jimmy Rollins was the linchpin of whether or not the Phils would compete. There was gigantic variance in the performance levels in 2011 to 2013 for him, Ruiz and Byrd. If all three players performed at or near their peaks, the Phils had a chance.
I then posted a "update" fanpost 1/3 into the season, and then another one 2/3 into the season.. Very soon into the season, it became apparent that (1) the Phils weren’t going to compete (2) more problematically from a "long-term vision" point of view, it was also clear it wasn’t necessarily because those players I identified were not playing well, but instead players who would normally be counted on to carry the Phils in 2015 and beyond were not performing.
Instead, I would argue that, with the exception of the bullpen, the season actually played out even worse than we could have hoped. The fact that the win-loss records in 2013 and 2014 were identical obscures the fact that the future now looks less promising than ever.
The Proximate Causes
Player/2011-13 peak fWAR/2014 actual fWAR
Cliff Lee 6.5 1.7
Domonic Brown 1.4 -1.4
A.J. Burnett 3.9 1.0
Yes, indeed, those three players alone are responsible for 10.5 fWAR decline from peak 2011-13 performance. Put another way, if everything else stayed constant, if those three players played to their peak 2011-13 performance, then fWAR predicts the Phils would more-or-less have been in the wild card race. While we probably could not have expected all three to perform at that high level, each of the performances is disheartening in its own special way. Obviously, Dom’s nearly 3 WAR decline from his 2013 production is the most unpredictable (from a 2013 viewpoint) and perplexing of the three, and the most maddening. We have waited a long time for Dom, and now it appears that his time has come and gone, with his one glorious month in May 2013 a distant memory. But Cliff Lee’s fall from grace, and possible descent into injury purgatory, is to me just as bad. While no one could realistically be surprised that he did not earn 6.5 fWAR, the way he did not earn it does not give hope for the future. Lee’s contract, peaking at the back end (thanks, RAJ :-((), means that no one in particular would trade for him, even if the Phils wanted to, in part because that $25 M/$12.5 M buyout for 2016 also comes into play.
Of the three, I suppose Burnett is "least disheartening", but it was actually his worst year since 2011 (and, technically, worse than that). I personally thought that his signing gave the Phils some "hope", but that appears to be a "joke". Or to put it another way, maybe we should not have expected 4 WAR, but 2 or 3 WAR was not unrealistic given his recent history.
First, I should perhaps discuss all of those players who met or exceeded their 2011-13 peak.
The Man 3.9 4.1
As of a few weeks ago, I thought this list might be empty. But Chase improved his performance just enough to exceed his projection. I’ll note that I said in my original fanpost that he was one of the two most likely to perform at a similar level, and he was. Of course, Chase earned most of the fWAR at the beginning of the season, and he clearly wore down toward the end of the year.
(1) Players who performed within 1 WAR of their 2011-13
Cole Hamels 4.6 3.7
Ben Revere (!) 3.0 2.0
Rosenberg/Diekman/DeFratus/Bastardo 1.9 1.6
Cole being near the top of the performance ladder is not a surprise. However, he was actually almost 1 fWAR off from his peak. I had suggested in the original fanpost that he, with Chase, was most likely to match his earlier performance. I’m not enough of a statistics freak to know exactly everything that goes into Fangraphs’ predictions, but I’ll note that Cole’s xFIP was actually higher this year than 2012, his peak fWAR year, his K/9 was lower and his BB/9 was higher. Don’t get me wrong, Cole is a fabulous, #1 starter. But my personal fear is that he will not "peak" again any higher than this year, and Cole is not cheap from an fWAR/salary point of view. I don’t want Cole traded, at least not now. But I am beginning to understand why some might want him to be.
While not matching his peak, I am generally positive about Ben’s performance. Ben as a reserve would be a joy, although as a starting CF he is consternating (this is not his fault, however!). But the odd thing about Ben’s year is that it is very different from his peak 2012 year, when he was fabulous on defense and terrible on offense; this year he was quite credible on offense and mediocre at best on defense.
Rosenberg (-0.7, ouch) himself is responsible for the non-closing pen not making its projection, although I did not include dreck like Garcia and others who had fewer appearances. Note that I discuss Ken Giles below.
(2) Within 2 WAR, in the spotlight
Jimmy Rollins 4.8 3.6
Marlon Byrd 4.1 2.4
Carlos Ruiz 5.2 3.2
This is, of course, the group that I predicted would "make or break" the Phils. As it turns out, they did no such thing. They were somewhere right down the middle of expectations, if not slightly above that. They neither responsible for dragging the team into last place, nor did they "help them into the chase." They just "were". Now, one positive is that every player in this category had positive WAR/salary,
(3) Other players who were within 2 WAR of their 2011-13 peak
Cody Asche 2.0 0.4
Kyle Kendrick 1.6 0.4
Jonathan Papelbon 3.2 1.7
One clear negative is Asche’s performance (I used 2.0 WAR as a "placeholder" in his case, but he did not even approach that modest estimation). Note that other than Cody, in this category, no players were worth WAR/Salary, nor in several cases even worth our attention.
(3) Special category of dread
Ryan Howard 1.5 -0.5
vs. Darin Ruf 0.4
The non-Ruf Bench 2.0 (assigned) -2.0
This is where I call "foul" on RAJ. While Ryan technically was within 2 WAR of his peak (!), my original prediction was that Ryan would finish within 1 WAR of his peak (1.5) or otherwise Sandberg would replace him with Ruf (or Mayberry). In fact, Sandberg DID announce that Ryan would start to sit, but RAJ foolishly nixed Sandberg’s move, in the quixotic hope that Howard would reach 100 RBIs. As it turns out, Ruf DID accumulate 0.4 WAR in his limited appearances, and therefore the combination of Ruf and Howard would surely have been within 1 WAR of Ryan’s peak, since Howard would have accumulated less negative WAR (!) in the last month or so.
I specifically picked the 2008 year’s bench, which actually wasn’t that great, for comparison’s sake in my original fanpost. Yet, that bench was, by comparison, HOFers in comparison to this year’s bench (Tony Gwynn Jr, at -1.1 fWAR, nearly as bad as Dom in far fewer plate appearances, waves hi). I actually thought about putting the bench in the top category, along with AJ, Cliff and Dom, but of course to fix the bench would take far more effort on management’s part. Still, AJ, Cliff, Dom and the bench total a whopping 14 fWAR off the projection, and now you really are talking about competing for the wild card.
(4) Special category of optimism
Ken Giles 1.7
Note that if you add Papelbon’s fWAR (1.7) and Giles’ fWAR (1.7, the same as Pap!) that exceeds Papelbon’s peak of 3.2
Total fWAR from above: 23.1 (this also matches fangraphs’ team fWAR total)
This implies a total of 70 wins. The Phils won 73.
Conclusions and Recommendations
I tell my students that you must include conclusions and recommendations in any formal report, so here goes.
The Phils near-term future is not very good, unless they luck out in the Tomas sweepstakes, and/or Cliff Lee finds the Fountain of Youth, and/or RAJ/Pat Gillick/some new GM finds a wonderful, cheap new bench like Victorino and Werth, circa 2007. The players that have value have terrible contracts, and the players with decent contracts do not have much value. Everyone wants the Phils to "Traid Hammels", or maybe Byrd or Rollins, but that will be difficult (in the case of Hamels), impossible (in the case of Rollins) or perhaps detrimental (in the case of Byrd, who is still earning his salary in a position that the Phils have no other options, and who might be better trade bait next July when his remaining contract $$ are somewhat less).
I do think some change is necessary, if only to clear out impediments to growth of the few close-to-the-majors young players the Phils have, and to change the scenery. Those players include Howard, Brown and Papelbon, and it will be highly unfortunate if any of those players, or Kyle Kendrick, are still here in Spring Training. So here are two projected trades I would propose to Gillick/RAJ/myself in the mirror.
(1) Trade Howard to anyone who will take him. He is now an impediment to the Phils current lineup, let alone the future. I would suggest releasing him, but I strongly doubt the Phils will do this, for appearances’ sake if nothing else. But here is a trade that might work: Howard, plus $50 million (all but the last $10 M buyout for 2017) to Tampa Bay for someone at best like Alex Colome (ideally) or at worst like Cesar Ramos. These guys can both relieve and start, and I doubt either is in the top plans for TBR. The reasons TBR might not take Howard are legion; on the other hand, they’ve really never had a power hitter other than the aging Fred McGriff, so maybe a refurbished RyHo could put some people in the seats. Also, it is basically placing an "option" (in business-speak) on Howard, as they might be able to flip him at mid-year 2016 for part of the money back if he performs well (meaning they get him at an ever lower total cost for his 2 years in Tampa).
(2) Trade Papelbon, Brown, Bastardo and possibly Garcia/Jimenez to Boston for Shane Victorino and Jackie Bradley Jr.
Why Boston makes this trade: I don’t think Uehara is coming back, Boston needs pitching, particularly someone to close, and has a giant surplus of outfielders. Victorino’s salary is a big impediment for trades, but Papelbon’s salary in 2015 equals Victorino’s and maybe they hope that they can limit Pap’s games finished (maybe by utilizing Bastardo) in 2015 to not trigger the option. They have lost some patience with Bradley, who has not hit, and perhaps Papi and the BOS braintrust can unleash the secret sauce that will inspire Brown to greatness.
Why the Phils make this trade: By far, the bullpen is the wealthiest area of the team (see above), and OF is by far the weakest. Victorino, coming off surgery, is not likely to be a 3 WAR player anymore, but relatively speaking would be a breath of fresh air after Papelbon, particularly for the fan base. Additionally his contract is up in 2015 without the Pap-type option, and they could even flip him (again!) in July if he does perform and the team doesn’t. He would be a good placeholder while The Mighty Quinn gets another year of "seasoning". Bradley’s hitting is as questionable if not more so than Brown’s but his defense has been solid, and defensively an outfield of Revere/Victorino/Byrd/Bradley would be amazingly better than what the Phils have seen in quite awhile.
Why neither the Phils nor Boston make this trade: They are getting back players they hoped would never return.
I should say I’ve been thinking about both of these trades for more than a month, so I await all of you telling me why they cannot and will not happen. :-))
Finally, the most challenging aspect of competing in 2016 and 2017 it that it is even less likely that the aging stars will approach peak fWAR. Moreover, while there are some good players from a WAR/salary viewpoint, such as Rollins, Ruf, Byrd and Ruiz, there are others like Burnett and Howard, who if they are Phils in 2015 (ugh!) the Phils will be paying $37.5 million for a total 2014 WAR of 0.5 (yes, that’s a correct figure). But the real problem is that a "perfect" WAR/salary ratio for free agents and "non-controlled" players doesn’t get you a pennant even at the luxury tax limit. Assuming that no young players are overachieving their salary, $190M gets you about 38 WAR at a perfect WAR/salary ratio, which gets you 85 wins. So you have to have multiple young players who are getting 2 or 3 times standard WAR/salary figures (say, 4 WAR with a salary of $2 million) in order to get to the playoffs if you want to remain in luxury tax limits.
But right now, the Phils don’t have any of those young high WAR/salary players. Hurry up, Nola, Crawford and Quinn. And Jesse Biddle, I sure hope you somehow right the ship, too.
Thanks to all of you Phighters for helping me keep the Phaith. Until pitchers and catchers report……