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The State of the Process: Where the Phillies Rebuild Stands

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The Phillies have admitted they are in a rebuilding cycle, but they may be getting out-rebuilt by division rivals.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, the Atlanta Braves traded their top starting pitcher, Shelby Miller, to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a package of young players and prospects that borders on inexplicable for a pitcher of his caliber. The Braves received Dansby Swanson--the first overall pick in last June's draft--Ender Inciarte, and pitching prospect Aaron Blair, who is a top-100 prospect in the game.

Just last year, they acquired Touki Toussaint from those same Diamondbacks as a reward for taking Bronson Arroyo's contract off their hands. Prior to that, they received Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins in exchange for Jason Hayward. Not a month ago, they acquired pitcher Sean Newcomb (the #2 prospect in their system) from the Angels for Andrelton Simmons. All told, five of the Braves current top-7 prospects according to MLB.com were acquired via trade, three of them from the 2016-focused Diamondbacks. Largely because of these recent trade hauls, the Braves figure to be ranked near, if not at, the top of every public organizational prospect ranking list this winter.

The Phillies have put themselves on a similar path to the Braves, having traded veteran players to bolster their farm system. In the last two years, the Phillies have added Jake Thompson, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Zach Eflin, and others. A solid nine of their MLB.com top-15 prospects have come to their system through trades.

It's hard to take anything away from what the Phillies have done of late to build a strong farm system. They got fair, if not generous returns, for Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Marlon Byrd, Roberto Hernandez, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley. But, yet they still don't appear to have a clear path to divisional dominance.

The Braves are now on the same timeline for contention as the Phillies, and, factoring in the pieces already on their major league roster, arguably have a more compelling future. The Mets just made it to the World Series in 2015 thanks in large part to a young and dominant rotation that only figures to get better next year with an extra year of development and the addition of Steven Matz and the return of Zack Wheeler.

The trendy consensus seems to be to write off the Nationals going forward, what with Stephen Strasburg set to hit free agency and, likely, seek greener pastures. However any team with a player as good as Bryce Harper under its employ has a significant head start on the path to contention over peer teams.

The Marlins are the Marlins, so it is probably a waste of mental energy to worry too much about them.

So, what are we to make of the Phillies future in light of recent events?

I posed this question to my limited Twitter constituency and, in that limited and extremely biased sample, there was great hope for the Phillies as they had received over 80% of respondents' votes as of this writing:

I think the answer is a little less clear-cut than that. The Mets have already arrived with their young core, but at same time, that core is built on the shakier foundation of assumed pitching health. The Braves, if the prospect rankings are to be trusted, have a similarly pitching-heavy foundation. Matt Wisler, Newcomb, Toussaint, and Blair are all pitchers. Eight of their top 10 prospects are pitchers. The Phillies, on the other hand, have a mix of pitchers--Nola, Thompson, Eickhoff, Kilome, Eflin--and position players--Franco, Crawford, Williams, Alfaro--among their younger players and prospects.

Still, I was a little taken aback by such optimism from a stereotypically pessimistic fanbase, so I asked voters to explain themselves. It turns out, the optimism wasn't necessarily tied to the players themselves:

The Braves have the third pick in June's draft, so I doubt the #1 pick offers the Phillies a huge advantage over the Braves, especially in a draft class considered devoid of a generational talent.

Money, then, is the real kicker for the Phillies. Next offseason, they could make a run at Strasburg, if available, and other major free agents to really accelerate their rebuild. Now, free agency isn't the gold mine it has the reputation for, but, luckily money has benefits outside of free agency. Just last season, the Toronto Blue Jays' willingness to spend allowed them to take on Josh Donaldson, David Price, and Troy Tulowitzki for a run at the World Series. Moreno than the Braves and Mets, the Phillies may be able to something similar when the time is right.

At best, though, the Phillies only possess a slight advantage over their NL East brethren in their quest for contention from around 2017-2022. That their advantage is only small, if it exists at all, is not an indictment on the path they have gone down for the last two years. Rather, it is simply a testament to how smart most baseball teams have gotten of late and how difficult it is to carve out clear advantages in that environment.

The Phillies version of the process is still to be trusted, but that doesn't imply that it will guarantee success. Everyone else is trying to do the same thing, and, mostly, they're doing it well too.