The past week has brought us a lot of what I'll call offseason nadir columns. These sorts of columns come at a time when absolutely nothing of note is happening with the local baseball team, yet deadlines need to be met and pages, both electronic and print, must have content. As a result, the nadir of the offseason produces tends to produce silly thoughts.
One particular silly thought, propagated by Ken Rosenthal and Bob Brookover, is of the speculative variety. This speculative silly thought posits that rebuilding is inherently an awkward situation for players to navigate. Moreover, they say, having four veterans in camp for a rebuilding team will make matters even worse. "How ever will Cole Hamels be able to tolerate questions about offseason trade rumors?," is the type of silly question asked to the reader of these silly columns.
The second silly thought falls under the prescriptive variety. The currently en vogue prescription for the Phillies is that they must trade all their remaining veterans in order to let the rebuilding project break free. In this theory, the mere presence of Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley is holding the Phillies back from doing things like getting younger, transforming the organization, and committing to the rebuild. With those three players on the roster, rebuilding is just a theoretical possibility to which the Phillies have verbally committed themselves.
The tie that binds these two thoughts, besides that they are both silly, is that they both argue that Phillies would be better off if they traded away as many of Howard, Utley, Papelbon, Hamels, and Lee as possible. I think it will suffice to dismiss the Rosenthal/Brookover argument by simply noting that Spring Training Awkward Talking Syndrome (STATS) is not a factor in player performance or morale. STATS, while an acronym befitting a hot new sabermetric statistic, is simply, as of this writing, not one. As tenured professional athletes, all five of those players have dealt with their fair share of awkward questions. Call me naive, but I'm not worried about STATS. Keep the STATS!
At this moment, before going into the more substantive thought of the offseason nadir, I'd like to ask a silly question of my own. Why does Carlos Ruiz always get left out of these trade mandates? What makes him different than Chase Utley? They're both old, but remain above average players signed to entirely reasonable contracts. Neither is blocking a hot prospect. If we're going to throw a fit until Utley gets traded, why aren't we doing the same for Carlos? Poor, sad, forgotten Carlos!
Now, it seems that I must provide somewhat compelling reasons why these players do not have to be traded to start the rebuild. First, Cole Hamels. On the one hand, Hamels' fate is pivotal to the rebuild. The prospect haul Hamels could bring back in trade would have the potential to set the Phillies up with one of the most exciting groups of prospects in the game. There's no doubt that would help the rebuild and that remains the best-case scenario--trading Hamels for a transformative prospect return. If we had reason to believe Amaro has received that kind of offer for Hamels, we'd all be right to yell about him on Twitter, in bars, and in comment sections.
The fact is, however, that we don't have grounds for that belief. Rather, we have every reason to believe that all the offers for Hamels have amounted to, at best, moderate prospect returns. The worst thing Amaro could do is whiff on the Hamels trade. Because of his mix of age and skill, Hamels is the most valuable asset Amaro possesses, and it's not even close. Amaro can't afford to settle on a 2009-Cliff-Lee-trade-esque return, which brings us to where the Phillies currently stand with Cole Hamels, the middle-case scenario. Amaro doesn't have to trade Hamels. He's great now and there's a non-trivial chance he'll still be good when the Phillies are also good. Additionally, his occupying a spot in the rotation isn't preventing any young phenoms from developing. There's no rush to trade him. Amaro should hold out for the best-case scenario while desperately avoiding the worst-case. So far, he's done just that and we should praise him for it.
Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cliff Lee
As for Lee, Howard, and Utley, they all find themselves in the same situation, despite their different contracts, current abilities, and health concerns. None of them will be on the next contending Phillies team, barring an incredibly flukish 2015 that involves injuries to nearly every non-Phillie in baseball. That last sentence is why they should all be traded if a good opportunity presents itself. Utley seems unwilling to agree to a trade at this time--which he must do in order to be traded--so faulting Amaro for not trading him is, like this entire week before Spring Training, silly. If Amaro doesn't see it as his duty to give things to other teams, he'll likely need to wait until the end of Spring Training at the earliest for Cliff Lee to prove he is healthy and for Ryan Howard to prove he can still hit and that an extra year of distance from his Achilles injury is more beneficial than an additional year of aging is harmful. In other words, there is no way Amaro can trade any of those players right now.
Jonathan Papelbon represents an interesting case. On the one hand, he might be as tradeable as he will ever be. Despite declining velocity since arriving in Philadelphia, Papelbon's results have remained solid. Declining velocity is typically not a good sign for a pitcher. Do the Phillies want to risk a potential dip in performance if the velocity continues to decline? It might be best to sell before his value tanks.
On the other hand, Papelbon remaining the Phillies closer in 2015 provides some non-performance-based value to the Phillies. As long as Papelbon is on the roster, Ryne Sandberg is going to view him as his closer and give him the save opportunities that come with that. Without Papelbon around, Ken Giles would likely receive the bulk of Phillies, albeit limited, save opportunities. And while one might speculate that this would provide him with some not valueless experience, those saves would indisputably make him more expensive when he hits arbitration in 2018. Papelbon blocking Giles from a year's worth of saves may save the Phillies enough 2018 money to allow them to sign an extra reliever or bench player to put them over the top when it matters.
One problem, though, Papelbon has an option for 2016 that vests if he finished 48 games in 2015. He finished 52 last season and hasn't finished fewer than 49 since 2005. If he's the Phillies closer in 2015, I'm betting on that option vesting. That option likely won't get in the way of trading Papelbon down the road as he is reportedly demanding that any team trading for him guarantee to pick up his 2016 contract. In other words, that option is only a factor if he remains on the Phillies in 2016.
The Phillies don't have to trade anyone on the current roster simply for the sake of doing so. They shouldn't hesitate to make a trade if they receive a good offer, but they shouldn't be afraid to wait for the right offer either. Awkward interviews (STATS) aside, there is no harm in keeping these players around. In fact, they're probably best keeping all of them around, at least for a little bit longer. Not even the 2015 draft pick should be a concern because, even with the veterans on the roster, the Phillies are set to be the worst team in the league according to most projection systems.
The Phillies rebuild will benefit most if Amaro can get the best returns for his current players. In the cases of the Phillies veterans, he might maximize his return by waiting.
In the meantime, remember that even awkwardness can be entertaining: