One reason teams are hesitant to publicly embark on rebuilding efforts is that they’re much easier to start than to successfully conclude. The last time the Phillies tried this was 1996, when they publicly admitted that their next playoff contender would not rise up around the likes of Mark Whiten and Sid Fernandez. If you’d asked the young, possibly-high dajafi that year when he thought the Phils might next reach the playoffs, he probably would have said something like "2000." The correct answer, of course, would have been 2007, by which time the only guy left in the organization from 1996 was Jimmy Rollins, who’d just been drafted.
Now, there are reasons to believe it won’t take eleven years this time. For starters, Citizens Bank Park and a favorable TV contract have pushed the Phillies into the ranks of MLB’s financial haves. There's an additional playoff spot. And for that matter, the second half of that "rebuilding period" (2001-2006) saw the team in playoff contention almost every year.
Yet over that stretch, almost every one of the players around whom they’d initially rebuilt—Scott Rolen, Mike Lieberthal, Bobby Abreu, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla—left the organization. It could well be that Ken Giles and Maikel Franco are ex-Philies by the club’s next postseason game.
It’s also true that the recent evidence of rebuilding large-market teams is mostly discouraging. The Cubs and Mets have been bad for five years, and both are only now starting to edge toward relevance. At best, the Phillies’ 2015 will resemble 2011 for those teams—around when they admitted that this would take some time. The Mets lost 85 games in 2011; the Cubs lost 91. Most expect the 2015 Phillies to fare even worse.
Even so, with spring training of Rebuild Year One just a few days away, it’s tough to take much issue with their first few steps along this long and twisting path.
Start with the trades they’ve made. The deals for Antonio Bastardo, Rollins and Marlon Byrd added solid inventory on the pitching side. None of the four arms those guys brought back look like perennial all-stars, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see one or two of them emerge as mid-rotation starters for a few years.
They’ve taken a similarly prudent approach to free agency. Aaron Harang is a smart stability play signed at a lower price than most thought he’d get. Chad Billingsley is almost all upside. Either or both could be flipped in summer for a solid return. The early-winter re-ups of last season’s scrapheap finds, Grady Sizemore and Jerome Williams, were boring but not stupid: both are role players who presumably are good in the clubhouse. The sum total of these moves: nobody is blocked (if Darin Ruf hits, Kelly Dugan stays healthy or Aaron Altherr emerges, they won’t languish on Sizemore’s account). Also important is that no substantial new payroll obligations were incurred.
But the criticisms that have come the Phillies’ way are less about what they’ve done than what they didn’t do or haven’t yet done—trade their veteran inventory, or sign international free agents.
It’s true that the high-priced human trade rumors of the winter are still here, and it’s likely that this will prove awkward. Tough darts. If anything, the argument that they should make trades to avoid personal discomfort seems reflective of the mindset that got them into this mess. Among the possible malcontents, Jonathan Papelbon won't make a trade easier by pouting, and Ryan Howard seems too good a guy to go that route.
There's a bit more of an argument regarding Cole Hamels. Ruben Amaro has misfired on evaluating players and markets enough times that it’s valid to worry that he's done so again. There's always risk of an injury or decline. But not having dealt him so far seems like a justifiable call: moving Cole to the Red Sox for, say, Allen Craig and Joe Kelly wouldn’t be smart. Unless he does get hurt, the best offer probably hasn’t come yet.
Meanwhile, after a lot of early hype, the Phillies passed on Yasmany Tomas, and it’s likely they’ll do the same with Yoan Moncada. This might or might not prove wise, but it’s not irrational. Since Tomas ultimately signed with the Diamondbacks for tens of millions less than what most thought he’d get, the Phillies probably weren’t the only team whose enthusiasm declined as their information increased.
As for Moncada, they might decide that however much promise the 19 year old Cuban has, he’s not worth taking themselves out of the mix for every other international prospect who can command more than a $300k bonus for the next couple years. Given the totality of the team’s moves in Latin America and talent acquisition over the last two years—signing Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, and hiring the very well regarded Johnny Almaraz to run their scouting—it’s far more likely this decision is driven by strategy rather than cheapness. It will be surprising if the Phillies don’t take some shots on international talent this summer.
None of this is to say that the 2015 season will be fun. It’s going to suck. The offense is a stone lock to be bad. Its best two regulars, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz, are both 36 years old with extensive injury histories. Leadoff man Ben Revere can’t walk or drive the ball. Corner outfielders Domonic Brown and Darin Ruf have questionable-at-best bats to complement their brutal gloves. Freddy Galvis could make 500 trips to the plate. And while the pitching could be decent—the bullpen talent is well known, and an on-paper rotation of Hamels-Lee-Billingsley-Harang-Williams/David Buchanan might be in the top half of MLB—it’s unlikely you’ll see that group for long, if at all. Hopefully, by the time Cliff Lee, Hamels or both get dealt, Aaron Nola or Zac Eflin or Ben Lively or Jesse Biddle is ready to come up for a first taste of the majors.
But 2015 isn’t the point, other than how the current talent develops or can be cashed out for future talent. That will fall to Amaro.
To be clear, I still don’t think Amaro has the vision, intellectual curiosity or esteem around the game to be the right guy for the rebuild. But I also don’t believe his presence dooms its outset.
In a way, this is the easy part (which is not to say it’s easy): Amaro only has to make prudent moves to dispose of veteran talent, and draft and sign well. The harder stuff comes later, when the focus starts to shift back toward trying to win: which assets to deal and which to keep, how to navigate free agency, balancing player development against on-field success, and so on. My strong guess is that whoever succeeds Pat Gillick as team president will name a new GM. Meanwhile, Amaro absorbs fanbase wrath (see any comment thread on this very site) and understands, and by all appearances accepts, that he’s a steward for the team’s future hopes.