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The Myth of Progress and the 2015 Phillies Worst-Case Scenario

I've been informed that it is polite to share bad news prior to good, so, in keeping with manners, I present to you the worst-case scenario for the 2015 Phillies, as I see it.

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A common thread that runs through the thinking of the Enlightenment is the idea that society is on a relentless upward trajectory. Many Enlightenment thinkers saw progress as inevitable. As long as some basic conditions were met--a relatively free society, the absence of war, and established property rights, for instance--societies and individuals would naturally advance and improve.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this doctrine of progress is Adam Smith's idea of the invisible hand. According to Smith, it's perfectly fine for individuals to act in pursuit of their own economic good because those actions will be guided by an invisible hand--an unseen, god-like force--to advance the common good. In a world inhabited exclusively by homines economici ruthlessly pursuing their own self-interest, people at all levels of society will reap the benefits.

Similarly, the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant advanced the idea that all European nations were constantly becoming more representative of the will of the people. For Kant, societies were on an unstoppable trajectory to an international governmental system that would resolve issues between countries and ensure "perpetual peace." As long as humans remain rational creatures--in other words, as long as humans continue to exist--this end of perpetual peace fostered by global governance would happen automatically.

Since the Enlightenment, the belief in the relentless forward march of progress has come under attack, and for good reason. You see, because we are humans and subject to real-world conditions, we sometimes act irrationally and do stupid shit. Every day we make decisions that contribute to global warming; many people choose to not vaccinate their children and endanger society; U.S. voting is becoming more discriminatory. This propensity we have for doing stupid things puts a hitch, if not a full-on detour, in our relentless march of progress. Time and overall well-being do not advance together.

Much of the recent thinking about the Phillies, mine included, subscribes to a similar doctrine of progress. According to this thought, the Phillies will progress toward eventual contention regardless of what actions they pursue this year. It doesn't matter if they trade Ryan Howard; he won't bring a return worth thinking about and he's not blocking anyone worth anything. It's ok for them to sign veterans who might net the team some wins that worsen their 2016 draft position because the difference between the first and third pick is trivial and the potential trade return for those players in July makes up for that loss in the draft.

Basically, short of signing Nelson Cruz to a 5 yr/$80 million contract, there is nothing the Phillies can do to mess things up. The development of the farm system is all that matters and, the thinking goes, this simply happens given time. As prospects get older, they get better independent of human intervention. Sure, this development might occur in fits and starts and a couple players might not reach their currently perceived potential, but on the whole, the system will develop and contribute.

It's even easier to fall for the myth of progress when we hear about the Phillies developing an analytics department, trading their typewriters in for computers, and admitting that they've made mistakes in the past. Hell, they even drafted college players this past draft. Progress.

However, for similar reasons that inevitable societal progress is a myth, inevitable Phillies contention is no sure thing, especially in the short-ish term. Having a good farm system helps, certainly, but a top farm system doesn't always become a top major league team. A top pitching prospect might tear his UCL and never regain his stuff after Tommy John; a catcher may suffer repeated concussions; an athletic outfielder who crushed minor league pitching might inexplicably be unable to develop into an average defender while, at the same time, major league pitching finds and exploits a hole in his swing. Josh Hamilton's recent relapse reminds us that these players are humans with their unique schizes and flows. Not only is progress not linear, but sometimes players get worse.

The worst-case scenario for the Phillies lies in the debunking of the doctrine of progress. Aaron Nola is a sure thing to be a mid-rotation starter until you admit that pitchers are the riskiest assets in the game. The Phillies' two most valuable trade chips are both pitchers. There's risk there every time they throw the ball. Prospects and younger players sometimes don't adjust to higher levels of competition and stall. Even in the most optimal conditions, plans don't always work out. Such is the condition of being-in-the-world.

That's as close as I can get to suggesting the worst case without having to scream into a pillow--don't want to alarm the neighbors, after all.

Perhaps we're all better off accepting Kant's contention. The proper conditions for successful organizational development--good scouting, consistent organizational philosophy (The Phillies Way), talented prospects--seem to be met, so prosperity is sure to follow.