The current zeitgeist surrounding the Phillies and the upcoming trade deadline is a frothy mix of anger, consternation, and general confusion, as rumors of who may or may not be available, and which teams may or may not be in the hunt, and what the Phillies may or may not be asking for in return swirl. The lamentations by various members of the media and commentariat are legion: "The Phillies are asking for too much for Cole Hamels!" "The Phillies waited too long to trade Papelbon!" "Why is Ruben Amaro being such a stick in the mud?!" "Any team paying a lot in prospects for Cole Hamels is making a mistake!" "The Phillies have been on the pot so long they're going to develop hemorrhoids!" "lol Boston and their two hundred 'untouchable' prospects!" Okay, that last one is just me.
For those who are worried about the Phillies' potential loss of leverage, or negotiating position, or general ineptitude at this year's deadline, I'm going to posit this conceptual balm: Should the Phillies not get exactly what they're looking for in exchange for Papelbon and Hamels they should not trade either player.
I understand this might seem a foreign concept to most, as the clarion call to Trade Everyone With Value has been bleating for two-plus years now, but today's reality is different. This is no longer a team diving to the depths of a complete teardown. That work has already been done. Starting in 2016 this is a team on the rebound. With a bit of off-season spending this team is poised to compete for the first time in nearly half a decade, and Hamels and Papelbon can be integral contributors in such a scenario.
How on earth could this team, easily the worst team in baseball, compete next year? Well, imagine moving Freddy Galvis to 2B, where his elite defense and questionable offensive abilities will likely play better than at short. Imagine Galvis moves to second because J.P. Crawford, budding superstar and perhaps the best prospect in all of baseball, takes over at short. You've now an infield of Franco at the hot corner, Crawford at short, Galvis at second, and some a little old-timey reminiscence at first, with some combination of Utley, Howard, and a Mayberry-type LHP specialist picked off the scrap heap sharing time there.
[Aside: I'm assuming that Howard's contract will all but ensure that he remains a Phillie until he retires. Utley, I'm not quite as sure about. If he does not accumulate 500 PA this season, and it's looking like he very well may not, his vesting option turns into a club option worth somewhere between $5 and $11M - I'm not sure the Phillies pick that up]
The outfield will consist of Revere on a reasonable third arbitration year deal, and nothing else, really. The Phillies can continue the increasingly saddening Dom Brown Experiment, or they can move on to one of the guys in the system who has yet to bust, like an Aaron Atherr or Kelly Dugan, if he can stay healthy. Either way, the Phillies will need a third outfielder, so off we go to free agency. While looking for a guy to sign, they would ideally covet someone who is young enough that he'll be around while the new core of Crawford, Franco, and Nola matures, but who is good enough to make a significant impact. Luckily, there's just such a free agent available:
Make no mistake, signing Heyward is going to be monstrously expensive. Luckily for the Phillies, prior to any additions it looks like their salary commitments for 2016 are going to come in right around $100,000,000 or so, perhaps slightly more. That's lucky, because this is a team that as recently as 2014 fielded a payroll of $177,000,000, and that has a brand new $5 billion dollar Comcast deal that starts in 2016. In other words, the Phillies can afford to back up the Brinks truck for Heyward.
Looking to the rotation, once you keep Hamels, you have a Hamels, Nola top two, which is a good start. They'll clearly need to add another impact starter, though not necessarily one of the elite guys like Price or Greinke. A good-but-not-elite starter will do here, and as I'm writing this it looks like at least one of those guys (Kazmir) will not be attached to a draft pick eating qualifying offer. Either way, a top of the rotation with Hamels, Kazmir/Leake/Latos-type, and Aaron Nola become formidable when you add elite defense around the field (remember, we're moving Galvis to second, upgrading to Crawford, and massively upgrading to Heyward). You can fill out the final rotation spots with the David Buchanans and Jessie Biddles of the organization, or sign a lesser guy for that same fourth/fifth starter role.
The bullpen will be fine as is, especially if they're keeping Papelbon. Papelbon, Giles, Diekman, and DeFratus (if his arm hasn't fallen off by next season due to criminal overuse, but that's a complaint for another day) are more than adequate to hold down the back end of the bullpen.
In this scenario the Phillies are also going to need to add at least a co-starting catcher. Carlos Ruiz is no longer the Carlos Ruiz of the late aughts and early teens. By all accounts he's a great organizational guy, elite pitchers have loved throwing to him, and I truly believe he's got value in a teaching/mentoring role, so it's not as if he needs to be immediately jettisoned, it's just that he's not a guy who they can count on to produce any kind of positive value on the field over the course of a season.
In a follow-up post I'll go into more detail and lay out win and cost estimates more exactingly; this is a conceptual post more than an actual blueprint. The point, however, remains. There's a light at the end of this tunnel, a light to which the Phillies have been quietly steering themselves toward for the last 3+ years, and it's nearly within reach. The prevailing sentiment that this team is, at least for the foreseeable future, crippled by mismanagement, poor contracts, old players, and whatever sort of bumbling fool the caricature of the day presumes Amaro to be, is shockingly misguided. The Phillies are rebuilding, sure, but there's a lot of structure here if you peek behind the scaffolding. They do not need to trade Papelbon, and they do not need to trade Cole Hamels, and they're going to be competitive in a relatively weak NL East before most realize it.