Rebuilding efforts come in many shapes and sizes from uncontroversial retoolings like those recently undergone by the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East to Hot Take fodder like the complete tear-down-and-collect-any-semblance-of-an-asset approach still (in some form) taking place with the Sixers. What is common between all varieties of rebuild, though, is that they come with a certain amount of stress and anxiety. The players being rebuilt around may get injured or not develop; your team may get the top pick in the draft, yet still miss out on a generational talent Mike Trout.
With a prospect-acquisition-based rebuild like the Phillies have taken upon themselves, that risk is amplified because they’re banking on players who are valuable not because of what they have actually done but because of what it seems possible that they could do. That’s an oversimplification, but the point is the same: the uncertainties of prospects are savage and a team that bets on an entire group of them runs the risk of being torn asunder by that savagery.
But, that’s not important for the current purposes. I surely don’t know what will become of J.P. Crawford, Jake Thompson, Nick Williams, and the like, and even those who know infinitely more than I do about that—Matt Winkelman, Cormican, etc.—don’t really know either, in the grand scheme of things. But, based on what we do know—that the Phillies have one of the better collections of young talent in the league—I’m going to assume, for the purposes of this article, that the rebuild will result in a team that can win something like 85-90 games per season from 2018-2021. That’s a bold assumption, maybe, but it’s the premise guiding what follows.
85-90 wins is good. It gets you in the playoffs most of the time and in contention for the playoffs all the time. But, baseball doesn’t operate in a closed circuit. Just look at the NL Central over the last decade. The Brewers had a good team of young players a decade ago, but their success was short-lived, in part, because the Cardinals and Reds timed their success concurrently. The same story goes for the Pirates right now. They’ve been excellent the past couple seasons, but because the Cubs and Cardinals have been so good, they’ve not yet tasted the fruits of that talent.
The question here, then, is where the Phillies will find themselves in the NL East when their young talent is doing things. So, let’s go through a team-by-team exploration of the Phillies NL East brethren to see whether they are likely to have an uninterrupted run at the division title or be relegated to a Pirates-esque annual battle for supremacy.
I’m going to gloss over the Braves a bit, even though we know that they’re the Phillies rebuild rivals. Their collection of young players is at least as impressive as the Phillies. They came into the season ranked higher than the Phillies in farm system rankings, but that alone is obscured by the fact that some of the Phillies players had graduated from prospect lists. In all, the error bars on their rebuilds have a significant amount of overlap. The Braves will rival the Phillies over the next seven years.
The Marlins are weird. On the one hand, they have a phenomenal collection of young players who are likely to still be good while the Phillies are trying to be good in Jose Fernandez, Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. However, knowing Jeffrey Loria, it seems highly unlikely that they will all be Marlins next year, let alone five years down the road. If they all stick around Miami and stay healthy—looking at you Giancarlo and Jose—this is a team that could be around the top of the division. But, Jeffrey Loria. So, they won’t be around and, entering the season, the Marlins were regarded as having one of the very worst farm systems in baseball. They were saved from having the worst by the Angels having, by some accounts, a historically poor collection of prospects.
In short, the Marlins aren’t a likely challenger for the Phillies future throne.
New York Mets
A lot has changed in the last five months for the Mets. Last year, a young rotation was carrying the team to a surprise World Series appearance and sent shivers through the NL East at the prospect of a decade of facing Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, and Zach Wheeler. Now, Harvey had a bad season before being shut down for shoulder surgery. Matz has shoulder issues of his own. Wheeler is has been recovering from Tommy John Surgery for 17 months now and was last seen throwing one inning at High-A on August 8th. Syndergaard and deGrom are still good, but, with a middle-of-the-pack farm system and a historical unwillingness to spend money in free agency, they’re banking on the health of five pitchers, three of which have injury histories. They have the ceiling of a long-term contender, but the floor of a mediocre-to-poor team, like they are right now.
The Nationals are perhaps the most interesting case on this list because they are the biggest unknown. Locking up Stephen Strasburg through 2023 and signing Max Scherzer last offseason sent a message that they’re willing to spend to contend, but they have some loose ends to tie up, particularly with Bryce Harper who is set to hit free agency in 2019. He’s a Boras client, so an extension will likely neither be cheap nor easy. Wilson Ramos is having a fantastic season, but will be a free agent this winter.
Their other young talent is potentially troublesome for the Phillies. Lucas Giolito, nearly on his own, vaulted the organization to a lot of top-10 rankings this past offseason, and Trea Turner has already shown the ability to be a valuable major league player. Depth could be an issue for them, and, basically, their entire shtick rides on Harper signing on long-term and Strasburg staying healthy—both, at best, 50-50 propositions. With Giolito, Turner, Anthony Rendon, and a willingness to spend, the Nationals have a high floor, and probably the highest ceiling in the division. But, it’s unclear whether that ceiling is remotely attainable.
The Phillies have a tough task ahead of them when the rebuild is complete as every team in the division has a decent chance of being competitive over the next five years.
We have basically written off two teams in the Marlins and Mets due to their historical unwillingness to spend money to lock up players and their relatively poor farm systems, but there is enough talent currently on their rosters that they could be real contenders if they all stick around those organizations and on the field.
The Braves and Nationals, however, are the more likely thorns in the Phillies side going forward. The Braves are basically the same as the Phillies if you take away the whole “they’re the Braves” thing they have going. Their success relative to the Phillies essentially comes down to a couple spins of the roulette wheel of prospect development. The Nationals are concerning because of the elite young talent both in the majors and in the minors, but come with questions about how long they can keep that collection under one ceiling.
In short, in three years, the National League East could look a lot like NL Central looked last year, with three (or more) teams with legitimate playoff aspirations. That’s not reassuring news for the Phillies, but, at least, there isn’t a future Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Dodgers lurking in the division to squash all hope of long-term viability.