If we want to hold an honest conversation about the Phillies’ proper course of action the next month, we must concur with Ruben Amaro Jr. and David Montgomery on a key point. Cleaning up a mess the magnitude of the one that they have made over the last five or six years is a much more complicated process than the general punditry sometimes makes it seem with screams of “Everything must go!” While anybody who has watched this Phillies team can empathize with the desire to make it go away as fast as possible, the reality is that they are not the usual kind of sellers we see at this time every year. That’s because teams with built-in financial advantages like the Phillies usually are not in this position. But the Phillies are, thanks to years of suspect decision-making that began way back in 2009 with their inexplicable trade of Cliff Lee to the Mariners. And now that they are in this position, one of their advantages is that they do not need to act strictly out of financial necessity.
In other words, this isn't a firesale, which could be the source of the contention that Amaro and Montgomery express whenever such a prospect is raised. It would be silly to trade Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins solely for the sake of change. Yet it would also be silly – perhaps even ruinous – to rule out trading Utley or Rollins or anybody else in the organization without exhausting every effort to discover each player's maximum value on the trade market in advance of the July 31 deadline. And that's the juncture where we can start to wonder whether the folks in charge really have a realistic grasp of how much work they have to do before the Phillies are once again contenders.
On the one hand, you want to give Amaro/Montgomery (Montgamaroy? MontGamaRoy?) the benefit of the doubt, because what's the point of having a front office at a time like this if it isn't in the process of compiling a comprehensive list of options that starts with the best offer for a package of Hamels/Utley/Papelbon/Rollins/Ruiz/Byrd/Lee and runs through every scenario down to B.J. Rosenberg.
After all, the Phillies are currently on pace to finish with six fewer wins than the Marlins. In fact, the distance between the Phillies and the Marlins in run differential (+35 in favor of the latter) is greater than the distance between the Marlins and the Braves (+7) and the Cardinals (+23) and the Reds (+26) and the Giants (+33). And the Marlins are closer to contention than the Phillies despite the housecleaning that Miami underwent during a six-month stretch in 2012, when they traded away three of their best regulars (Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Omar Infante), three of their best starting pitchers (Anibal Sanchez, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson), and two of their best relievers (Randy Choate, Edward Mujica). Three of those players were homegrown stars.
It would be a stretch to say that the Marlins are better than the Phillies right now because of that housecleaning. Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich have been significant contributors to Miami’s offense, and all three were in the system in 2012. The Phillies simply do not have the kind of young talent in place to help the team in a similar manner within the next couple years (Although one can argue that Maikel Franco, Cody Asche and J.P. Crawford might prove to be a lesser version of those three).
At the same time, one can argue that the Marlins would not be where they are right now if not for their much-criticized decision to “sell” in 2012. Hanley Ramirez brought them Nate Eovaldi, who has a 3.71 ERA (104 ERA+) in 106 2/3 innings. Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson brought them Henderson Alvarez, who has a 2.32 ERA (166 ERA+) in 101 innings, and Yunel Escobar, whom they turned into second baseman Derek Dietrich (.729 OPS, 101 OPS+) via a trade with the Rays.
The Marlins’ maneuvering also landed them pitcher Justin Nicolino (Blue Jays trade), their No. 3 prospect according to MLB.com, pitcher Anthony DeSclafani (Blue Jays trade), their No. 5 prospect, pitcher Brian Flynn (Tigers trade), their No. 6 prospect, and promising yet still underperforming 23-year-old righty Jacob Turner (Tigers trade), and promising center fielder Jake Marisnick (Blue Jays trade).
Now, there are two big differences between the Phillies of 2014 and the Marlins of 2012. First and foremost were the presences of a young marquee middle-of-the-order bat and a young Cy Young caliber starter in Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez. Those two offered a lot more hope for the immediate future than is offered by Aaron Nola and Maikel Franco. The Phillies had hoped Domonic Brown would become something of the sort, particularly when combined with Asche and Franco. The fear now is that he has become Cameron Maybin, whom the Marlins gave up on in exchange for a couple of relievers several years earlier. A couple of relievers aren't going to move the needle for the Phillies, which is why their best option is, in all likelihood, to play Brown every day with the hope that he follows in the footsteps of other young players who have endured epic struggles during their sophomore campaigns. Just like it isn't wise to trade Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley soley for the sake of change, neither is it wise to do so with Brown. But we're getting off point.
The point, we should remind you, is that the public comments of Amaro/Montgomery suggest that they have set themselves up with a false either/or. Either trade everybody and enter a five-year rebuilding phase, or hold onto their “name” players (Utley/Hamels/Rollins/Ruiz/etc.) and sell off their spare parts (Papelbon/Byrd/Burnett/etc.) in order to maintain some hope of contending, and current attendance levels, until they draft and develop the next generation of stars.
"We're not going to be in a five-year plan, be really bad for five years," Amaro told FoxSports.com. "I don't believe we're in the market to do that, and where we have to do that."
But there's the false choice, the same one Amaro suggested last year when he said, with a touch of indignation, that he doesn't “do five-year plans.” Building a successful organization shouldn't require one to choose between maximizing one's ability to compete next year with maximizing one's ability to compete in five years. It should be a process of maximizing one's ability to compete over the aggregate. Besides, prioritizing one's ability to compete next season is in itself a false choice, at least for the Phillies, because recent evidence suggests that they do not have the option of competing next season, even if they prioritize doing so, because they do not have the requisite talent in place on their current roster, and the requisite talent does not appear likely to exist on the free agent market.
The Phillies already have around $142 million in payroll obligations for next season, assuming Rollins’ option vests and Chase Utley gets the $5 million bump in pay if he does not spend more than 15 days on the DL with a knee injury. Factor in $3 million for the young relievers (Diekman, Giles, De Fratus, Holland) and $3 million for Antonio Bastardo or whoever replaces him, plus $4 million for the bench and Cody Asche, and the payroll is sitting at $152 million before a single piece is added that might improve the current bunch. The Phillies would still need two starting pitchers, a center fielder, and a left fielder. If Ben Revere is the center fielder, you can tack on another $4.5 million. Which means for the Phillies to improve significantly, they would need to add a middle-of-the-order bat capable of playing left field and two starters who improve on Kyle Kendrick and Roberto Hernandez. Keep in mind that Kendrick and Hernandez combined to earn about $10 million themselves this year. So even making cost neutral moves there would bump the payroll up to about $167 million, Revere included.
That leaves the Phillies $12 million until they hit their 2014 Opening Day spending level, which was a record high for the organization. Is a $12 million-a-year left fielder enough to make the Phillies contenders? Does a $12 million-a-year left fielder even exist on the market? Melky Cabrera? Colby Rasmus (he's a center fielder who would replace Revere)? One of the older veterans like Josh Willingham or Michael Cuddyer?
Even if you can concoct some scenario in which the Phillies make more than a marginal improvement, remember that all of it is contingent on a big assumption that the current regime has a history of dramatically miscalculating: that the current talent will stave off any dramatic physiological decline for another year. The biggest assumption currently being put forth as Gospel is that a couple of rehab outings and four or five July starts is all 35-year-old Cliff Lee will need to magically recover from a flexor tendon injury that he says he still feels. Hey, the guy is a competitor, and I wouldn't put it past him. But he is also a human being, with a human body, and flexor tendon injuries have a history of ending not so well for pitchers, particularly old ones who are in their decline phases. Forget about trading Lee. The Phillies will be fortunate if he does not end up needing surgery after all of this. And even if he does avoid the operating table, we have to consider the chance that he is something less than a top-of-the-rotation workhorse when he returns. A.J. Burnett is 37 years old. His strikeout rate has dropped to 6.9 per nine, down from 9.8 last season and 8.3 on his career. Is that a symptom of the hernia he has pitched with? Or is the hernia a symptom of his being a 37-year-old pitcher. And what about next season, when he is a 38-year-old pitcher?
Then there is Utley/Rollins/Ruiz. All three have seen their production drop as the season has progressed. All three will be one year older next season. It seems obvious. But it doesn't seem to be mentioned much. The logic that the fans will be satisfied watching the Phillies as long as the core group is in place is reduced to all of them driving out to their positions in HoverRounds until they melt into the infield dirt. Change is hard and it is scary and it requires bold decision-making and, most of all, logical, ends-based planning for the long term. Maybe Amaro/Montgomery are in the process of concocting such a plan. Maybe they are ready to make the necessary decisions. But given Amaro's stated hesitation to “be really bad for five years,” it seems as if a newsflash is in order: You are already three years in.