My first experience with Fantasy Sports came in middle school, when some friends and I organized a Fantasy Basketball league. This was way back in the 1990's. My family did not have cable television. We did not get the Internet until I was a junior in high school. I grew up in the Poconos. We were just thankful when the electricity didn't go out. This was back when the NBA was still a semi-enjoyable sport. Every Tuesday after basketball practice, the activity bus would drop me off at Lewis' Supermarket, where I'd run inside and grab a copy of the USA Today, which published the previous week's NBA stats. I'd then tally up the fantasy totals in a spiral bound notebook. Yes, mine was an exciting childhood.
Over the next decade, improvements in Internet technology brought fantasy sports to the masses. This had a number of results, not the least of which was the warping of public perception regarding baseball trades. Because Joe Blow is able to swing a deal for Andrew McCutchen with a couple clicks of a button, he starts to assume that Ruben Amaro Jr. can do the same. The majority of Phillies fans know this is not true. But a healthy faction of them do. At least, this is the theory I have developed during my four years of monitoring the Internet and airwaves during baseball's off season and pre-trade-deadline rumor mills.
In the real world, trades are difficult, an observation Ruben Amaro Jr. repeats approximately 1,432 times every calendar year, presumably because he cannot go to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread without the cashier suggesting that he should deal Domonic Brown and Vance Worley to the Mets for David Wright.
In fairness, Amaro set the bar ridiculously high in his first big move as a general manager, when he acquired a cheap and controllable ace for an 18-year-old pitcher coming off a shoulder injury, a utility infielder, and a starting pitcher who had slid down the organization's depth chart. But even the Cliff Lee trade required the Phillies to give up some pieces that would help them now.
This popped into my mind a couple of days ago, when many fans reacted to the Astros' firing of Ed Wade by bemoaning the fact that the Phillies would no longer have somebody to steal All-Stars from. See, that perception of Wade is just wrong, and to me is the product of the Internet age's mentality of immediacy.
Let's look at the two trades the Phillies have swung with the Astros over the last two seasons:
1. Hunter Pence for Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart and Domingo Santana
We said this at the time and we'll say it again: the Phillies absolutely needed to acquire a right-handed-hitting outfielder at last July's trade deadline. Imagine if they did not, and they were now faced with an offseason in which they would be forced to bid aggressively on a player like Josh Willingham or Michael Cuddyer or Carlos Beltran. The Phillies did not neccesarily have to go all-in on Pence, but their desire to do so is understandable: he was a solid hitter with good contact numbers, decent on base numbers, and very good power who also happened to be under club control through 2013.
But the Phillies did not rob Wade by any stretch of the imagination. Singleton, a 19-year-old left-handed first baseman who had torn up the lower levels of the minor leagues, was the centerpiece of the deal. And he continued to show why after the trade, hitting .333/.405/.512 with four home runs in 148 plate appearances for the Astros' High-A affiliate. The Phillies absolutely loved Singleton. In three full seasons in the minors, he has hit .294/.393/.456 with 29 home runs, 150 walks and 210 strikeouts in 1,099 plate appearances. At the same time, he also played first base, a position where the Phillies have $125 million committed through at least 2016. So Singleton was expendable. But he also was just 19 years old, meaning he will be just 24 years old in 2016, which is the last guaranteed year of Ryan Howard's contract. Keep in mind that Howard's rookie season came when he was 25 years old.
The most expendable player was probably Cosart, who at 21 years old was in the middle of a solid campaign at High-A Clearwater, where he was 9-8 with a 3.92 ERA in 108 innings. The Phillies' system was chock full of starting pitching prospects, with Trevor May and Jesse Biddle sharing the top of the list with Cosart. If the Phillies lock up Cole Hamels to a long-term extension, Cosart could have been 26 years old before they were in serious need of a top-of-the-rotation arm. Besides, Cosart's strikeout numbers dropped precipitously between low-A, where he posted a 9.7 K/9, and low-A, where he combined to post a 6.3 K/9 in 2011. You never like to part with young pitching, but Cosart's departure was a better option than younger players like May and Biddle.
But the biggest wild card in the deal is the third player in the package. At the time, he was announced as a player to be named later, which may have caused some folks to overlook the fact that the PTBNL ended up being Domingo Santana, an outfielder who was regarded to have as much upside and raw power as any position player in the system. An international signing out of the Domincan Republic, Santana showed some serious power in 2009 when he hit six home runs, six doubles and a triple in 118 at-bats for the rookie-league Gulf Coast Phillies. He struggled in 2010, hitting just .211/.329/.333 with eight home runs in 351 at-bats at Williamsport and low-A Lakewood. But he was young. Real young.
At the time of the trade, Santana was just 18 years old and in the middle of a solid season at Lakewood, where he hit .269/.345/.434 with seven home runs in 350 at-bats. After the deal, he played just 17 games for the Astros' low-A affiliate, but he hit five home runs and four doubles in 68 at-bats, posting a line of .382/.447/.662. Santana is far from a sure thing. In order to become a bona fide blue-chipper, he needs to cut down on his strikeouts (328 in 887 minor league at-bats), and improve his selectivity (he has walked just 99 times in 1,022 plate appearances). But he was a lot more than a throw-in piece to the package that landed Pence. And as a 6-foot-5, 200-pound right-handed hitting outfielder, he has the physical make-up and home-run strength that will make a scouting director dream until the day he gets a chance to prove himself against big league pitching.
2. Roy Oswalt for J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar
Once again, the devil is in the details. At the time of the deal, the majority of attention was paid to the departure of Happ, who in 2009 went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA, 6.5 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 while playing a big role in the Phillies' third-straight NL East title run. Happ started just three games for the Phillies in 2010 thanks to an elbow injury that appeared to affect both his velocity and his control. He put up decent numbers in 13 starts for the Astros the rest of that season, going 5-4 with a 3.75 ERA, 7.6 K/9 and 4.4 BB/9. Some scouts viewed him as nothing more than a bottom-of-the-rotation starter who allowed too many fly balls and walked too many batters to become a consistently above-average NL starter. The Astros claimed they saw him as a No. 3, potential No. 2. Happ had a bizarre year in 2011. His strikeout rate jumped to 7.7-per-nine, but his walk rate also rose to 4.8-per-nine, along his his home run rate (1.2-per-nine). After 22 starts in which he went 4-14 with a 6.26 ERA, the Astros sent Happ to the minors for three weeks. After his return, he finished the season with six starts, going 2-1 with a 2.43 ERA, 34 strikeouts, 20 walks and four home runs in 37 innings.
However Happ's career turns out, it should not overshadow the other two players the Phillies parted with in exchange for Oswalt. First and foremost is center fielder Anthony Gose, who last season hit .253/.349/.415 with, 16 home runs and 70 steals in 85 attempts at Double-A New Hampshire (the Astros did not hold on to Gose, flipping him to Toronto for first baseman Brett Wallace). Gose is likely to be ranked among the top 50 prospects in the game once outlets like Baseball American and Baseball Prospectus and ESPN's Keith Law release their lists for the upcoming season. With Shane Victorino set to hit free agency after the 2012 season, Gose would be heading into a huge season, with a potential invite to spring training this season. He is still raw. He has yet to boast the contact and on base numbers you need to see out of a guy who projects as a top-of-the-order hitter. But his stock continues to rise.
Villar is also an intriguing prospect, particularly since he plays short stop, where the Phillies' system features Freddy Galvis and not much else. The 20-year-old switch-hitter hit .259/.353/.414 with 20 steals in 26 attempts in 207 plate appearances for high-A Lancaster before a promotion to Double-A, where he hit just .231/.301/.386 with 10 home runs and 100 strikeouts in 324 at-bats. He was rated the No. 94 prospect by Baseball America prior to 2011 and was recently ranked the No. 4 prospect in the Astros system.
All things considered, it's hard to argue that Wade did not get good value in either of those two trades. The Phillies were forced to pay a premium for Pence because the Astros appeared to be able to live with his salary for at least the rest of the 2011 season. The Oswalt trade was derided by many, but the biggest knock on them is that they decided to flip Gose for first baseman Brett Wallace, who does not play a premium position and whose development appeared to have tailed off. Maybe the Astros thought they were going to be able to re-sign Michael Bourn to a long-term deal, but Gose is the type of high-upside, premium-position player that a rebuilding organization should covet. Still, when you look at the package of players that the Phillies gave up, as well as the fact that they essentially got one dominant half season and postseason out of Oswalt, as well as the fact that the Astros were dealing a player who had a no-trade clause, thus limiting the market demand for his services, you have to regard the value the Phillies gave up as equitable, at the very least. Keep in mind that the Phillies only traded for Oswalt because they previously traded Cliff Lee for a package of players that is inferior to the one they gave up for Oswalt. Right now, would the Phillies accept a deal if a team offered them Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez for Gose, Villar and Happ? Gose is well ahead of Gillies in his development and Happ would give the Phillies better depth than Ramirez. If Aumont can live up to the glowing reviews the Phillies gave him after an impressive 2011 season, he could end up balancing things out. But he also doesn't play short stop and right now projects as a reliever.
None of this is to say that the Phillies lost either of these trades, nor that they were unwise to make them. I was hesitant about the Oswalt trade at the time, given his injury history. And I'm still not sure that the Phillies would not have been better off looking to hang on to Gose and Happ while looking to deal lesser prospects for depth in the infield and bullpen.
Truth is, we won't know any of these answers for several years. Chances are, none of the aforementioned players ends up giving the Phillies the production they have received and will receive out of Oswalt and Pence.
But it is also unfair to paint Wade as some sort of bumbling buffoon who allowed his mentor to take advantage of him.