Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The unfixable mess: Phillies' front office failings on display at the trade deadline

The Phillies' failings were on display for all to see. John Lackey and Marlon Byrd sum it up.

The unfixable mess: Phillies' front office failings on display at the trade deadline

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro pauses while speaking during a media availability before a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro pauses while speaking during a media availability before a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Marlon Byrd and John Lackey. Baseball players. Case studies.

Over the next 24 hours, you will hear many comparisons between the Red Sox and the Phillies, the former of which spent the hours leading up to Major League Baseball's nonwaiver trade deadline adding to a base of young talent that will help it compete in the future, the latter of which spent them failing to do so. But such comparisons will miss the point. Days like today are not the result of short-term obstinance on the part of general manager Ruben Amaro Jr or president David Montgomery. Rather, they are an inevitable result of their primary failure as stewards of the Phillies organization: their inability to see the big picture.

The pertinent example from yesterday's frenzy of trades can be drawn from two players. Lackey, whom the Red Sox traded to the Cardinals for first baseman/outfielder Allen Craig and promising young starter Joe Kelly. Forget about the strategic implications of the deal for a moment. Forget about whether Craig bounces back from a season in which he has been worse than Ryan Howard to a level of production similar to the .863 OPS and 46 home runs he posted from 2011-13. Forget about whether Kelly can stay healthy and develop into something more than a back-of-the-rotation starter. The point is that the Red Sox were in a position to take that chance, to add nine years of control over two major league players in exchange for one-and-a-half seasons of control of a 35-year-old veteran. And they were in a position to do so because of the steps they took to lower the risk they assumed when they signed Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract prior to the 2010 season. Included in that contract was a clause that added a $500,000 team option for 2015 if Lackey missed significant time with a pre-existing elbow injury at any point during the life of the contract. Lackey did, and the clause triggered. That, along with his inability to block a deal, made him attractive to the Cardinals. 

While the Red Sox were busy with Lackey and lefty Andrew Miller, the Phillies were stymied in their attempts to trade outfielder Marlon Byrd. The veteran outfielder has been one of the club's few consistent offensive performers this season, offering production that many, including myself, were skeptical that he could repeat after a bounce-back 2013 season. But there were two problems with moving Byrd. In addition to the two years and $16 million the Phillies guaranteed him, they  included a third-year vesting option based on plate appearances as well as a four-team no trade clause. One of the teams Byrd chose to block was the Mariners, and reports had him demanding that option be guaranteed in order to agree to a trade. We'll never know whether those throw-ins were necessary to complete a deal with Byrd, because the Phillies were the only team involved in the bidding for him. At least, that's what Byrd told me when I talked to him after he signed. 

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Are you happy the Phillies were silent at the trade deadline?
Yes. I don't Ruben making any more personnel decisions.
No way. They needed to do something ... anything!
Would it really have made a difference?

"It happened so quickly," Byrd said. "There really wasn't a chance for any other clubs to get involved . . . They were very aggressive."

The way the market ended up playing out suggests neither clause was necessary. 

Case in point: Nelson Cruz, who ended up signing a one-year, $8 million deal with the Orioles. Cruz has an .869 OPS and 29 home runs this season, both significantly higher than Byrd’s totals. Byrd’s contract was the fourth-richest awarded to an outfielder during the offseason, behind only Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, and Curtis Granderson. Byrd is three years older than any of those four, with a less accomplished track record that includes a PED suspension and an atrocious 2012 season in which he was given away by the Cubs and then released by the Red Sox. Mike Morse signed for one year and $6 million. He has an .807 OPS and 15 home runs. Byrd has a .795 OPS and 20 home runs. 

The point isn’t that the Phillies should have signed Morse or Cruz. After all, they could have ended up signing David Murphy or Chris Young, both of whom have been awful. The point is that the Phillies signed Byrd to a contract with terms far less team-friendly than others in his peer group. As was the case with Jonathan Papelbon, they identified a target and signed him early, before the rest of the market had a chance to play out. And one can argue that both Morse and Cruz would have been far more tradeable than Byrd because of their contracts (in fairness, neither is as good in the field as Byrd).

The whole situation serves as a microcosm of why the Phillies currently find themselves in such dire straits. At no point over the last five years has the current regime offered any proof that they have a good feel for projecting players or markets, or for limiting their exposure to risk. They drastically overpaid for Papelbon. They fooled themselves into thinking they could compete this season, prompting them to hold onto Cliff Lee instead of moving aggressively to deal him in the offseason (or at last year's trade deadline). They guaranteed A.J. Burnett more money than the Braves ended up guaranteeing Ervin Santana. The latter has a 3.63 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9 in 131 1/3 innings over 20 starts. Think he may have drawn some interest on the trade market (albeit as a two-month rental)? 

No organization can get every decision right. But it should get some of them right. The Philies' big weakness isn't the evaluation of talent. It is the valuation of talent. And that's why they are where we find them today, realizing the mess they've created well past the point where it could have been fixed. 

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