All that you have witnessed over the last month in Phillies baseball — the fundamental errors, the offensive impotence, and, especially the losses — are good things for your long-term future as a Phillies fan. One can argue that, had all of these things happened at this time last year, the organization would be one year closer to contention, instead of staving off an inevitable rebuilding process. I’m not sure that I’d completely buy that argument, but here is how it would go:
Between June 1 and July 19 of last season, the Phillies played well enough to fool themselves into thinking that their playoff hopes were somewhere above slim to none. In the seven weeks that dictate most teams’ philosophies for the trade deadline, the Phillies played their best baseball of the season, going 23-19 while averaging 4.6 runs per game with a healthy .276/.326/.425 batting line. As they embarked on a nine game road trip that included six games in St. Louis and Detroit, they had won nine of 13, winning series against the Pirates, Braves and Nationals. On June 7, they were 31-31 overall. On July 19, they were above .500, sitting at 49-48, 6.5 games behind the Braves in the NL East, 5.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot in the National League.
In all likelihood, the biggest casualty of this seven-week stretch of fools gold was whatever return the Phillies could have yielded in exchange for Cliff Lee. One year later, Lee is untradeable. It is looking increasingly unlikely that he will be healthy enough to rejoin the rotation before the All-Star Break, and even if he does, it isn’t realistic to think that another team would take on $50 million in salary and part with a top prospect given the injury risk that team would assume.
The reality is that the Phillies might soon get to a point where the sensible course of action is to focus on showcasing Lee for the 2015 season. That doesn’t necessarily mean shutting him down for the rest of the season. But it does mean waiting until he is 100 percent healthy before he picks up a baseball. He needs to allay whatever fears teams have that is elbow is on the verge of giving out, and that will probably take two consecutive months of pitching every five days. If those two months end up being August and September, perhaps they can drum up a market for him in the offseason. If those two months are April and May of next year, Lee will still be a hot commodity, provided he pitches the way he did the first month-and-a-half of this year. It doesn’t do anybody any good to rejoin the rotation only to hit the disabled list again, or to remain in the rotation and pitch ineffectively.
Which is why the past month in Phillies baseball has been good news. At this point, nobody in the front office can make an argument that the team is anywhere close to being a contender. They can focus on the long-term without any of the hesitation that they experienced last year at this time. Most importantly, everybody in the clubhouse understands where, exactly, this team is headed. The biggest obstacles to a firesale have always been the no-trade protection enjoyed by the team’s most marketable assets. See Jimmy Rollins at this time last year. The best case scenario for this team is for things to get so miserable that players like Rollins, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, A.J. Burnett, etc. can’t stomach the thought of staying in town for the next couple of years. It sounds harsh, but that’s the way it is.
Utley, Rollins, Ruiz. Six years after giving the city of Philadelphia its first parade in three decades, those three players offer the Phillies their best hopes at an expedited return to competitiveness, and we do not say that just because it sounds poetic. We are at the end of Act Two, the point where all of our characters reach a point of realization, the beginning of the road to redemption and whatever lies beyond. Utley is the most important of these characters, both because he is worth the most on the trade market, and because he is the kind of character who requires a tragic unraveling on par with what we are witnessing in order to snap him from his single-mindedness, to save him from his hubris, to convince him that even the greatest of the great players cannot win against fate. Utley tried. He overcame a knee condition that easily could have ended his career. He signed a team-friendly contract to remain in Philadelphia. He played a hell of a couple of months of baseball, did all that he could to keep this team afloat, never sent messages to decipher from between the lines. The parallels with Roy Halladay are numerous, and Roy Halladay eventually understood the trajectory of fate.
I think we learned a lot about Utley last year at this time when we heard about the back-and-forth between him and Ruben Amaro Jr. as they worked out his new contract. Utley wanted to know that the Phillies were still going to try to compete, and he structured his deal in such a way that he would not be a hinderance if he broke down. That back-and-forth between Amaro and Utley, that comfort level, suggests to me that there might have been an understanding between them, that the plan could falter, and the Phillies could wind up where they are. And at that point, both parties would have the necessary flexibility to facilitate a move that would help them both.
Now, one year later, the Phillies are out of contention and playing like a team that will not return to it before Utley’s new deal expires. You see that a glut of playoff contenders are in need of a second baseman. Utley can veto any trade, but you see that two of those teams play in Southern California, where Utley was raised. You see two others play in the San Francisco Bay area, where Utley makes his offseason home. You see the Dodgers, with a .685 OPS out of their second basemen, the Angels, with a .689 OPS, the Athletics, with a .544 OPS, the Giants, with a .579 OPS, all ranked near the bottom of the majors in production out of Utley’s position. Three of those teams possess the kind of desperation that lubricates trade markets. A World Series is what is missing from Billy Beane’s resume, and he has made a big move before in pursuit of it, trading for Matt Holliday once upon a time. Ned Colletti has acquired just about everybody. Same goes for Jerry DiPoto. The Giants might not be as desperate, but Brian Sabean has never been shy when it comes to the nonwaiver trade deadline.
There are other intriguing — revolting, some fans would argue - scenarios. What about Utley in Yankee pinstripes? What if Jayson Werth calls him up and says, “Let’s win another one?” Could Utley handle defecting to a division rival? Would the Phillies even consider it? What if Mike Rizzo called up Amaro and said, “By the way, we also need a catcher, and this is what we’d give you for Utley and Carlos Ruiz?” While we are asking questions, would you root for the Nationals if all of that came to fruition?
I acknowledge the amount of conjecture involved in this blog post. But conjecture is the activity in which a team like the Phillies must engage if it hopes to build a market that yields the kind of young players that can help it get back to the top. The good news is that everybody involved should be aware that the Phillies are that kind of team.