Jim Thome was already 32 years old and a veteran of two World Series when he signed as a free agent to join a transforming Phillies team in December of 2002. He hit 47 home runs during his first season here, won a bunch of games dramatically, and followed that with another 42-homer season.
As importantly perhaps, he became the veteran leader the team so longingly lacked, providing a model for a grind-it-out work ethic and professionalism and humility that carried past his days here.
Thome said at the time that he chose Philadelphia because he felt the Phillies were closer to a championship-caliber team than his Cleveland Indians team. After a stretch of perennial playoff runs that included two heartbreaking World Series misses, the Indians were in rapid decline. Stars had left via free agency. Stars had become old. And their once-lauded farm system had become depleted in much the same manner the Phillies depleted theirs after 2008, adding stars in pursuit of that elusive second straight championship.
This should come as no surprise to anyone following the Bryce Harper/Mike Trout debate, but the Los Angeles Angels are in a similar spot to that Indians team right now. Two winters ago, Keith Law, ESPN’s expert on the subject, ranked the Angels' minor league system the worst he had ever seen, upgrading it ever-so-slightly this winter to 27th among major league organizations.
The Angels won 74 games last season — three more than the Phillies. By most accounts, they are as far away from contention as the Phillies were in 2014. Trout was signed to a six-year, $144.5 million deal before the 2014 season, and his salary will jump from $19.2 million this season to $33.2 million in each of the next three seasons. The Angels still owe Albert Pujols more than $100 million over the next five seasons. There will be a complete turnover of the Angels over the next few seasons and, presumably, a ton of losing.
You know where this is going. It makes so much sense for the Angels and Phillies to engage in one of those blockbuster deals this offseason. Yes, the cost would be high, especially for a player in his prime, but the Phillies have created so much depth, and promise, that I’m not sure how even a worst-case scenario would cripple them. And given how Trout plays, works and conducts himself, you must be a real downer to think of ways this would turn out badly.
For either team. The Angels could move their timetable up considerably with a raid on the Phillies farm. And the Phillies can afford it. They want J.P. Crawford? Sure. You can live with 27-year-old Freddy Galvis at short for a few more seasons. They want Maikel Franco? No problem, promote Crawford and move Freddy to third. Mickey Moniak? Ouch, but, yup. Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro — right now these guys are projections. Trout is a generational, every-day, real superstar whose $33 million price tag over the next three seasons might end up looking like a bargain.
There is no combo I wouldn’t do, if the Angels make that hard but beneficial decision.
Which brings me to Harper. I would not give him the $400 million over the next 10 seasons that he reportedly sought over the winter. I would not get in a bidding war with the Yankees, or the Red Sox or whomever. If I already had Trout in the fold, maybe. But that’s at least $73 million invested in two players, and that could, conceivably, sabotage the grand plan that was accelerated when the Phillies traded Chase Utley and Cole Hamels in the summer of 2015.
I also see Trout, like Thome, as the kind of player teammates will want to mimic or follow, not punch.
Now, if we could just get the Angels to see our reasoning …