Phils not quite ready to rebuild
David Montgomery preached steadiness from a conference room at Citizens Bank Park. It was last September, soon after his Phillies re-signed Chase Utley, 35, for $27 million and two months before issuing a new $26 million contract for 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz. While the remnants of a 73-win team endured the last few meaningless weeks of baseball in 2013, Montgomery endorsed his general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., and the team's strategy for the future.
The Phillies will devote $155.5 million to players 30 or older in 2014. Montgomery, the team's president, lamented the dearth of talent available through free agency because teams that drafted and developed top talent secured it with massive extensions.
"The teams who have taken gambles on the bigger names," Montgomery said, "particularly the guys advanced in their careers, it really hasn't panned out for them."
It sounded like an unintentional indictment of his own team's methodology. The "R" word - rebuilding - is not a part of the lexicon for the Phillies, a team with superior financial resources. At least not yet.
"There was so much discussion about whether we needed to clean house and go totally young," Montgomery said. "But I think - and I could be wrong - there is a way to do that where you still have the positive veteran influence.
"The analogy I draw from is: If you have a college team, it's nice to have all seniors. But then the future doesn't look good. And if you have all freshmen, it's going to take a while to jell.
"We had some talented players. They all happened to be the same age. They really did. Jayson [Werth], Shane [Victorino], Jimmy [Rollins], Chase, Ryan [Howard], and the other starting pitchers, they were all within 18 months of each other. Even though we had talent, they were all marching along together. Some would say it's time to totally turn the page. I still enjoy watching Chase Utley play second base."
For years, the Phillies straddled a fine line between sentimentality and shrewdness. They built their core from within, relied upon free agency and trades to fuel the machine, and sacrificed prospects, draft picks, and bonus money in the process. A two-year postseason drought prompted some change in strategy, although the inflicted damage could be cumbersome.
"Everyone is looking for the same thing and that's young, controllable players," Amaro said last winter. "So there's no reason for us to be moving any of them."
Baseball is cyclical, a course that is both rewarding and agonizing.
Rollins, Utley, and Howard were born less than a year apart. They combined for 2,201 plate appearances in 2006 - a level not since reached - and a .936 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) for a total cost of $5.9 million. The Phillies were a model franchise for developing star talent. They negotiated team-friendly deals for all three players - Rollins in 2005, Utley in 2007, and Howard in 2009.
Those men were the leaders during a world championship. They were the faces the team marketed while attendance swelled. Montgomery stressed "fan recognition" with a familiar roster.
That contributed to a wave of second extensions starting with Howard's five-year, $125 million deal signed two years before free agency. It covered his age 32-36 seasons. Rollins re-signed at 32 for four years. Utley signed his two-year deal four months before his 35th birthday.
Their combined production dipped last season to a .747 OPS in 1,514 plate appearances. The three men will earn $51 million in 2014, and should Rollins accrue 434 plate appearances and Utley avoid the disabled list, they will all return in 2015 another year older for the same price.
The game has seen a dramatic shift in production, trending toward players under 30, as executives believe Major League Baseball's stricter drug-testing policies have affected older players. The game itself has adapted; home runs dropped from 5,693 in 2000 to 4,661 last season. Teams are seeking players with athleticism and speed, traits typically found in younger talent.
Amaro adopted the same strategy last winter as he followed every season since being promoted to general manager after the 2008 World Series. He built around his older core with free-agent supplements.
"I've always believed the key component to a franchise is scouting and development," Washington general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Use your own. I don't think it's any different than it was 10 years ago. The good organizations scout and develop their players. Keep the rotation coming."
The Nationals benefited from years of ineptitude and the top draft picks that followed. They, too, will eventually sink enormous amounts of money into their young players. But before that, Washington offered $126 million to Werth, an older player the Phillies deemed expendable. Werth, who turns 35 in May, averaged 120 games, an .817 OPS, and 17 homers in the first three seasons of his contract.
No quick fix
The rotation, as Rizzo said, must not stop. Few of the Phillies prospects dealt by Amaro in recent years have produced as major-league regulars. But the returns - Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence - are no longer Phillies property. None delivered a ring. The opportunity cost trickles to the present roster.
The top of the Phillies system is diluted. Maikel Franco and Jesse Biddle are the lone prospects who could emerge in 2014. There is talent, but most of it resides at the lowest levels of the organization and is years away from being major-league ready.
Add the changing market dynamics - it is harder to buy championships through free agency because teams place higher value on their younger stars - and there is no quick fix for a team stuck between contending and rebuilding.
Major-league rosters in 2013 contained 108 players who signed multiyear extensions before free agency, according to research by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Those deals bought out up to 306 free-agent seasons. Free agency, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said, is a far more difficult arena than before.
"I feel like an old curmudgeon when I say it," Huntington, 44, said, "but the talent doesn't seem to be what it once was in available players. There are a multitude of reasons."
Amaro avoided most bidding wars for the top free agents in the last few winters because, he said, the talents did not match the price tags. He raised eyebrows in December when he said, "We're built to contend. We're built to win." It was what he said next, when asked if there could come a time when the Phillies embrace a rebuild, that was most telling.
"At some point we might have to do that," Amaro said. "But not right now. We're not there."