The Phillies were not forced to spend $64 million last winter on six veteran players, but logic drove the decisions. Add a few older players in spots where they would not block a young one. Limit the commitments to one year. Reap the benefits both on the field and off, with a possible flip in July for a younger lottery ticket or two.
With more than a quarter of the season complete, that plan has floundered.
Clay Buchholz's season ended after two starts. Howie Kendrick has been absent for almost six weeks. Jeremy Hellickson's strikeout rate has plummeted. Joaquin Benoit has walked batters at his highest rate in a decade. Michael Saunders entered the weekend with a .277 on-base percentage and inconsistent power. Only Pat Neshek, a middle reliever, has produced.
If there is one critique of the current Phillies front-office regime in its nascent stages, it is the evaluation process that led to those acquisitions.
That $64 million, entering the weekend, had bought 0.4 wins above replacement (WAR) in the field and 0.7 WAR on the mound, according to FanGraphs. Teams pay an estimated $8 million on the open market for every 1 WAR. That is just one method to measure the success of the investments. It is incomplete because so much baseball remains in 2017, and there is time for a few of those veterans to improve.
The Phillies did not expect all of the winter investments to prosper. These veteran players were available on one-year contracts or in salary-dump trades for a reason. The Phillies, with general manager Matt Klentak at the forefront, evaluated players who were good "buy-low" candidates who could string together a few decent months and generate some sort of return.
But the veterans were supposed to provide some stability to a young roster that would, invariably, suffer from growing pains. That support has been limited. Some of that is because of injuries to Kendrick and Buchholz. Saunders, 30, is not as bad a hitter as he has shown. But how long will the Phillies wait for him to solve his hitting problems?
Hellickson has taken the ball every fifth day to mixed results, but his return in 2017 appears more and more like a misfire. The Phillies shopped Hellickson, 30, last July and found a tepid market. Hellickson, in 2016, was the best version of himself - a durable pitcher with solid peripheral numbers and a palatable salary. Now, at $17.2 million, the Phillies will have to eat a significant amount of money just to trade him for a return smaller than they could have had last summer.
The ramifications are slim. If the Phillies are out $64 million on a few bad investments, so be it. John Middleton, the influential ownership partner, did not want to carry a bare-bones payroll. So the Phillies spent his money on contracts that will expire at the end of the season.
The bigger questions that arise are about Klentak and his group's process for identifying external targets. They were digging at the bottom of the barrel, a disadvantage for sure. But it is something to remember as the Phillies continue to advance their rebuilding plan and the stakes are higher.
The Phillies entered the weekend with the fourth-youngest pitching staff and fifth-youngest group of position players in baseball, yet the prevailing notion among some is that the Phillies hesitate to promote their "kids."
It is interesting to note this: Since 1970, Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco rank seventh and ninth, respectively, in games played by Phillies hitters before their 25th birthday. Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez rank 14th and 16th, respectively, in games started by Phillies pitchers since 1970 before their 25th birthday.
This season, 59 players have made their big-league debuts. Their average age was 24.7 years old.
"If they're going to come up to the major leagues, we want them to have an opportunity to continue their development with at-bats or innings," Klentak said last week. "But calling them up to sit on the bench doesn't make a lot of sense. If the player has demonstrated that they're ready to come up to this level, and we have an opportunity for them, then we'll do it."
UPDATES ON THREE
2. Freddy Galvis: The coaching staff has again and again praised the shortstop's leadership qualities. If he could just raise his on-base percentage by 30 points to reach the league average...
3. Seranthony Dominguez: The hard-throwing, 22-year-old righthander who had impressed at high-A Clearwater is sidelined with a shoulder problem. Young pitching will break. That's why the Phillies are pleased to see a handful of arms in the low minors start well; quantity there is as paramount as quality.