Last season, the Boston Red Sox threw in the towel, jettisoning a hefty package of veterans for prospects, cash, and room on the roster. Surprisingly, they parlayed that move into a 22-16 start to the season that has the Red Sox Nation jumping back onto the bandwagon.
The rapid reconstruction provides a blueprint for the struggling Phillies. Prior to the season, I noted that Roy Halladay was crucial to the Phillies’ playoff chances. He’s now out through at least mid-August with a partially torn rotator cuff. Without that essential lynch pin, a tepid 18-21 start is probably too much to overcome. Fans are talking about discarding all veterans, including productive ones on relatively cheap contracts like Jimmy Rollins, yet the farm system is fairly barren, with only a handful of names poised to contribute in the majors.
The Phillies probably need to do something very soon, but any plan that may succeed will be brazen, full of risk and hidden dangers. The goal is to emulate the Red Sox and field a relevant team as soon as 2014. There is nothing desirable about an Astros-style blowup and frankly that’s probably a very bad idea in the Philadelphia market. The Phans are not known for their understanding nature.
The Phillies are far from flush with future stars, but they do have some building blocks.
Domonic Brown is showing more and more flashes of his above average potential. He’s unlikely to set the world afire in 2013, but he’s also shown continuous incremental improvement whenever healthy. The story of Carlos Gomez comes to mind. The Brewers’ patience allowed them to develop a growing star at the major league level over the course of three seasons. The Phillies should emulate that strategy with Brown—ignoring impatient fans if necessary.
Ben Revere has struggled mightily in his short tenure as a Phillie, but I noted a few weeks ago that he’s seeing some peculiar results. At the end of the day, Revere is a high quality complementary player, but Juan Pierre was an important complimentary component to the Marlins World Series victory in 2003.
Cole Hamels is in his age 29 season and under contract through 2018 with a club option for ’19. The Phillies would likely need a huge return—think Jurickson Profar or Oscar Taveras – to even consider trading him.
Two pitchers who should slot effectively into the rotation are nearing the majors. Lefty Jesse Biddle, widely considered the best prospect in the system, has toyed with the opposition in five out of six starts in Double-A. He still needs to improve his command and control and is ideally a mid-2014 call-up. Adam Morgan will likely get the call sometime in 2013. He’s an effective lefty with a plus change-up and mid-rotation profile. Both pitchers could contribute as soon as 2014 and be reliable, cheap workhorses by 2016. Don’t forget TINSTAAPP.
Phillippe Aumont and Justin De Fratus both have the makings of a relief ace. That won’t stop the organization from using them to acquire better talent, but they could help form a very potent bullpen if that opportunity doesn’t coalesce.
Maikel Franco is arguably the top position prospect in the system (Roman Quinn being the other candidate). He’s having an excellent season in Single-A Clearwater with six home runs to date. The only complaints are that he can be over-aggressive at the plate and his swing can get a bit long. He’s also at least two seasons away from the majors, so the Phillies need a stopgap (see Asche and Galvis below).
These are the guys with limited upside who are consistently pointed to as an heir apparent.
Second baseman Cesar Hernandez has started the 2013 season with a .341/.391/.480 batting line at Triple-A Lehigh Valley (don’t mind the .404 BABIP). He profiles as a second division starter or utility infielder, combining a slightly below average offensive presence with strong defensive skills. Some Phillies fans are ready to boot Chase Utley to make room for him.
Cody Asche has been on the radar since last season for the third base-starved Phillies. His combination of middling tools across the board will make him a useful stopgap, but his upside appears to be similar to Chris Johnson.
Many hoped Darin Ruf would help the Phillies’ outfield this season. He’s a bad defender with big power and some bat speed concerns. Again, he can probably hold down a position—especially first base—and provide better than replacement level production, but the ultimate upside is probably similar to Jason Kubel. For those keeping track at home, Kubel has turned in one above-average performance in the last seven seasons.
Freddy Galvis is a no-hitting, defensive wizard. Talk of his replacing Utley or Rollins is premature. His best use is as a defensive replacement, even with second division clubs. He is very young—this is his age 23 season—so he could grow into a more useful complementary player.
Jonathan Pettibone has the makings of a solid work horse, but he’s unlikely to be any better than average. Similar pitchers like J.A. Happ and Vance Worley have been shipped out of town at the first opportunity.
What should the Phillies do?
I’ve already said that the Phillies should not engage in an Astros-style overhaul of the roster. Given their paucity of major league-ready prospects, that direction will produce bad results for many seasons to come. Maintaining a relatively competitive roster should ensure enough revenue to rebuild effectively.
One issue with the roster is a wide array of pricey veterans, which lends itself to the tear-down approach. It may be best to walk a fine line.
There is a blue print that can be followed. If the Phillies find themselves as deadline sellers, they can look to build a salary dump as the Red Sox did. That might look like Cliff Lee (Adrian Gonzalez), Ryan Howard (Carl Crawford), and Michael Young or Rollins (Josh Beckett) for a couple pitchers of with upside. The cash transfer would determine the quality of prospect involved.
Such a trade requires a partner and it may be that the Dodgers last year were a one-of-a-kind opportunity for the Red Sox. However, with the Marlins also doing a major player dump over the offseason and baseball flush with TV dollars, such deals may become more common.
The Yankees are the most obvious partner, assuming that they remain in the playoff hunt and need veteran reinforcements. The Bombers have supposedly given up their attempt to squeeze payroll under the luxury tax threshold after realizing that the potential financial gain was substantially smaller than first thought. That would make Cliff Lee a welcome addition. The case for Howard requires at least one of Travis Hafner or Mark Teixeira to be injured. It seems unlikely that the Phillies would deal Lee without ridding themselves of Howard. Any of Young, Rollins or Carlos Ruiz would be a helpful addition to round out the trade.
The only other teams that might be a potential partner are the Rangers and Red Sox. Both are perceived to have less financial flexibility than the Yankees.
With or without a blockbuster salary dump, the Phillies have several players headed to free agency. Young, Utley, Ruiz and Halladay are the most notable at this time.
Young is the easiest to discard, as a combination of Kevin Frandsen, Asche, Galvis, and potentially even Hernandez could replicate his value on a league minimum contract.
Utley should be re-signed if possible. His veteran leadership, grinder mentality, and talent trump the injury risk associated with his knees – at least from an outsider’s perspective. The club could have additional information not publicly available, but Utley is supposedly playing pain free for the first time in years—and it looks like it.
Utley may be the Phillies’ Chipper Jones—a fan favorite who provides huge value when healthy and misses more than a few games. A useful back-up like Hernandez or Galvis will help cover for the time he misses. He’ll likely cost a little more than he’s worth from a purely on-field perspective, but the difference should be acceptable given his tangible intangibles.
Ruiz should also be re-signed assuming he remains healthy and shakes off the rust he’s showing. The Phillies have some catching prospects, but none are banging down the door. Meanwhile, Ruiz can help guide the influx of young pitchers. Given his age and recent amphetamine suspension, a modest two-year deal should be sufficient.
The Phillies will also be tempted to trade Rollins and Kyle Kendrick around the trade deadline. In either case, the quality of the offer must be weighed. Replacing Rollins would prove difficult. Galvis can provide marginally better defense at the expense of terrible offense and the only true shortstop prospects are many years away from the majors.
Kendrick has grown into a solid mid-rotation pitcher—like a more groundball-oriented version of Kyle Lohse. The perception around the league may not match his actual value. He’s eligible for one more season of arbitration.
The Phillies do not have the luxury of pursuing a pure buy or sell strategy. They must delicately lace the two together to weave a newly competitive roster.
Getting out from under the Howard contract would be hugely helpful in that it would allow the club much needed payroll flexibility while freeing the club to pursue better production at first base. Such an outcome may be impossible at this time, but this would be a good use for valuable veterans like Lee, Rollins, and/or Ruiz.
Beyond pulling off a blockbuster, the Phillies should be open to keeping each of their veterans but also willing to move them in the correct deal. The team does need to get younger, but that cannot be done blindly.