Window of opportunity closed faster than Phillies expected

When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, it looked like they were set up for a long run of success. With a nucleus of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino all 29 years of age or younger, the Phillies saw a window of five or six years in which they believed they could compete for multiple World Series titles.

And this was before they added aces Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. The addition of two rotation-leaders to go with their own home-grown ace, Cole Hamels, figured to buy the Phillies an additional year or two of contention, even as Werth and Victorino moved on and the rest of the nucleus aged. After all, even by 2013, Howard, Utley and Rollins would still be just 33, 34 and 34, respectively, and hopefully finishing out their primes. Of course, in 2012 injuries derailed one of those contending years.

But in the 2013 of reality, even if everything goes right—meaning Utley and Howard return to health and become the best versions of themselves that could be expected of players near the end of their primes, and Halladay returns to being the durable workhorse ace he always was—it still may only be good enough for third place in the National League East.

One of the reasons Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. felt comfortable handing out huge contracts to three starting pitchers was that, in theory, no matter how his offensive stars aged, the Phillies would still have the advantage on most nights. It appears, however, that Amaro vastly underestimated the speed at which the Washington Nationals would work themselves into contention.

If Holliday and Lee return to being Cy Young candidates and Hamels remains one, the Phillies will in fact still have the best top three starters in the NL East, even with the Stephen Strasburg-Gio Gonzalez-Jordan Zimmermann trio looming 90 miles south, and definitely better than the Tim Hudson-Kris Medlen-Mike Minor rotation the Braves will trot out. But even if that happens, the gap is not as big as it once was, and it’s certainly not as big as the gap between the Phillies’ offense and the lineups of those two opponents.

It’s easy to point to the cyclical nature of sports as the explanation, and that certainly plays a factor here. In contrast to the aging Phillies, the Nationals feature a young nucleus, even younger than the one that got the Phillies a title. But all players age, so that’s to be expected. It’s what’s been done about it that’s been the problem for the Phillies.

The reason that 2008 team was successful—remember this is before the Phillies’ payroll skyrocketed—was that they got significant contributions from inexpensive players. Werth, Victorino and Hamels were all still early in their service calendars and thus were tremendous values. The Nationals and Braves are benefiting from that very situation right now.

Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Zimmermann, Drew Storen and Strasburg are all extremely cheap compared to their levels of production. None is past his first year of arbitration, and thus none of their salaries have been inflated by baseball’s salary structure.

The Braves have Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Minor and Medlen who are all still dirt cheap, and even new acquisition Justin Upton was signed to a team-friendly extension by the Diamondbacks that bought out his arbitration years.

As the Phillies nucleus has gotten older and more expensive, they have failed to replenish their roster with younger, less-expensive players. Their payroll has grown, but the price-per-win of the players they have kept and acquired has risen at a similar rate.

The Nationals showed everyone last year that they were ready to play with the Phillies, perhaps a year earlier than even they expected. The Braves’ young nucleus was aided by the unexpected emergence of Medlen as a potential ace just a year removed from Tommy John surgery. Now, the Braves’ acquisition of Upton to go with the offseason signing of brother B.J. gives them perhaps the most formidable outfield in the major leagues, and Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons give them a young infield to work with, as well.

Meanwhile, the Phillies continue to ignore all advanced metrics, and even many scouting opinions, signing Delmon Young to play the outfield when they already had an in-house version of him in Darin Ruf who hasn’t yet proved to us that he’s a platoon player the way we’ve seen from Young over the years.

The Phillies still can be competitive this season, and their window hasn’t completely closed, but they’re no longer the only ones trying to climb through it, and a lot of things have to go right. The Nationals had another strong offseason, letting everyone know they’re not going anywhere, and the Braves’ acquisition of a second Upton this winter officially puts the Phillies on notice that their days of dominating the NL East could be all but over.

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Comments

  1. Tyler said...

    “None is past his first year of arbitration, and thus none of their salaries have been inflated by baseball’s salary structure.”

    Or, their respective salaries, right now due to baseball’s salary structure, are completely deflated.

  2. Chris R said...

    You’ve encapsulated the situation. To put a finer point on it, the Phillies’ “brain” trust has not only been ignorant of the metrics now available to and accepted by most of the baseball world, they have failed to grasp the economics of the game. Despite having built a WS winner largely through player development, they ignored the competitive advantage gained by filling a roster with low-salaried, high valued young players, and undermined the value of their own prospects before trading them irresponsibly as they overspent for marginal talent improvements.

  3. Will H. said...

    Other cheap Nat’s contracts: Gio and Span’s extensions along with Ramos, Detwiler and Stammen’s arb-contracts.

  4. Bill McKinley said...

    I think the Braves and Nats have had a great off season. I think Atlanta’s only mistake was letting David Ross walk to the Red Sox, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Brian McCann. Gerald Laird a poor substitue.

    The Phillies are reliant on their big three and are a year older around the infield—-Howard, Utley and Rollins. Their OF is a mess.

  5. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    The issue is not that the Phillies abandoned the “develop your own” philosophy, but that when your team has been contending for the playoffs for so long, you end up with draft picks in the back third of the first round, where the odds of finding a good player (like those who made up their pennant pursuing teams) is very low. 

    My draft study found that the odds were roughly 10% of finding a good player, which means that a winning team takes roughly 10 years to find another good player with that first round pick.  It gets even bleaker with later picks.  So it is very difficult to keep the flow of good prospects going once your team has starting winning and being competitive for the playoffs.  Not like when you are losing and getting Top 5-15 draft picks, where the odds are exponentially bigger.

    They have roughly been contending for 12 seasons now, which is a pretty good stretch of contention, really. 

    Comparing the Phillies of today with the Nats of today is not valid because the Nats are at the start of their rebuild lifecycle while the Phillies are near the end of their lifecycle.  The Nats of today is more similar to the 2001 Phillies, when they started getting results from their young good players drafted earlier in their losing rebuilding years.  Then the prospects from their last losing years, Utley, and Howard, a good pick from the back, helped them extend that period that Burrell, Rolen, and Rollins, started.

    At this point, the team needs to decide whether to battle still or to sink the ship.  Getting Young (and keeping good players like Halladay and Lee) means that they are going to battle.  A team can’t go into battle for the division title with an unproven rookie starting without a viable backup plan should the rookie flame out, as they often do.  That cripples their effort to compete from Day One.

    Look at Young’s contract too.  $750K is not a lot of money, they are still going to give their young hitting OF prospects a chance to beat out Young, and his salary only rises to $3M+ if he makes the roster and meets other performance benchmarks.

    “Delmon is an experienced major league bat who will add some depth to our relatively inexperienced outfield and another layer of competition for playing time there as well,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said.
    Read more at http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/philadelphia_phillies/#QxzgmVVTrgwqd2Le.99

    Young is not the end of the story regarding the OF, the young players will get their shots too, he’s just there, really, in case the young guys like Ruf can’t beat him out, it gives the Phillies a floor on what they can hope to expect to get. 

    If you are so sure that Ruf is the answer, then he should easily beat out Young for playing time in 2013 given what you said about Young.  Young is just risk mitigation on the part of the Phillies, to try to ensure a minimum level of production from the outfield.

    It would be an entirely different matter, and more to your point, had Young signed for many millions of dollars and the GM said that he was the starting OF. 

    For now, he is cheap insurance who can be easily jettisoned in spring training should any of the young guys shine, or more probably, he’ll make the roster as performance backup, along with some of the young OF’s, so that the manager has a viable player to start if all the young guys are struggling (or worse).

  6. Silver King said...

    Thanks for the outlook.

    BTW, I agree with the initial comment, by Tyler.  I was thinking about the same sort of edit when I read the article.

  7. Paul E said...

    IF Utley plays 145 games AND Halladay, Hamels, and Lee combine to throw 700 innings, the Phillies have an excellent shot at winning 86 or so games. That sounds, barring serious injuries to key DC and Atlanta pieces, an awful lt like 3rd place.

    It’s not Freddie Galvis’ fault that he can’t hit or Ryan Howard’s problem that he has an overbought contract extension. I could go on ad nauseum regarding Philadelphia’s problems. These are primarily management decisions that have come to roost. Baseball is kind of a microcosm of business (and life) in that management makes mistakes at every level in every industry. Luck us, as baseball fans, we get to see it play out 162 times per year – so much beter than having to decypher a prospectus or annual report….

  8. Ted M said...

    obsessivegiantscompulsive, it goes a step further than that even, because when teams are at the top of the success cycle like that they also sign free agents for whom they have to give up compensation picks.  The result is that they end up losing those late first round picks to the teams at the other end of the cycle who let those players go.  So teams like the Phillies end up having some years (2003, 2005, 2009, 2011, & 2012) with no first round picks at all and a total of 5 first round picks in the last 10 drafts (the highest being 18th).  During the same 10 drafts, the Nationals have had 13 first round picks, including 2 #1 picks and another 5 in the top 10 picks. 

    Like you said, it’s a lot harder to develop young talent from where the Phillies were starting than from where the Nationals were.

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