Thursday, August 2, 2012

Post-Trade Phillies Ain't Done Yet

At the 2012 MLB trade deadline on Tuesday, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro made a handful of decisions that signal two things: first, the Fightin' Phils lineup needed to change and, second, the team was not at all interested in a complete rebuild from scratch. The GM did two things, didn't do a couple others, and effectively put a couple others on the back burner with the chance that something could still be done there.
The first thing that Amaro did was to deal away long time centerfielder Shane Victorino to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for effective right-handed relief pitcher Josh Lindblom and high-ceiling righty pitching prospect Ethan Martin.

Next, Amaro decided to deal away rightfielder Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for a package that included rightfielder Nate Schierholtz, top catching prospect Tommy Joseph, and young pitching prospect Seth Rosin.

Decisions that Amaro apparently made involving not dealing away players included pitcher Cliff Lee and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. A number of teams inquired on the availability of Lee, but were apparently rebuffed from the start, or given such a high list of demands from Amaro that talks went nowhere in a hurry. 

The Oakland A's, fishing around for a shortstop, apparently checked in on their hometown boy JRoll, but again were either immediately rebuffed or unwilling to meet a high Phillies price.


The moves which Amaro seems to have put on the back burner are the trading of righty starting pitcher Joe Blanton, who has quietly become an extremely effective starting pitcher over the last few weeks, and outfielder Juan Pierre, a speedy veteran who has been a stabilizing force this year. 

Strong rumors had the Phils and Baltimore Orioles close to a Blanton deal, including the faxing of medical reports. But the deal never got done, presumably hung up on the amount of money remaining in Blanton's contract and how it would be split between the two clubs. Both players could still be traded in waiver wire deals during August.

The decisions for Amaro were difficult first of all for the most obvious reason: that they had to be made at all. Had this 2012 Phillies team been able to continue to tread water through July as they had through May, staying within a handful of games of the NL East divisional leaders while Ryan Howard and Chase Utley worked their way back into the lineup, then perhaps no moves are made to deal anyone away. In fact, in that scenario, the Phils probably would have gone shopping for relief and 3rd base help as a buyer.

However, after hanging close through the first couple of months, the club effectively collapsed in June and July, while both Washington and Atlanta played consistently solid baseball to pull away. By the time that Howard and Utley returned and got their legs under them, the Phillies were already buried in the NL East basement, not even within shouting distance of the 2nd Wildcard playoff spot.

This made the decision to deal away Victorino a true no-brainer. The popular "Flyin' Hawaiian" will be a free agent in the off-season, and the Phillies were unwilling or unable to reach a longterm deal agreement with him. When the Dodgers were willing to ship the Phillies the solid righty reliever that the club has needed all year in Lindblom, and tossed in a good pitching prospect in Martin to sweeten things, the deal was done.

The decision to deal away Pence was more complex, involving the direction of the team into the future and the financial flexibility to make other necessary moves. Amaro had committed publicly to coming back in 2013 around the rotation trio of the newly re-signed Cole Hamels and veterans Roy Halladay & Cliff Lee, as well as closer Jonathan Papelbon, catcher Carlos Ruiz, and long time infielders Ryan Howard, Chase Utley & Jimmy Rollins. The club has a lot of money tied up in those 8 star core players, and the salary relief from a Pence deal makes adding more necessary pieces for next year and on into the future a more solid possibility.

The trading of Victorino and Pence also allows the club to finally make an informed decision on the future of both Domonic Brown and John Mayberry Jr. Both young outfielders will now be given the chance to play on an almost everyday basis in the major leagues, against all types of pitching. The team will have two full months to watch their performance, make an informed evaluation on them, and move accordingly in the off-season.

As of today, the Phillies still sit in last place in the NL East, 14 1/2 games behind front-running Washington and 12 behind Atlanta for the 2nd Wildcard slot. They are a game behind Miami as they try to get out of the cellar, and 3 1/2 behind the slumping Mets for 3rd place in the division. The goals for now should be modest: keep improving, get past both Miami and New York. Do those things over the next four weeks, crawl back within maybe 7-8 games in the Wildcard race by September 1st, and perhaps even this current season might still hold some late excitement.

Some scribes and pundits would laugh that possibility off, but they are forgetting a number of things. First and perhaps most importantly, this is not the same team that stumbled through the first four months. The rotation of Hamels-Halladay-Lee-Worley finally appears to have all four pitchers healthy and ready to take their regular rotation turns going forward. The bullpen picture is becoming much clearer behind Papelbon, with Lindblom on board and with Antonio Bastardo pitching much more effectively of late.

The return to at least playable health by both Howard and Utley has been integral to the lineups success. Since losing the first game after the All-Star break, the club has a 10-6 record. They have a pair of 4-game winning streaks in that time, neither of which includes a victory from any of Hamels-Halladay-Lee. Toss out the devastating 3-game sweep at the hands of Atlanta last weekend, and they have scored 65 runs in the other 15 games. That's 5 runs per game, acceptable at any time, and enough to win regularly. The return of Howard and Utley to the 3-4 spots in the lineup has obviously improved their overall offensive game.

The schedule may be challenging, but it is exactly what a healthy club trying to make up games in the standings wants to see. They have many of the teams ahead of them on the calendar this month, and thus can take care of their own business directly. Coming up is a 9-game homestand with Arizona, Atlanta, and Saint Louis, all teams that they need to make up ground with. Following that will be a 7-game road trip to Miami and Milwaukee. Then the month ends with a 10-game homestand against Cincinnati, Washington, and the Mets.

The final story of the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies was not written at the MLB trade deadline. That final story will be written over these next four weeks against the schedule just recited. Can a healthier team get a little fire in their bellies, feed off the packed home crowd in 19 of 26 games, and perhaps climb back above .500 and into the race? I firmly believe that they can, given that continued health from all of the core players from this point out.

Either way this story ends, the 2013 team will surely come back ready to contend once again. You will almost assuredly have a rotation featuring Hamels, Halladay, Lee, Worley and Kyle Kendrick. You will have a bullpen with Papelbon closing, being set up by Lindblom and Bastardo, and with youngsters like Michael Schwimer, Jake Diekman, and Michael Stutes all a year older and more experienced. There is always a veteran bullpen arm to be found in the off-season, and my bet is that Amaro finds one to help those kids in the 6th & 7th innings.

With Howard, Utley and Rollins all returning next year, with Chooch continuing behind the plate, and with Domonic Brown likely to hold down one outfield spot, the club will be looking into filling holes at 3rd base and in the outfield via the trade or free agent routes. Available to fill the centerfield hole will be a pair of ex-Phils in Michael Bourn and, wait for it, Victorino. Also available are big ticket outfielders such as Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton. Amaro has freed up salary space and flexibility, and has stated the club will be adding one and possibly two free agents.

For fans who have gotten used to the Phillies as a winning baseball team, my advice will be to not jump ship. Keep your seat on the bandwagon reserved. Renew those season ticket packages. Your team that has won 5 straight NL East titles, and that has had a winning season in 9 of the last 10 years, will continue to fight towards at least one of those goals this year, and will absolutely remain a contender for at least the next couple seasons. They are not rebuilding, they are simply retooling.

To those who will undoubtedly call this a pie-in-the-sky, glass-half-full, rose-colored glasses view of things, I would only respond that writing and genuinely feeling that the world is ending would be all too easy. You want to take the easy way out, feel free? Me? I hear the players speak, and know that they are fighters, many with a history of success. I see all that has gone wrong in recent months, and believe it impossible that it will continue to roll that way.

For the 2012 Phillies, the next four weeks will tell the story. For the 2013 Phillies, the next four months will tell the story. My bet would be that both of these stories end with a happy ending for all who remain dedicated, loyal, faithful, and involved as players and fans of the Fightin' Phils.

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