Monday, June 30, 2014

For Phils, It Has Gotten Late Early

Just a dozen days ago, I was writing speculatively about what appeared to be the growing possibility that the Phillies 2014 season might be more than many had thought.

Those 12 days seem like a month or more now, and what appeared to be a possible turnaround has evaporated into the disappointing campaign that those most negative of Fightins fans had predicted.

The Phillies have now lost 8 of their last 10 games to fall a season-high 10 games under the .500 mark, and a season-high 8 games out in the National League East division race. Just 10 days ago, they won their 5th straight to pull within 3 1/2 games of the top of the division. The good will that was beginning to develop back then is completely gone.

There are 162 games in a normal Major League Baseball regular season. The Phils have now played 82 games, or just more than half the season. The MLB All-Star Game break, not the actual halfway point but the spiritual halfway point of the season, is just two weeks away. There are no signs that this team can go on the type of lengthy winning streaks needed to get back into the race.

My speculation of a dozen days ago, that perhaps the Phils could continue to win and become pennant race "buyers" rather than the "sellers" that most were calling for them to become, has been answered by the team's on-field play. The Phillies have earned their last place status in the division. They have earned every one of those 10 games below the break-even mark.

It is still relatively early in the season, at least for teams with legitimate hopes of contending for division crowns, even one of the two Wildcard playoff spots. The Philadelphia Phillies are neither. For our Phillies, it has indeed become late very early. For our Phillies, the time is now, or very soon, to make some major changes.

One of the best trade chips that the Phils possess is, unfortunately, injured. Starting pitcher Cliff Lee has been a trade deadline trade chip a couple of times already in his career. The veteran is still considered one of the game's best starting pitchers. But other clubs are going to want to see him return healthy and productive before they will be willing to part with decent prospects in return.

Lee is aiming for a return sometime around the All-Star Game. The team needs to get him back, and have him make a handful of starts during the 2nd half of July. Assuming he holds up and performs to his capabilities, they will have a major chip to deal just as the trade deadline approaches at the end of the month.

But before that point arrives, the team needs to consider dealing, even actively try to trade away, a number of other players who have no hope of being around in a few years when, hopefully, the Phillies are again ready to contend. The problem is that their best chips all have warts, either due to age or salary or injury history, or some combination of those negatives.

Jonathan Papelbon is having a good year as the closer, and would be valuable in that role to many contending teams. He has allowed just 21 hits in 32.1 innings with a 28/9 strikeout/walk rate and 18 saves. At 33 he is not too old, and in fact has tremendous experience in major markets, including closing out a World Series victory for the Boston Red Sox.

The problem? Papelbon has a $13 million contract for 2015. So a contender would be on the hook for the balance of his $13 million this year, and then own the highest-paid closer in the game next year as well. The Phillies would almost certainly have to agree to take on a significant portion of that salary in order to get a good prospect in return.

Ryan Howard still has pop, as evidenced by his team-leading 14 homeruns and 51 rbi. He has a legitimate shot at a 30 homer-100 rbi season for the first time since his last healthy year of 2011. But Howard is locked in as a 1st baseman, is already 34 years old, and is guaranteed $25 million in salary in each of 2015 & 2016. Could the Phils find an A.L. contender who could use Howard as a DH/1B? Sure. But again, taking on that salary will be a major stumbling block.

Marlon Byrd was brought in with the hope that he could help push the team to contending status, and if not might perhaps make himself into a viable trade commodity come deadline time. Well, here we go. Byrd has played well in right field, and has shown an effective middle-of-the-order bat as well. He is on close to a 30-homer, 100-rbi pace himself and is owed an affordable $8 million next year when he will be 37 years old. A number of teams could use a veteran bat at that price.

A.J. Burnett was brought in to be the veteran, reliable 3rd starter when it became obvious that Roy Halladay was finished. Burnett has largely filled the role well, and in fact with the Lee injury has been forced into a #2 role much of the season. He has responded with 111 innings pitched across 17 starts, allowing just 102 hits with a 3.89 ERA. He has already gone on record as saying that he would have interest in returning to Pittsburgh, and the Pirates are looking for arms. Perhaps an ideal match?

The most wrenching deals would likely involve moving both or either of Jimmy Rollins and/or Chase Utley. Both players are beloved on some level. Both players are iconic pieces of the success of the last decade. They will be rightly remembered fondly, and feted at 2008 World Series champion reunions and old-timer's games, for decades around these parts. Both also have the ability to shoot down any trade.

But both Rollins and Utley remain attractive players for other teams. They still play their positions well, positions that are valued highly and where a number of contenders have need of a player with their experience and skill levels. Rollins will be owed $11 million next season when he will be 36 years old. Utley is owed just $10 million next year, but has a $15 million vesting option for 2016 when he will be 37 years old. Those contracts for players at those ages may be problematic for many clubs.

About the only veteran piece that the Phillies should not deal is starting pitcher Cole Hamels. The lefty is 30 years old, in the prime of his career, and has a contract that takes the club through the 2019 season. There is no reason that he cannot be around as the leader of the rotation in the next phase of winning. Unless the Phils are completely blown away with some major pieces, Hamels must be kept and used as the linchpin around which the new rotation is grown and built.

This will not be an easy, painless rebuilding process by any means. The Phillies minor league system is widely acknowledged as one of the overall worst in the game, having fallen into complete disrepair on the watch of General Manager Ruben Amaro. Perhaps the most unfortunate element here is that Amara has shown little to give the fan base confidence that he is the man to undertake the rebuild. And yet that is what is likely to happen.

What the Philadelphia Phillies really need is a complete change in organizational philosophy and direction. They need to fire Ruben Amaro, replace him with a respected, experienced GM, and give that GM the authority to hire across the organization. That GM needs to emphasize building up those minors, while also smartly spending money on free agents.

Thanks to the assets of their television contract, a beautiful ballpark, and a passionate fan base willing to come out when inspired, this does not have to be some 5-year plan rebuild. It should take a year or two to shed the current salaries and say goodbye to most of the 2008 hero remnants. There would be another year or two of building through the draft at the same time. Come 2016 at the latest, the team should be able to begin adding key free agent pieces.

What is important for the Phillies ownership is that they begin to show that fan base that they acknowledge it is time to move on from 2008, from top to bottom, and begin to show that they are prepared to move towards a bright future. For the 2014 campaign, it is too late. It has gotten late early. But it gives the team ownership a chance to change direction with that fan base squarely in their corner.

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