A Data-Centric View on Why the Phillies May Want to Avoid Losing

On Sunday, I wrote about the Phillies offseason and how their seemingly wishy-washy approach to rebuilding may, possibly, potentially, could be perfectly rational. Buried within the article was a throwaway comment. I said:

The fans in Philadelphia simply don’t have patience for losers.

Commenters rightly pointed out that this is true of all teams. Instead of letting it go, I argued that Philly fans seem to respond more elastically than fans of other cities.

Perhaps this is a good time to share my credentials. I grew up 20 minutes from the Philadelphia sports complex. I had full season tickets at the Vet during those years when announced attendance was around 13,000 and actual attendance appeared closer to 3,000. The section security guard would sit down and watch part of the game with us because there was nothing to guard. He would go in the dugout between innings and come back with bazooka gum and sunflower seeds, sometimes with autographs. Those were my favorite years of baseball – between 1995 and 2001 – and my hometown Phillies were godawfulterrible.

I understand that there are many types of fans in Philadelphia, as there are many types of fans everywhere. There are fair weather fans, die hard fans, and plenty who fit somewhere in between. I recognize that it’s disingenuous to say “I grew up a Phillies fan, so I can say what I want about them.” I admit, it smells a little bit like “I have a black friend so it’s okay that I’m about to say something racist.” But I’ve also lived in four major league cities and Philadelphia is quite noticeably different in its fandom.

In the previously referenced article, commenter TeddyWestside said:

Sure some people will “run away” until we have a contender, but those aren’t real fans. Those are the people that go to games because it’s the “thing to do.” EVERY franchise has fans like that, so don’t you act like we are the only ones…Sure, when the team underperforms I am not going to 20 games a year. I’ll still go to a handful, but I’ll watch EVERY other game at home. Same goes for the other fans. We won’t spend our hard earned money to go watch a team lose, but bet your ass we support from our couches and bars. So don’t act like we are frontrunners, because you are way off base.

No, I’m not Jimmy Rollins and I’m not accusing you of being a front runner. This is a perfectly rational thing to do. When I attended those games at the Vet, my parents were able to buy excellent seats for $12 apiece. Similar seats now cost over $100 apiece. It’s not financially practical to attend ballgames unless you derive a lot of utility (happiness) from attending. Winning and playoff contention are an important element of that utility for most people.

TeddyWestside’s comment does strike at the heart of the matter. From the team’s perspective, the only thing that matters is that fans are spending less of their discretionary income on the team. Teddy has identified himself as the common man’s fan. Assuming this is true, he has also identified that his spending on the Phillies has/will decline due to the team’s poor play. I assume he would agree that the more the team loses, the less he would spend. TW’s still spending some money on the team, but there are actual bandwagon fans who stop spending altogether. This hurts the team’s bottom line, and it’s part of the reason why I consider it plausible that their current offseason strategy is the best one available for their unique circumstances.

I wanted to test this a little more vigorously using attendance data. Unfortunately, the computer I have with me doesn’t have anything more advanced than OpenOffice Calc, so we’ll have to keep things basic. I gathered attendance data from Baseball Reference on every National League team dating back to 1996. I restricted it to NL teams because I had to do a fair amount of manual data entry, and I included the Astros but dropped the Expos/Nationals. I then limited the list to seasons where attendance dropped by at least 10 percent. That left me with 33 seasons. The Cubs and Cardinals did not have any seasons where attendance declined by 10 percent.

Before reviewing the results, let’s make the shortcomings clear. This is a very simplistic analysis that ignores many factors. Since the data is not prepared properly, we can’t use it to draw meaningful conclusions. What we can do is take the information and form hypotheses to be tested later. Another shortcoming is that I’ve used attendance as a proxy for revenue. And keep in mind, my arbitrary cutoff was 10 percent, which is a large drop in attendance. Some teams saw long term trends that didn’t eclipse the 10 percent threshold. Lastly, no effort was spent in examining how quickly teams recover from bad seasons. In short, there are a lot of ways to slice and dice this data, but for the purpose of today, we’ll stick to a narrow focus.

As for the table headings, year is the year, team is the team, W’s Yr X is that year’s win total, W’s Yr X-1 is the previous season’s win total, and Atnd/gm is the attendance per game. I used per game attendance because the Phillies had one 84 home game season in the sample.

Year Team W’s Yr X-1 W’s Yr X Change in Wins Atnd/gm Yr Pct Change in Atnd Note
1997 Philadelphia Phillies 67 68 1 18403 -0.173
2000 Philadelphia Phillies 77 65 -12 19911 -0.116
2005 Philadelphia Phillies 86 88 2 32905 -0.180 New Park 2004
2013 Philadelphia Phillies 81 73 -8 37190 -0.155
2001 Atlanta Braves 95 88 -7 34858 -0.127
1998 Florida Marlins 92 54 -38 21363 -0.268
1999 Florida Marlins 54 64 10 17118 -0.199
2000 Florida Marlins 64 79 15 15041 -0.121
2013 Miami Marlins 69 62 -7 19584 -0.285 New Park 2012
2003 New York Mets 75 66 -9 26757 -0.227
2009 New York Mets 89 70 -19 39118 -0.216 New Park 2009
2010 New York Mets 70 79 9 31602 -0.192 New Park 2009
2002 Houston Astros 93 84 -9 31078 -0.133 New Park 2002
2009 Houston Astros 86 74 -12 31124 -0.104
2011 Houston Astros 76 56 -20 25519 -0.113
2012 Houston Astros 56 55 -1 19849 -0.222
2001 Cincinnati Reds 85 66 -19 23207 -0.262
2005 Cincinnati Reds 76 73 -3 23696 -0.161
2009 Cincinnati Reds 74 78 4 21579 -0.151
2002 Milwaukee Brewers 68 56 -12 24311 -0.299
2013 Milwaukee Brewers 83 74 -9 31248 -0.106
2002 Pittsburgh Pirates 62 72 10 22312 -0.267 New Park 2001
1999 Arizona Diamondbacks 65 100 35 37280 -0.164 2nd Yr of Franchise
2003 Arizona Diamondbacks 98 84 -14 34636 -0.123
2004 Arizona Diamondbacks 84 51 -33 31106 -0.102
2005 Arizona Diamondbacks 51 77 26 25425 -0.183
2009 Arizona Diamondbacks 81 70 -11 26281 -0.152
2002 Colorado Rockies 73 73 33800 -0.135
2005 Colorado Rockies 68 67 -1 23634 -0.181
2011 Los Angeles Dodgers 80 82 2 36236 -0.176
2008 San Diego Padres 89 63 -26 29970 -0.130
2009 San Diego Padres 63 75 12 23699 -0.209
2008 San Francisco Giants 71 72 1 35356 -0.112

The table is sortable, I left it sorted by team by year as the default. From this view, I’m mainly interested in the teams with multi-season drops in attendance, namely the Marlins, Mets, Astros, Padres, and Diamondbacks. Their experiences share some common characteristics.

After winning the World Series in 1997, the Marlins held a fire sale and lost over 100 games in 1998. Attendance fell precipitately that season. The team then improved it’s record by 10 games but saw a further drop in attendance. They only won 64 games, so that’s understandable. The next season, they won 79 games, yet still hemorrhaged fans. Our research on win curves and the link between winning and revenue suggests that they should have seen increased revenue as they moved from 54 to 79 wins over two seasons. With what we actually observed, they probably actually earned less revenue season to season.

Despite our assumptions about win curves and dollars per win, this isn’t a counter intuitive finding. The Marlins telegraphed their bad hand by conducting a fire sale, but most teams try to decline more quietly, thus milking a few extra dollars out of the fan base. It can take time for the common fan to realize that Ryan Howard isn’t a franchise cornerstone. Around here, we’ve known that for years, but there are still a ton of fans who are only just beginning to suspect.

The Mets are a weird one because they really screwed up with their new park. They opened their doors in teeth of the housing crisis, overpriced their seats, and were embroiled in the Bernie Madoff fiasco. The team did see a sharp performance decline, but the drop in attendance began due to other factors.

The Astros of the late 2000’s had a lot in common with today’s Phillies. They’re both formerly strong rosters who hung onto their core too long and began to decline. The Astros finally bit the bullet and went for the full rebuild. Attendance plummeted the first two seasons of the rebuild as the team dropped from 76 to 56 to 55 wins. Attendance between 2012 and 2013 was stable, indicating that the team has hit a trough. The Phillies already saw a sharp decline in attendance when dropping from 81 to 73 wins. A full rebuild could probably bring them to wherever their trough is within a couple seasons. Getting back out could be a problem.

The Diamondbacks story looks similar to the Marlins. Attendance dropped after winning the World Series. The team was actually decent in that first season, but then fell apart to win only 51 games. The following season, they won 26 more games but still lost droves of fans.

The Padres are another weird one. Ownership issues coincided with the team’s collapse which likely exacerbated the decline in attendance. Their attendance did jump about 3,000 fans per game with their 90 win season in 2010 and hasn’t moved since then despite three straight losing efforts.

Keeping in mind that a firm conclusion should not be reached with this data, there is some evidence that the decision to engage in a full rebuild could affect team finances for many seasons. Since the Phillies are locked into most of their core through the 2016 and 2017 seasons, it might be financially premature to begin a rebuild. If attendance declined to around 19,000 per game, like with the Astros, the Phillies could have trouble meeting payroll.

Some might suggest that they trade their pricey contracts, but that might not be an option. Cole Hamels may return a decent prospect from a rich team like the Dodgers, but what other expensive player could return an asset in trade? To trade Howard, Papelbon, or even Lee, the Phillies would need to take on extra salary. We can probably assume that attendance would take a nose dive if the Phillies waved the white flag by trading away their aging stars. If they have to take on extra salary in the process, they may end up fielding an Astros-style roster of minimum salary players, but with three times that cost in payments to other teams.

Businesses will often attempt to maximize revenue in the short run and worry about profit later. A full rebuild effectively minimizes revenue. For that reason alone, the Phillies might find it more financially prudent to rebuild the slow way. A few first overall picks might help speed up the rebuild process, but Philadelphia has experienced first hand that it’s no guarantee. After this analysis, I’m still inclined to say that the Phillies might be doing the right thing. Who knows. I am fairly confident in saying that rebuilding is not a one-size-fits-all activity, and we should stop assuming otherwise.




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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, and The Fake Baseball. He's also the lead MLB editor for RotoBaller. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.


40 Responses to “A Data-Centric View on Why the Phillies May Want to Avoid Losing”

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  1. Cool Lester Smooth says:

    All of this, haha. They’ve got another couple of years before they can truly rebuild, so they need to stay semi-competitive until then if they don’t want to lose all of their attendance.

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    • ankle explosion hr celebration says:

      right, except that they’re not semi-competitive this year.

      That’s why I think this article misses the mark. The Phillies are going to seriously suck for the next few years, whatever strategy they pursue. If they sold their few remaining good players for prospects, they might end up on the other side of that suckitude ready to be contenders.

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      • yojiveself says:

        if semi-competitive means .450 – .500, I think they will be.

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        • ankle explosion hr celebration says:

          I guess therein lies the dilemma–defining semi-competitive. It also depends on the fans, and their probability of spending money as a function of the expected record.

          Personally, I think the best-case scenario for them is ~.500; of course, YMMV. I don’t consider that mark competitive, as such a team is highly unlikely to make the playoffs or perform well there even if they did.

          If I were a fan of the Phillies, and I’m not, I’d prefer to see the next wave of prospects and young players get called up, in the hopes that some of them may one day be the next championship core like Rollins/Utley/Hamels/etc. Maybe I’m weird that way; I’d prefer to see a crappy baseball team developing intriguing young players than Ryan Howard flail at lefties or Chase Utley wasting his last bit of HoF talent on a non-contender.

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        • Simon says:

          If their true talent is in the high 70s of wins, there is enough random variation in baseball that they could easily win 85 or so, which would make them semi-competitive.

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        • Brad Johnson says:
          FanGraphs Supporting Member

          Right. What if Miguel Gonzalez is a stud, Cody Asche breaks out Donaldson-style, Marlon Byrd repeats his 2013, and other positive things outweigh the negative? Then the club is looking quite a bit better. What if they also outperform their pythag record by 10 wins because they go 30-14 in one run games.

          That’s not remarkably different from the Athletics formula for success. It’s unlikely but not impossible.

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        • Brad Johnson says:
          FanGraphs Supporting Member

          Alternatively, what if they do the much more likely thing and play to their poor projections. How uninteresting.

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      • Frank says:

        There is no definitive cut-off line, the worse you do, the less people want to see you. It doesn’t even matter what arbitrary level you want to set semi-competitive at. And the fact is, though few baseball trade fans seem completely aware of this, few great teams have been created thanks to the selling off of old stars. To think that this strategy has anything but a Pick 4 lottery ticket chance is vastly overrating the value of both prospects and the trade market for old players.

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        • Cool Lester Smooth says:

          Yeah. Herschel Walker trades don’t really exist in baseball.

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        • Tim says:

          You’re right, Lester, nobody ever got Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore for… wait.

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        • Cool Lester Smooth says:

          Did that trade change the Indians’ franchise? As far as I can see, it netted them 2 seasons above .500.

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        • Brad Johnson says:
          FanGraphs Supporting Member

          I think the larger point is that it’s an extreme outlier. Without doing any math, I would suggest that it’s something like 6 standard deviations from the norm.

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        • KDL says:

          That Colon trade was also spurred on by the fact the Expos were facing contraction. There was a very real possibility that Montreal would have no future to prepare for. What good are prospects when you have no future seasons.
          So other than the very VERY unique circumstances, and what Cool Lester Smooth points regarding the Indians success…you’re right, Herschel walker trades happen ALL the time in baseball. Good point.

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        • Kris says:

          Brad, I didn’t really like the article. It kind of got bogged down with caveats and explanations about the data. What I do like is your assertion that something is six standard deviations away from the mean. That made me chuckle.

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      • Cool Lester Smooth says:

        I think they can be a little better than they were last year. That’s semi-competitive.

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  2. JTT says:

    As long as a team isn’t signing free agents that cost draft picks or they are willingly not trading established veterans for prospects I don’t see the issue with spending money on mediocre talent to entertain the fans while the clock runs out on bad the bad contracts. I’m just not convinced the Phillies truly believe they are as far out of contention as they really are

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    • AMB says:

      This is a common argument I hear (or read) from people but it makes no sense.

      If the Phillies and RAJ thought they were actually close to contention than they would have gone after Garza (or Santana or Ubaldo) instead of Fausto Carmona.

      RAJ was never been shy about giving up draft picks for MLB players when the Phillies were winning, the only argument that makes sense is that he is aware of where they stand and is actively trying to not spend money in 2016 and beyond while keeping as many draft picks as possible.

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      • psualum says:

        I think the article makes a pretty clear case that an immediate and total teardown will have horrible effects on your attendance, whereas a slow decline allows even the average casual fan to finally realize that Ryan Howard is a bloated deal, Cliff Lee is being wasted, etc. Economically, it makes more sense for the team to make a slow descent down and hope it can make some magic with middle of the round picks for a rebuild, rather than doing what the Astros did and having noone show up and Time Warner refusing to carry your channel

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  3. dude says:

    Declaring that the table is sortable did not make it sortable.

    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • FANTASIA MCADDAMS says:

      Declaring you are a douche certainly makes you a douche

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    • Jon L. says:

      It would be pretty easy to copy-paste into Excel, but I agree that in its current form it is not sortable on my computer either.

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    • Brad Johnson says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      hmm, it has the little piece of HTML that’s supposed to make it sortable, but it’s not working all the same. Weird.

      I’ll see if I can rescue it.

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  4. yojiveself says:

    what JTT said. I live outside of philly and our problem is that Ruben Amaro is oblivious to the reality of his team. He thinks a healthy Ryan Howard will take us back to the WS. I have no problem w/ fielding a team that won’t scare away fans. I do have a problem with the hole Amaro continues to dig for us by giving out crazy contracts.

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    • coldseat says:

      “I have no problem w/ fielding a team that won’t scare away fans” = “continues to dig for us by giving out crazy contracts” in today’s baseball economy? None of these guys are cheap, unless they are ancient–which is a formula that the team is actually following.

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    • AMB says:

      I’m no RAJ fan but what crazy contracts has he given out this offseason? He hasn’t gone past three years for anyone and he hasn’t given up a draft pick for anyone. If you really think 2-16 is a crazy contract for Marlon Byrd than you aren’t rationally looking at contracts that are being given out.

      He’s done exactly what a team that needs everything to go right to contend should do, fringe signings that might help (in this case right handed hitters to try and balance a heavily left handed lineup and a bunch of crap to throw at the rotation in the hopes that something sticks).

      He hasn’t forfeited the future in a misguided attempt to win in 2014 because he (hopefully) is smart enough to realize that this team is more than a $250 million dollars investment in Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann away from winning the NL East.

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    • KM says:

      I don’t think its clear that he really thinks that. I think he certainly has to say it, but if he really thought the team would contend, all evidence suggests that he would be brining in big name players. But he’s not doing that. He’s not spending crazy money, and in fact he’s setting the team up to have a pretty good amount of leeway a couple years down the road… And since there’s really only two prospects in the system who look close to ready, this may well be a good way to go.

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      • Brad Johnson says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        That’s an important point that I under-emphasized. The lack of prospects in the upper minors means that they can’t just plug in an exciting youth movement and hope it works out. They have Asche, Franco, Biddle, and some relievers that they could conceivably force into action. Add to that MAG, Galvis, and Hernandez from the active roster. That’s certainly no Heyward, Simmons, Freeman, Kimbrel type group.

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        • Kevin says:

          The Phillies really lack upper minors talent because the lost their first round pick what 3 years out of 5 not long ago, but since the 2011 offseason they haven’t done anything to compromise the long term integrity of the team. Their two biggest acquisitions are Revere (Looking like a damn steal now)and MAG (just pure money, aka NBD). Hell Keith Law gave them the 14th spot on the overall farm system ranking, because they have a ton of talent in the lower minors.

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  5. PWR says:

    Personally, I don’t believe you would have to take on salary to trade Lee.

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    • Bill says:

      No, he’s fairly paid considering he put up 5 WAR last year, in fact maybe slightly underpaid by FA contract basis. Utley is also probably a bargain at 13.5mil, Rollins at 11mil is fairly paid based on 1.6WAR last year, and he has room to improve on that IMO, he’s still in great shape and he’s got pride. Hamels is fairly paid as well, putting up 4-4.5 WAR, so not a bad deal. Ruiz at 8mil? He’s certainly capable of putting up a 2WAR decent season.

      The bad is of course Howard, but if he hits then how exactly bad is his defense, particularly scooping throws? I haven’t seen him a lot, so dunno but I don’t really trust DEF WAR for 1B. Anyway, it’s an overpay for sure, Papelbon is bad, and Byrd and Kendrick were kind of head scratchers, but I suppose if they can put up 1 to 1.5 WAR it won’t be awful. The worst part about the Phils is beyond Brown they just have not developed or hit on any cheap talent, which leaves 3B, CF and depth as holes, along with SP and RP. If they can all stay relatively healthy, could be an ok team, maybe even good. One or two injuries though (most likely outcome) and it’s 70-75Ws due to real lack of depth. But maybe they can catch 83 wheez kids magic one more time.

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    • Cool Lester Smooth says:

      You would if you want to get prospects that figure to be more productive over their careers than Lee will be in the next 2-3 years.

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      • Brad Johnson says:
        FanGraphs Supporting Member

        Right, that’s my point. You could trade the contract or you could get back prospects, but you shouldn’t be able to do both. I say shouldn’t because crazier things have happened.

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  6. Frank says:

    Good followup piece with a good conclusion. Of course Phillies fans can be correct in noting Amaro is doing a bad job, but the rationale that a tear-down/rebuild has to follow some totally unproven, one-size-fits-all golden formula isn’t sensible even so.

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  7. Kenz says:

    But this article begs the corollary question. We know that attendance declines as team win totals go down. But we also know that attendance goes back up when the team is competitive again. It’s not like an honest rebuilding effort is going to force the Phillies to leave town, and when they’re good again, the fans will come back. The Phillies really remind me of the early 2000’s Mets and late 2000’s Astros. Minimal young talent, and overpaid, clearly over-the-hill veterans surrounding one or two players with a good year left in them.

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    • psualum says:

      I’m a Mets fan, and I don’t care that logically it was the wrong choice.. I’m glad they gave Piazza every single possible way to stay on the team even via 1st base, over trading him when he had value. Occasionally I like the name on the back as much as the front.

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    • Dave says:

      Yes, but by preserving revenue streams they can try to add talent via free agency when their few prospects are at peak value. This could be a way to try to have a few bad years without going into the typical Phillies 10 years of terrible while waiting for the next superstar to emerge from the system by sheer luck.

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  8. TheGrandslamwich says:

    In your Philly years, did you ever find the secret tunnel under the Holliday Inn that leads to the ballpark?

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  9. Bill says:

    As a person who attended a lot of baseball games in the 1995-2001 years (and they were fun!), the 2006-2011 years were a lot better.

    But seriously, the lack of faith is in RAJ. He’s a bad GM and most fans want him fired.

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  10. dave in gb says:

    Hopefully the Phillies don’t go into a 14 year rebuild mode like the Orioles did and sink to a small market minded team because they lost an entire generation of fans to its surrounding teams or just don’t watch baseball.

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  11. dang says:

    I understand the need for the Phillies to re-stock the farm system, but given that their first round pick is protected, what are the odds that the following equation –

    second round pick production > draft pick compensation pitcher production (ubaldo jimenez or ervin santana?) – fifth starter production (whoever that ends up being)

    – ends up being true?

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