- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

The Phillies Take the Middle Road

The FanGraphs community exists in an echo chamber. As far as echo chambers go, it’s not a bad one. We expect baseball teams to (mostly) make objective, rational decisions. But we do have our own pre-conceived ideas about what makes a decision objectively rational. We also have a lot of contrarians in our midst, which prevents an echo chamber from becoming stodgy and outdated. Bill James is a noted contrarian as are many other sabermetricians. That basic instinct – it’s almost an assumption that conventional thinking is wrong – has helped our little closet industry grow to one that front office personnel read on a regular basis.

You may recall there was a time when seemingly a quarter of the articles on this site were simply about who had a low or high BABIP and should be expected to regress. We called BABIP a “luck stat,” but like most new things, it was oversimplified. We now know different types of batted balls carry different expectations, as do different pitches at different locations. Unsurprisingly, BABIP can be considered to possess a luck component and a non-luck component. We now readily discern between these aspects of BABIP in our player analysis.

I sense that another area where we’re beginning to adjust is with how we view the rebuilding process. In the past, it was popular to dismiss pricey signings by non-competitive clubs with scorn. Of course, snark is a driving force behind any web-based written endeavor, so it’s not surprising that we reserve heaps of it for seemingly baffling moves. One of my favorite throwback articles on this site was about The Contest between Omar Minaya and Dayton Moore. That article was a masterpiece of snarkery, but it didn’t help us to understand more about the Royals or Mets.

The Phillies offseason has met with its share of snark. As Mike Petriello pointed out in November, the Phillies have earned that scorn with a series of poor signings, headlined by Ryan Howard‘s extension. As you may know, it is FanGraphs’ official position that the Howard contract is doggy poop.

Not much has changed for the Phillies since that November article. Here is a list of the principle Phillies news from this offseason:

And there you have it. A team that won 73 games last season added about $60 million in guaranteed salary (not including Chase Utley‘s in-season extension) in order to re-sign their aging catcher, bring in an even older outfielder, and acquire some rotation depth for a top heavy staff. On a positive note, they did sign a lucrative television deal that should ensure strong revenues for years to come.

If you were managing the Phillies offseason, things would have been different, right? You wouldn’t have signed the fogeys to multi-year contracts. Gambling on Gonzalez, Hernandez, and the minor league invitees makes perfect sense, but that’s a lot of money to guarantee to Byrd and Ruiz over seemingly non-competitive seasons. You would also aim to trade Cole Hamels AND Cliff Lee, shedding payroll and receiving top prospects in one fell swoop. You may have even tried to sneak Howard into one of those deals, although good luck finding a taker.

That’s how a classic tear down would go. The model employed by the Astros is what some fans expect when a formerly great roster grows decrepit. Collect your first overall picks, give playing time to those lottery ticket types in the hopes of finding the next Jose Bautista or Jayson Werth, and put up with a few losing seasons. Surely the Astros will soon turn things around. Of course, their own television deal is a flop. The local providers aren’t paying the carriage fee so the team probably won’t receive full payment from that revenue channel. It might have helped things if the Astros were a good team or had some at least some hope of competing, a few local heroes, anything that made them a desirable product to the local fan base.

The Pirates more than once employed a similar model. Pittsburgh saw great success from their latest tear down and rebuild effort. They’ve put a collection of solid players around one truly excellent superstar, Andrew McCutchen. Sure enough, the team was propelled to the playoffs last season. Certainly, it’s time to forget that the club had 20 straight losing seasons during their rebuilding period. That’s 20 straight seasons of poor revenue.

They’re hardly the only team who has misfired in their rebuilding efforts. The Royals share that claim, the Blue Jays flopped last season when they tried to turn the corner, and the Orioles pulled themselves out of the hole two years ago, though they have precious little margin for error. To successfully rebuild, a team must find or develop star players and then fill an entire roster around them. It’s by no means an impossible task, but it requires skill, luck and timeliness.

Which brings us back to the Phillies. Aside from a one-season blip in 1993, the Phillies were dreadful from 1987 through 2000. They fielded a decent team for the six seasons prior to their recent run of five straight postseasons. However, until the team actually reached the postseason, most fans in the Philadelphia area just assumed that the team would fall apart. The team had failed at rebuilding so many times that the fans had given up. It doesn’t help that Philadelphia fans place the same expectations on their teams as Yankees fans, except Philadelphia ownership isn’t nearly as committed to a win-at-all-costs mentality.

The Phillies were fortunate that things came together in 2007. Jimmy Rollins, Utley, Howard and Hamels all arrived on the scene at the same time and were reaching their physical peaks together. Players like Shane Victorino, Werth and Ruiz emerged from the thrift shop to become key contributors. The influx of talent combined with a new ballpark allowed revenue to leap forward, which further allowed the club to start spending like a large-market franchise.

An Astros-style rebuild would be a nightmare for the Phillies. The hard-won fans from their 2008 World Series victory might flee back to football or hockey until the next time the Phillies field a true World Series contender. The fans in Philadelphia simply don’t have patience for losers. If the team became truly terrible again, many fans would go away and not come back until a World Series title was within reach. However, a decline to mere mediocrity could keep more fans around in the interim and make it easier to win back the most fickle-hearted.

In the meantime, even if the Phillies were to aggressively dump salaries, they would still have a relatively large payroll. If attendance and revenue cratered, the club would be in dire financial straits. That in turn could compromise their ability to supplement the roster the next time an Utley, Howard or Rollins arrives at the big league level.

Let’s not forget the lesson of the Astros’ television deal. The Phillies were probably able to negotiate a slightly better return based on the current quality of the club and ownership’s apparent commitment to prevent a total collapse. Moreover, Philadelphia’s status as a fringe contender (however much a stretch that title might be) should make it easier for Comcast SportsNet to sell the broadcasting rights. Of course, it also helps that the Phillies stuck with their current provider so that the only moving part is the carriage fee.

The Phillies could have made different decisions years ago. They might have divested themselves of certain players, kept a few others and tried to build a new core. That probably would have been advisable. But they didn’t, and now they are committed to another plan. As analysts, we cannot assume that the Phillies should be striding the same path as the Astros or Pirates. There are many reasons why such an approach may not be prudent. At the end of the day, the Phillies will struggle to tread water in 2014, but perhaps that is best course of action for the long-term health of the franchise.

Of course, there is a separate and more ominous question to consider. The current leadership may well be making logical choices for 2014, but they’re also responsible for the position in which the club now finds itself. Are they the right personnel to lead any rebuilding effort — be that a full-scale slash and burn or a multi-season limp?