A year ago, the Philadelphia Phillies won 73 games. A year ago, the Phillies had the oldest team in the National League. This is generally not a great combination, as old and bad rarely reverts to old and good, and based solely on those two pieces of information, rebuilding might have been in order for the franchise. Instead, Ruben Amaro doubled down on veterans this winter, signing a 37 year old hurler (A.J. Burnett), a couple of 36 year old catchers (Carlos Ruiz and Wil Nieves), a 36 year old outfielder (Marlon Byrd), and a 33 year old starting pitcher (Roberto Hernandez). The Phillies doubled down on experience and are hoping that last year’s struggles were simply an aberration and not Father Time’s influence taking over.
It’s probably not going to work. The FanGraphs Playoff Odds page currently forecasts the Phillies for 77 wins, 11 games behind the Nationals in the NL East and six games behind the Giants for the second wild card spot. And it isn’t just the forecast distance, but also the quantity of teams that they would have to leap over to get back to the postseason; the Pirates, Reds, Diamondbacks, Padres, and Rockies are all in line behind the Giants and ahead of the Phillies. Their calculated 5.3% chance of winning their division is 10th highest in the National League, and their 6.7% chance of making the Wild Card game ranks only 11th highest in the NL. Added together, only the Brewers, Mets, Marlins, and Cubs come out as less likely playoff contenders according to our forecasts.
Projections are not infallible, of course — we didn’t have the Pirates as playoff favorites before the 2013 season began, for instance — and the Phillies have enough talent that a playoff run isn’t completely out of the question. But they also have enough flaws that a crash-and-burn season is significantly more likely, and with Cole Hamels likely beginning the year on the disabled list, the Phillies season could be over before it really begins. And that’s why the Phillies need to prepare for the possibility of a big time fire sale this summer.
The Phillies reportedly entertained the idea of trading Cliff Lee last summer, and he would again be a valued trade target, especially if the Phillies were willing to pick up part of his remaining contract in order to let more teams get in on the bidding. With a larger revenue stream and a reduced talent base, paying Lee to play for some other team — in exchange for a better return in young players coming back — is one way the organization could essentially buy some good young players, now that MLB has limited spending on the draft and young international free agents.
Lee would not be Amaro’s only attractive trade option, however. Burnett and Ruiz would also draw interest, and if the Phillies were willing to pay the majority of Jonathan Papelbon’s remaining contract, they could likely flip him for a prospect or two as well. But they shouldn’t just stop at marketing the older players, as a full scale rebuild should also include gauging the league’s interest in acquiring Cole Hamels.
While he’s due $118 million over the next five years, the explosion of free agent prices has served to make that look like a reasonable price, even for a pitcher who will begin the year on the DL. If Hamels returns to the mound and shows no lasting effects from his biceps strain, his combination of success and youth would make it likely that the Phillies could not only move him for young talent, but do so without picking up a significant portion of the dollars he’s due going forward. With the rising prices in free agency, $22.5 million per year for a pitcher of Hamels quality could be sold as a bit of a value, and he’s young enough that he could be an appealing target both for contenders looking for a mid-season upgrade as well as teams with a longer term view that just want to add a high quality starter without having to getting into a free agent bidding war.
Certainly, trading Lee, Hamels, and Burnett would leave the Phillies with little in the way of upper level pitching, but the reality is that they’re likely ticketed for fourth or fifth place in the division whether they keep their best arms or not. Clearing some salary off the books and infusing some good young talent into the organization could allow the team to reallocate their resources to a short rebuild, and then go back out and spend the saved money to build around a new core of young talent like Domonic Brown, Maikel Franco, and Jesse Biddle.
Punting a season or two to build for the future is never an easy thing, especially with a fan base accustomed to winning, but the 2014 season could very well provide a reality check for the Phillies organization and force them to make just that decision. If they start slowly, the team that finishes the year in Philadelphia could look remarkably different from the one that breaks camp on Opening Day.
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