The official second half of the MLB season is about to start, and with the Phillies languishing in last place and way out of a playoff spot, fans are left to wonder what happens next. Is this season just a blip on the radar or indicative of an accelerating downward trajectory? I believe it's the latter, and this is my proposal to ensure a better future for our beloved baseball team.
It looks like despite my instincts, I went with my heart instead of my head in the season preview. Be honest with me: Did you look at the Phillies roster at the beginning of the season and think, This is a team that can challenge for the division title? I know I had serious doubts and thought they'd struggle to make the playoffs. What I didn't expect was a precipitous collapse and a season effectively over by the All-Star break. Though in truth, objectively speaking, I should've seen it coming. An aging, injured roster without a single player who instilled real fear in the opposition was the reason for my panicky uneasiness. Even from the very beginning, something about this season just didn't feel right. Nothing excited me. The 2012 Phillies were a shoddily constructed team, and now questionable personnel moves are coming home to roost in the form of an irate fan base that all of a sudden feels entitled to success. I know I wasn't the only Phillies fan that worried about this team. After all, Father Time is undefeated, and he certainly doesn't need any help from injuries and Murphy's Law.
I first thought about writing this column in May, when the Phillies were 14-18 after getting swept by the Mets (which immediately followed the much ballyhooed Cole Hamels-Bryce Harper incident). I was thinking worst case scenario because that's what I always do. Then the team steadied the ship and won two of three from the very same Mets -- thanks to, who else, Carlos Ruiz -- at the end of the month to finish 27-25. A win over the Marlins on June 1 had the Phils at 28-25. Problem was, Roy Halladay had just gone on the DL with his shoulder injury. While still in last place, the Phils were only three games out of first in the tightly-bunched NL East. It was a very precarious position though. They promptly lost six straight (including a four-game sweep at home against the Dodgers) and nine of ten. For real, it took one month to ruin the season. A 8-19 nightmare of a June and equally poor July start has the Phillies -- 9-25 in their last 34 games -- at their worst record in a decade, and a franchise on the brink of a decision that could determine how its next five-plus years play out. At 37-50 -- which, by the way, is the fifth worst record in baseball -- the Phillies are 14 games behind the first-place Nationals and 10 games behind the Braves for the second Wild Card spot. What's worse, this is a baseball team that has lost all of its fight, as exemplified by the 0-40 record when trailing after eight innings. The season is already over, and we all know it. You now have to take a serious look at the Phillies' immediate future because this team is in genuine danger of not being able to compete in its division. The Nationals have arrived a year earlier than expected -- they are very legit and won't be going anywhere for a long time.* Bryce Harper's already antagonized the fan base and seems intent on torturing the Phillies until further notice. The Braves are always in the mix, supplemented by a strong farm system that produces upper echelon major league talent. Speaking of which, Jayson Heyward is finally starting to play like he's capable. The Mets are making me look like a douche, and the Marlins, who are so delightfully Miami, have the talent to turn things around in the second half.
*(Phillies fans might hate Jayson Werth, but he knew the Phillies were on the decline and the Nationals were on the upswing when he left at the end of 2010. I guess the money was nice, too. Werth knew it wouldn't be long before the Nats seized the division. The bitter Phillies fans who mercilessly heckled him last season from the right field stands at Nationals Stadium are getting their comeuppance. "No more play-offs!" was the chant. Yeah, for us. Thanks for the good karma, jackassses.)
You know what's the real indictment of this Phillies club? That what it sunk so much money and asset resources into to be its strength and backbone, the pitching, is what's failing them most this season. Roy Halladay didn't look right as far back as spring training and had to go on the DL. Cliff Lee finally got his first win of the season in his fourteenth (!) start but has a 4.60 ERA since his three-week stint on the DL, which followed his 10-inning, no-decision masterpiece against the Giants. Cole Hamels was brilliant early but slogged through June and is serving up home runs at an alarmingly high rate. Joe Blanton gives you one brilliant start followed by four horrendous ones. Perhaps the most consistent pitcher on this staff is Vance Worley, who, while being the fucking man, tops out as a solid number three or four starter. The bullpen is an unmitigated disaster, among the worst in baseball, already scapegoating Chad Qualls -- who, in fairness, really did suck -- and turning to a bunch of young fringe arms from AAA to handle the game's middle and final innings.* Not helping matters is Antonio Bastardo's fluctuating performance. But, uh, hey, at least Jonathan Papelbon is working out, sort of -- Mets debacle notwithstanding, of course. No reliever, unless his name is Mariano Rivera (pre ACL tear), is worth a $50 million investment. I watched the past two Red Sox seasons end with Papelbon on the mound. This is the guy the Phillies made the highest paid reliever in baseball? Really?! Who else has felt since the moment he signed that we picked up Boston's sloppy seconds? That $50 million -- at least part of it -- should've gone to stabilizing the entire bullpen, not just the overrated closer spot. Unnecessary, irresponsible, and foolish are the words that come to mind to characterize the Papelbon signing.
*(Edit: Jason Grilli, who the Phillies for some reason released in the middle of last season despite a 1.93 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 32.2 innings pitched at AAA Lehigh Valley, would sure be nice to have right about now. Instead, he's serving as a lights-out late-inning reliever -- one of the best in baseball, actually -- for the Pirates and their vaunted bullpen.)
It would appear we're about to find out how Ruben Amaro, Jr., who has a unique opportunity to put his real stamp on the franchise, chooses to define his legacy. What he does in the coming weeks, and how he does it, will either save or doom his employment as general manager. The Phillies have tried for the last five years to act like a big market club, rubbing elbows with the heavy hitters at the high payroll table because they caught lightning in a bottle and were printing their own money. It's difficult not to be consumed by the here and now when presented with a rare collection of talent that produces a finite window of opportunity to achieve greatness. I mean, why worry about five years down the road when you're in position to win the World Series now? Nothing is guaranteed, and when you have a chance to go for it, you must seize the opportunity. The flip side to that is if the moves you make don't result in a World Series championship, what happens if the pieces you gave up not only gut your farm system but eventually go on to be impact major league players elsewhere? Well, we're about to find out. As it stands, the Phillies have ultimately failed in their pursuits and simultaneously mismanaged the team to the point of destitution. I don't mean to sound like a dick here, but am I wrong? Tell me there's a rich pipeline of prospects that offers hope on the horizon. You can't. What's transpired so far this season is an epic embarrassment for the Phillies and makes the franchise look really bad. Like frauds, frankly. I mean, come on, what kind of team spends $50 million on a closer when it has so many other pressing needs? (Ok, I'll stop.)
The popular opinion is that the Phillies have to re-sign Cole Hamels at any cost. For whatever weird love-hate relationship the fans have had with him over the course of his career, they are also sure to show they appreciate and are forever grateful for what he did in 2008. Philly as a sports city still hasn't won anything else aside from that since 1983, which is incredibly depressing. Speaking of which, how long ago does that Phillies' World Series championship feel? And it happened against the Rays -- the fucking Rays! -- at the precise moment the entire country's economy tanked. Then with a chance to cement a respectable mini-dynasty and universal ownership of the league as repeat champions, the Phillies lost in devastating fashion -- because they had the talent to win and weren't overmatched -- to the most storied franchise in sports, the New York Yankees. The Yankees! That would've been something to talk shit about for years, something to actually brag about. But it didn't happen, in part because, in true Philly fashion, Cole Hamels wasn't the same Cole Hamels of 2008. I always wondered if that lackluster 2009 would obscure his legacy. The natives had gotten a taste of winning and were greedy to suck the life out of it. Now everyone's scared this team is in danger of sliding back to where it's been for a majority of its existence: At the bottom of the standings and exasperatingly irrelevant. Oh, and those swaths of empty blue seats present at every home game? They're only going to multiply as the front-runners continue to jump ship. All the tickets were sold long ago (and the Phillies continue to boast about their sellout streak), but no one wants to go anymore. It's sobering and upsetting, like watching the old family dog slowly deteriorate and die before your very eyes. The mounting apathy that accompanies a losing team will be reflected in next year's ticket sales if the nosedive continues.
And that brings me -- finally -- to the premise of this article, the future of the Philadelphia Phillies. It hinges in large part on what they do with Hamels. Here's what I'd propose moving forward if at the deadline things are still looking as bleak as they do today:
- Trade one of the big three pitchers for legitimate pieces that can replenish the farm system. If we're talking strictly for the benefit of the team moving forward, I'd trade Roy Halladay before Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. He deserves to be on a winner anyway and has another year on his contract, at a solid $20 million. Unfortunately, Halladay is on the DL and his value is in proverbial crapper. But what if he returns after the All-Star break and looks like himself in the three or four starts he'll have before the trade deadline? What if you could get two good prospects for Doc? I know emotions are difficult to separate when it comes to making business decisions, but let's think objectively. Hell, to be perfectly honest, I'd probably trade Halladay and Hamels if the haul is satisfactory. Then again, Ruben Amaro has already said he's "not blowing this team up," and Hamels will fetch more in a deal than Halladay. Might as well keep Doc and see if he can return to form next year. If the team is terrible again, that's when his trade value will be appropriate.
*(No one is asking you to nuke the team entirely, Ruben. I figure Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cliff Lee aren't going anywhere, for better or worse. Just sell off the parts that still have significant value. And no, I don't care what Jonathan Papelbon thinks.)
- Consider replacing Charlie Manuel with Ryne Sandberg. Amaro will let Manuel ride out 2012, but that doesn't mean he should be back for 2013. Charlie, like too many of his players, is past his prime. Sandberg deserves to be a big league manager and already should've been poached by now. I hope the Phillies don't screw up by letting Manuel stay beyond his expiration date and lose out on Sandberg as a result. Don't you agree it's time for a change at the top? That'll really mark the beginning of the next era. Listen, I love Charlie. I always will. He forever holds a special place in my heart for 2008, but it's not 2008 anymore. An affinity for his past accomplishments shouldn't interfere with what's best for the Phillies moving forward. Charlie's never exactly been an elite in-game tactician, and his flaws are magnified when the talent on the roster isn't top notch. It's so sad to listen to him in post game press conferences. This is a skipper without any idea how to right the ship, and like a good captain he's going down with it. Manuel, at 68, is the second-oldest manager in the league, behind only the Nationals' reborn Davey Johnson. It's time to give the 52-year old Sandberg, a Hall of Famer and original Phillies draft pick who was dealt away in one of the worst trades in franchise history, a chance to bring it all full circle.
Cole Hamels Sweepstakes
Cole Hamels is saying all the right things. He wants to stay in Philadelphia. He's open to the idea of returning in the offseason even if he gets traded, something which the fans and media alike are naively holding onto as a way to console themselves. I don't doubt Cole's sincerity, but you'll forgive me if I don't put any real stock in his words, especially in light of the stalemate in contract talks. Not extending Cole Hamels and having to trade him would be a striking blow to sentimentality. However, if he is able to bring back a collection of players that could help the future, then I'm more than willing to cut the chord. Recent reports state the Phillies are preparing one final "substantial" offer for Hamels, but honestly, a trade is probably the move that's best for the franchise; I liken it to a dividend reinvestment plan, which is how smart companies sustain and perpetuate success. Emotion must be taken out of the equation here, and it's time for people to confront the painful reality that surrounds the Phillies. This era is over, and it's time to start rebuilding in order to compete with the rest of the division that has passed them by. Using Hamels to get things going will considerably accelerate the process.
Team A: Texas Rangers
Ruben Amaro is going to ask Jon Daniels for Jurickson Profar. It's not going to happen, not even straight up (which I'd do without a moment's hesitation), and especially not without a guarantee from Cole Hamels that he'll sign an extension with the Rangers.
Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino* for Mike Olt ("MIKE OLT!"), Leonys Martin, and Cody Buckel. Olt and Martin are major league-ready players who can immediately fill positions of need for the Phillies at third base and center field, respectively. If forced to pick one of the two, the choice should be Olt. In such a scenario, replace Martin with a major league-ready starting pitcher, i.e. Justin Grimm. Ruben should ask for Buckel, a future MLB starting pitcher, regardless.
*(Victorino has been a train wreck this season. The combination of losing, awful performance, and his impending free agency is like a molotov cocktail ready to explode. There's just a general air of negativity surrounding the situation, which only intensified with his benching on Sunday. It seems like Victorino and the Phillies are headed for a split. I think a trade to a contender could reinvigorate him and resuscitate his earning power on the open market. As it stands, there's little chance Victorino remains with the Phillies beyond 2012 anyway. The Rangers could use a proven, steady everyday center fielder for their run down the stretch, and that potent lineup would help any hitter.)
Mike Olt is the major piece here -- the perfect piece, really, given that he looks like a prototypical pro third baseman and is ready for the bigs -- and a player around which the Phillies can build for the future. Keith Law profiled him as a "potentially plus defender at third with plus raw power... [with] very good bat speed and great extension on his follow-through for power to left and the ability to use the middle of the field." Olt has justified Law's glowing praise with his play this season and is one of the best hitters in all of minor league baseball. Better yet, he hits righty. Olt profiles as a pretty classic power hitter in that he'll hit a lot of home runs while also striking out his fair share. The thing that makes him so appealing is his plate discipline and ability to draw walks, so he provides utility even if his average is low. Let's say Olt puts up a .260/.350/.500 line in the majors to go along with 30+ home run power and plus defense. Yes, please, I'll take one of those.
Leonys Martin, a high-profile Cuban signing in 2011, has justified the hype and is on the verge of cementing himself as a major league regular. After tearing through AA last year, he earned a promotion to AAA but stalled and struggled there. This season, Martin has reasserted his mojo and is handling AAA with ease. He's ready for a full time spot in the majors, and he'd immediately become the Phillies' center fielder of the present and future.
Cody Buckel has been drawing rave reviews and continues his ascension through the minor league ranks. At the age of 20, he is the second-youngest player on the AA Frisco roster. Buckle would be the youngest if not for phenom Jurickson Profar.
Team B: Boston Red Sox
The next two weeks of play will determine just how open the Red Sox are to being buyers. For the sake of my fantasy scenario, I'm hoping they go on a hot streak and find themselves in the thick of the playoff race.
1) Cole Hamels for Jackie Bradley, Garin Cecchini, Henry Owens, and Alex Wilson. I've been a fan of Jackie Bradley since the 2010 College World Series, when he won the MVP and helped South Carolina capture its first title. He struggled the next season, but I was still hoping the Phillies would take him with their first round pick, #39, in the 2011 draft. Instead they took high school power hitter Larry Greene, who didn't start playing baseball for the organization until a month ago. With the very next selection, at #40, the Boston Red Sox took Bradley. He's going to be a long-time major league center fielder, and, as he's proven already, is the kind of player you win with. Cecchini profiles as a potential starting MLB third baseman (though there exist injury concerns), Owens is a young, tall, and projectable starting pitcher, while Wilson is a reliever who could immediately step into the Phillies bullpen.
2) This scenario depends on whether Hamels agrees to commit long-term to the Red Sox. If Boston offers Hamels a seven-year, $170 million deal and he's willing to accept it, then I think the Phillies are well within their rights to demand two of the organization's top-three prospects. So that's two of Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes, and Jackie Bradley. Bogaerts is widely regarded as the best position prospect in the Red Sox system. Though a shortstop now, he will likely transition to third as he gets older and profiles as a franchise cornerstone type of player. Barnes' performance in his first season of pro ball has rocketed him up the rankings, and he's touted as a future staff ace. You already know how I feel about Bradley. Bogaerts is a must; the Red Sox can choose between Barnes and Bradley. Add the aforementioned Owens and Wilson to the package and call it a deal.
Team C: Detroit Tigers
Porcello came into the league as a baby-faced 20-year old in 2009 and has been a solid if unspectacular starting pitcher since. Perhaps he'd benefit from a move to the NL? Nick Castellanos, a rising minor league star and the Futures Game MVP, eliminates the Phillies' search for their next third baseman. Avisail Garcia presents all kinds of intrigue. Having turned just 21 in June (and already in AA), he stands 6'4", weighs 240 pounds, looks like a football player and can move like one too. Garcia is still raw, especially at the plate, but a plus defender with a plus arm in right field. He is the kind of prospect who defines the word "upside" and would be more than worth the wait if he can put it all together.
Other possible trade partners, but with less to offer...
Team D: New York Yankees
Team E: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Rangers, Red Sox, and Tigers offer the most enticing returns of talent. We haven't heard anything about the Tigers, but you imagine they'd be buyers and in the market for a second reliable starter behind Justin Verlander. A Verlander-Hamels duo is pretty sexy. It remains to be seen what the Red Sox do come deadline time, but they'll need to address the starting rotation if they fancy themselves a real contender. At the moment, it seems like the Rangers are the most logical trading partner. They have already been linked to early trade murmurs and reportedly like Hamels more than Zack Greinke. If a trade involving Hamels does occur, I'm just hoping Ruben doesn't get fleeced.
Other Trade Possibilities
- I'm trying to find a team for whom Placido Polanco would be an upgrade at third base. No real luck so far. The most logical fit would probably be Detroit, given their need for an infielder and familiarity with Polanco. I imagine they'd put him back at second base. I'd ask for Bruce Rondon, a relief pitcher at AA Erie, in return. A quick glance at his stats suggests he's one of those "effectively wild" types. In a total of 177.2 innings pitched in the minors, Rondon has struck out 194 batters and allowed only 117 hits but also issued 100 non-intentional walks. Given his age (21) and pure stuff (a mid-to-high 90s fastball and nasty slider), Rondon seems destined to fill a bullpen role in the majors. If the Tigers are unwilling to part with him, then a major league-ready reliever should be the backup target. Darin Downs (who's lucky to even be alive today, much less playing professional baseball) or Luis Marte fits the bill.
- Shane Victorino, if not included in any Hamels deal, to Los Angeles Dodgers for Joc Pederson (bonus points for -- apparently? -- being Jewish). If that's aiming too high given Victorino's season thus far, ask for Shawn Tolleson and/or Steve Ames, both of whom profile as seventh/eighth inning relievers.
- Would it look bad to trade Hunter Pence a year after acquiring him? Sure. Circumstances change, however, and Pence isn't the kind of player you build around. His fidgety and all-out style is endearing at first but wears thin when it costs him precious movement at the plate and in the field (where he's been somewhere between brutal and average). On the surface Pence's numbers are solid (sans the .682 OPS with RISP), but is he really anything more than a "whatever" player? I don't think so. That's why I'd endorse recouping whatever value possible for him and moving on.
Maybe Definitely bring up Domonic Brown, when healthy, to take over one of the outfield spots. The Phillies have bungled his development more than enough already -- can we please just fucking finally see if he's capable of being a major league regular? No more babying and handling with kid gloves. It's sink or swim time.
Two proposals for Hunter Pence to Pittsburgh Pirates:
If the Pirates decide to be buyers at the deadline, Amaro needs to see if he can take advantage of the franchise's first shot at relevance in 20 years. Pence will be expensive to retain but is still under team control for next season, which is an attractive certainty. Whether the Pirates would be willing to pay him what might end up being around $15 million in 2013 is another question -- to which the answer is probably not. But, again, this is my fantasy land.
We're not getting Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon, so don't even bother asking. Marte is ready for the majors and fills the center field position, Kyle McPherson is a bullpen pitcher, while Gregory Polanco's raw ability and sky-high potential make him a worthwhile investment.
B) Robbie Grossman, Alen Hanson, and Gregory Polanco
The prospect I'd really want is Luis Heredia, a 6'6" right-handed starting pitcher, who has superfreak written all over him at the alleged age of 17 (turns 18 in August) and is one of the Pirates most recent forays into the international market. I get the feeling he's off limits, but it's worth inquiring. Robbie Grossman's disciplined and attritious approach at the plate is something sorely lacking with the Phillies, and he'd compete for one of the starting outfield spots as soon as next season. Alen Hanson has exploded onto the scene this season at the tender age of 19 (he's just six days younger than Bryce Harper). He is now a hot prospect because of his speed, slick fielding, and advanced development as a switch hitter.
- Interesting idea that should be discussed more: Gauging trade interest in Carlos Ruiz during a career year. Again, remove emotion from the decision and realize that his value on the trade market will never be higher. Don't tell me he wouldn't be a hot commodity for potential playoff teams. I'm just saying, this is a chance to maximize Ruiz strictly from an asset standpoint. Amaro wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't at least see what was out there. That said, I'd be more than happy to keep Chooch around with the hope that he can be part of the solution over the next couple of seasons.
Listen, I know change is scary and everyone wants to cling to the notion that injuries are to blame for this season going off the rails. Just so you know, they're not. I understand the reasoning, but it's faulty and deeply rooted in nostalgia more than pragmatism. The reality is we've been watching this team decline since the start of 2010. Nothing gold can stay (yes, I'm quoting The Outsiders), and this isn't the same Phillies team of 2008-2009. Ruben Amaro needs to acknowledge that and react accordingly, even if it means swallowing his pride. What he does at the trade deadline shouldn't be about defending his ego or being too stubborn and delusional to admit personal errors in judgment. Instead, it should be about doing what's best for the Phillies going into 2013 and beyond.
I've seen message board commenters and most recently a local columnist compare the Phillies of 2012 to the Phillies of 1982 and use that as an argument for staying the course. Sigh, now people are getting desperate. If you think keeping this aging, declining core together and giving them a mulligan while hoping for no injuries is the way to go, that's your prerogative. But you've been warned, so don't be angry and up in arms when next season proves to be a similar shit show. Remember, people, big tree fall hard. We've come a long way in just 20 months since the euphoria of the Cliff Lee signing to the despair of this season. I've agreed with Ruben on certain moves and disagreed with him on others. I'm doubting him now. Amaro needs to nip this thing in the bud before it gets worse. It's better to take action a year early than a year late.