Because they fall into the category of early-season disappointment, there’s already speculation as to a Phillies selloff at mid-season if they continue to play like a team that can finish with, at best, a .500 record. History has proven, however, that under GM Ruben Amaro Jr. any move that is made will be either to double-down and go for it in spite of widespread negativity and perception that they’re “done,” or he’ll make trades of players who aren’t keys to the team and those who won’t be part of the long-term future.
For all the criticism Amaro has received for mortgaging the future by gutting a fertile farm system for veterans, overpaying on contract extensions for players already on his roster, and essentially ignoring the draft, he had a different idea when he took over as GM after the 2008 season. What he wanted to do was maintain some semblance of a solid core of young players. This was the intention of trading away Cliff Lee for prospects as he was entering his free agent year and trading other prospects to acquire Roy Halladay who was willing to sign a long-term contract just to get out of Toronto and join a contender.
Amaro was savaged—by me included—for that decision and did a total about-face at mid-season 2010 first by trying to get Lee back from the plummeting Mariners, then filling the hole in the rotation that his plan created by acquiring Roy Oswalt. The Phillies had been rumored to be listening to offers for Jayson Werth at that point, were barely over .500 and fading. They got hot, won the NL East, advanced to the NLCS before losing to the eventual World Series champion Giants.
By then, there wasn’t a pretense of building for the present and the future. It was all-in for the now as evidenced by the advancing age of their roster and the subsequent acquisitions of Lee (as a free agent), Hunter Pence, and Jonathan Papelbon. Farm director Chuck LaMar resigned in a public dustup with Amaro because of the rapidly deteriorating farm system and lack of money available to repair it.
But what Amaro was doing was similar to what Theo Epstein wanted to do sans the ridiculous appellations of “genius” after the Red Sox 2004 World Series win. The expectations from the fans and media, as well as ownership demands, sabotaged what Epstein wanted to do and the Red Sox degenerated into a battle of one-upmanship with the Yankees as to who could spend the most money on the biggest free agents. It resulted in a dysfunctional group of mercenaries and organizational collapse culminating with the 69-93 showing in 2012 with rampant inter-organizational contretemps and hatred combined with a self-protective blame game from everyone involved.
The Phillies haven’t fallen to those depths yet. But with an aging and declining roster and few prospects on the way up, it will happen eventually.
The question is, what do they do about it?
The simple answer is: nothing.
Could the Phillies clean out the house at mid-season and save money for an on-the-fly rebuild by signing free agents and trading for players that other teams can no longer afford? Yes. Will they do that? Probably not.
When clubs are trading players in salary dumps, the get-back is usually not all that impressive. Many will point to the Red Sox salary dump of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers for a package of prospects including two who are impressive—Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa—but the key point being missed is that Gonzalez is still a star-level, MVP-caliber talent whom the Red Sox had surrendered three top prospects to acquire just a year-and-a-half earlier. Were they supposed to give him away just to get out from under the contract? And were the Dodgers just doing the Red Sox a favor along the lines of the nouveau riche just buying things they recognized?
The Dodgers also claimed Lee when the Phillies placed him on waivers last year. If there was an intention on the part of Amaro to extricate himself from Lee’s contract, he could’ve just handed him to the Dodgers and moved on. He didn’t do that and won’t do it this year with Lee unless he’s getting something back. If a team is accepting the $62.5 million Lee is guaranteed through 2015, they’re not surrendering a top-tier prospect for a soon-to-be 35-year-old with that much cash coming to him. Nor will they get significant packages of younsters for Halladay or Rollins. They might get something decent for Chase Utley, but it won’t be a franchise remaking deal that will be pointed to in 2017 as the building block for the next Phillies run.
There are other concerns in play here. It’s a ridiculous premise to believe that the GM has the final say in all personnel moves. Evidence of Amaro answering to his bosses was clear in the negotiations to retain Ryan Madson as the team’s closer after the 2011 season when the strongly cited rumors were that the Phillies had made a $44 million offer to Madson that the player and his agent Scott Boras accepted. Then when Amaro went to get approval from CEO David Montgomery, a hold was put on the agreement and a few days later, Papelbon was signed. In retrospect, with Madson not having thrown a Major League pitch for the two organizations he’s signed with since, Amaro and the Phillies were lucky it fell apart, regardless of who pulled the first thread as the catalyst of the fabric disintegrating.
Prior to the contract extension given to Cole Hamels, there was endless speculation that the staggering Phillies would trade him. Instead, they gave him what was, at the time, the richest contract ever given to a pitcher.
Apparently Amaro doesn’t read the rumors and do what they’re saying he’s about to do or supposed to do.
Another issue is the attendance factor. Amid all the talk that of the loyalty of Phillies’ fans and the daily sellouts during the club’s run of excellence, like most fanbases if the team isn’t contending and isn’t good, the fans aren’t going to go. This is part of the reason the Cubs have been so historically bad—there’s no motivation to consistently try and win because the fans show up either way. It would take annual contention over the long-term (a decade) and at least one World Series win for the Cubs to: A) lose the lovable loser mantle they so proudly wallow in; and B) accumulate the apathy that comes from fans being disgusted with losing when they expected to win to the point that they’ll find something to do other than going to the park.
That’s not so with the Phillies. If the fans see a team without Lee, without Jimmy Rollins, without Halladay, without Papelbon, without Utley, they’re not going to the park to see a backend starter packaged as a top prospect in Jonathan Pettibone, Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, and Hamels for a team that’s going to win 75 games and is rebuilding.
This is the team they’ve put together. Amaro accepted that when he tacitly acknowledged that it’s all but impossible to win and build simultaneously with the Oswalt acquisition and unsaid admission that he was wrong to trade Lee. He reacted accordingly and this is where they are. With the extra Wild Card, the parity in the National League, their pitching and impossibility of trading their veterans for the quality youth necessary to justify it, they’re not blowing it up now.