MLB Trade Deadline: Why Didn’t The Phillies Sell?

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The easy answer you’ll find on Twitter and in sabermetric circles is that Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is, at best, delusional. At worst, they’ll say he’s an idiot. Neither is true.

The Phillies have lost 11 of 12 and are imploding. They’re old, expensive and have few prospects on the horizon. Amaro doesn’t think they’re contenders—he can’t—and he’s not stupid. He’s made some contractual mistakes, but like anything else unless there’s inside information as to whether these decisions were made by Amaro or through nudging on the part of his bosses, it’s unfair to place the entire onus of the burgeoning disaster on him. It’s just easier for the sabermetric crowd and Twitter experts to blame the GM and pronounce with all the courage in the world what “they’d” do. But there’s an underlying reality with the Phillies that has to be examined before calling the failure to sell a mistake.

  • The demands for Phillies’ players were steep

Teams that called about Cliff Lee were reportedly told that the trading club would have to absorb Lee’s $62.5 million contract (plus whatever’s left for this year) and give up several, significant, close-to-ready big league prospects. The number of teams that had the money, the prospects and the willingness to do this was nonexistent and Amaro knew it. In other words he was saying, “I’ll trade him if I get a metric ton for him.” It’s like being a happily married man and saying, “I’ll cheat if Megan Fox hits on me.” Lotsa luck.

  • No trade clauses and other issues

Apart from Lee, the other players who the Phillies could conceivably have had on the block were either hurt (Ryan Howard), have a no-trade clause they said they wouldn’t waive (Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young), have been awful and obnoxious (Jonathan Papelbon) or they want to keep (Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz).

  • The farm system is barren

Amaro assistant Chuck LaMar resigned in a huff last year because of the lack of attention paid to the farm system and Mike Arbuckle left for the Royals when he didn’t get the GM job to replace Pat Gillick. The Phillies development apparatus is in flux in large part because they either neglected it to pay for the big league product or traded it away to add the likes of Roy Oswalt, Lee, Roy Halladay, Hunter Pence, Ben Revere and Young. Even when they dumped a player like Pence, they didn’t recoup what they traded to get him.

They’ve got a few pieces like the recently recalled Cody Asche and Phillippe Aumont, but there’s not a Mike Trout in their farm system—a player to build around. The decision to focus on the majors and allocate the vast amount of resources there was a conscious one. When Amaro basically exchanged Lee for Halladay after the 2009 season, his intention was to achieve cost-certainty and maintain some semblance of a farm system. By mid-season 2010, when the Phillies needed a pitcher, Amaro made a decision that not many GMs would have when he acknowledged his mistake and traded for Oswalt. He went all-in after 2010 be reacquiring Lee as a free agent and with subsequent decisions including paying a lot of money for Papelbon and Mike Adams.

Do the math: the farm directors who helped put the club together are gone; they gave up draft picks to sign free agents; and they traded away their top youngsters for veterans. Having homegrown talent ready to replace their stars immediately is impossible.

  • A housecleaning would gut the major league roster and attendance

As of now Phillies fans are angry and as always aren’t shy about showing it. Some targets, like Papelbon, have asked for it in both his performance and his comments. If the Phillies traded away every possible veteran asset, the fans would stop caring entirely especially with the football season coming quickly. Citizens Bank Park would be a ghost town in September and few players are going to want to join them this winter knowing that a rebuild is in progress.

For a club that is only now starting to again pay attention to the draft and has few prospects ready to make a dent in an increasingly difficult division, it’s better to tread water, keep the veterans and hope for a renaissance with what’s there while simultaneously trying to restock the minor league system.

  • 2014’s roster will be similar to 2013’s with a new manager

As much as the fans and critics will hate it, the Phillies aren’t going to have room to do much this winter. No one will take Papelbon unless the Phillies are taking a similarly bad contract in return and then they’ll need to find themselves a replacement closer. Rollins won’t allow himself to be traded. Lee is still one of the best pitchers in baseball. Cole Hamels is under contract. Howard can’t possibly be as bad as he’s been in recent years. Halladay has a contract option that is likely to be declined, but don’t be surprised to see him sign a contract to stay and re-prove himself.

Of course these are all qualifications and prayers. The odds of it coming to pass are slim, but this is still a more salable marketing strategy than blowing it up. The one thing that’s essentially fait accompli is that manager Charlie Manuel will be out. The decision as to whether to replace him with Ryne Sandberg or a veteran manager will be made, but it’s safe to say that Manuel’s time as Phillies’ manager is over. As far as changes, you’ll see a tweak here and there, but the general core is going to be the same.

In short, they have no real options other than to hope they players they have will rebound and make a run at one of the extra playoff spots in 2014 because many of their contracts are immovable and they can’t convince their grouchy fans to accept a new five-year plan to rebuild while still coming to the park.  The Phillies didn’t make a dramatic series of trades at the deadline because of these factors. It may not be popular, but it’s the way it is and the cost of putting together the type of team that won five straight division titles and was a preseason World Series favorite for a half-decade. It’s the circle of baseball and the Phillies’ circle is closing with a crash that they can’t avoid or prevent. The only thing they can do is limit the damage in its aftermath.

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The Phillies Need Cole Hamels

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Ruben Amaro Jr. has no intention of giving up on this season or the next several seasons. He said as much—link. Privately he knows the situation is bleak for 2012, but given the age and guaranteed contracts on their roster, how can they conceivably let Cole Hamels leave as a free agent without a viable offer? It’s getting close to the point where the Phillies have to realize that this simply isn’t their year. They’re not there yet, but it’s a few weeks away—conveniently coinciding with the July 31st trading deadline.

After what happened with Cliff Lee having been traded away and then choosing to re-sign with the club a year later, it’s conceivable that the Phillies would check with Hamels to see if he’d be willing to be traded to a contender for the remainder of 2012 so they could re-stock the system and then go after him as a free agent.

Let’s look at the contracts, the guaranteed money owed for 2013 and beyond and the viability of re-signing Hamels.

Lee is owed $87.5 million through 2016.

Roy Halladay will be paid $20 million in 2013 and has a club option for $20 million at 2014.

Ryan Howard is signed for $95 through 2016.

Chase Utley is owed $15 million next season.

Jonathan Papelbon is owed $13 million annually through 2015 with a vesting option at $13 million for 2016.

Jimmy Rollins is guaranteed $22 million through 2014.

Hunter Pence is a free agent after 2013.

All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz has a ridiculously cheap $5 million option for 2013 that, barring catastrophe, will be exercised.

Kyle Kendrick is signed for $4 million next season, but they can find a taker for him.

Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Placido Polanco are free agents after this season. Forget Blanton and Polanco coming back and it’s hard to see Victorino being re-signed either.

The Phillies’ current payroll is $172 million.

Lee’s getting a $3.5 million raise next year; Papelbon slightly less than $2 million. Pence will get a raise in arbitration of $4-5 million. They’re slashing between $28 and $36 million (give or take) after Victorino, Blanton, Polanco, Ty Wigginton, Jose Contreras and Kendrick are gone.

Their payroll is going down, so technically this talk that they can’t “possibly” keep Hamels is inaccurate. They can afford to keep Hamels.

The question is will they do it during the season? Will they trade him and hope to re-sign him? Will they trade him and just let him sign wherever? Or will they keep him and take their chances retaining him in free agency?

If what Amaro said is true in terms of keeping the team together until they disintegrate, the Phillies don’t have much of a choice: they have to have Hamels in a Phillies’ uniform.

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Creative Writing and Cole Hamels

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Is there a reason that Cole Hamels‘s pending free agency is constantly updated as if there’s something to discuss?

It’s more trolling and laziness when there’s nothing to write about, so a “story” is formulated regardless of reality.

Here’s my logical outsider’s perspective from both sides of the bargaining table.

For the Phillies.

Eventually there has to be financial sanity; a realization that this cycle is ending and they must shift focus on a future that’s approaching faster than anticipated. At some juncture, they’ll need to restrain spending on the big league product and rebuild the minor league system.

The Phillies have a lot of players making a lot of money and giving Hamels the contract he’s going to demand may not be the best possible maneuver for them.

Cliff Lee is guaranteed $87.5 million from 2013 through 2015.

Roy Halladay is guaranteed $20 million in 2013 with an option for another $20 million in 2014 with kickers based on innings pitched that, barring catastrophe, he’s going to achieve.

Ryan Howard is guaranteed $105 million from 2013 through 2016.

Chase Utley is signed for 2013 at $15 million.

Jonathan Papelbon is guaranteed $13 million annually from 2013-2015 with a $13 million vesting option for 2016 based on games finished.

Jimmy Rollins is guaranteed $22 million for 2013-2014 with an $11 million option for 2014 based on plate appearances. If the Phillies aren’t as good as they’ve been in recent years, Rollins is not going to get enough at bats to activate the option.

Hunter Pence is arbitration eligible after this season and a free agent after 2013.

Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Joe Blanton are free agents after this season.

Hamels is making $15 million this season and they could backload his contract to account for the money coming off the books in the future, but then they’ll be paying $25-30 million annually for a pitcher at age 33-36 as they’re doing with Lee now. It’s easy to say they should let Victorino leave along with the likely departures of Blanton and Polanco, but the Phillies farm system is gutted and they’ll still have to replace their centerfielder, their third baseman and their fifth starter. With Halladay, Lee, Hamels and (if his elbow doesn’t blow out) Vance Worley, that’s a good 1-4 starting rotation. They could find someone to fill out the fifth slot and be okay pitching-wise with Papelbon as the closer. But their problem this season has been a lack of offense and they’re going to be replacing Victorino’s offense and defense with whom? And who’s going to play third?

The Phillies have shown little willingness to give their young players a chance to play in their new incarnation of a star-studded, big name-centric club and they don’t have any major prospects ready to fill those positions for 2013.

This is also assuming Utley comes back and is: A) able to play; and B) able to contribute 60-75% of what he was in his prime. With his recurring knee issues, that’s not a reasonable expectation.

I suppose they could swing a deal with the Red Sox to get Kevin Youkilis for 2013 while he’s signed and stick him at third, but he’s been injured and declining similarly to Utley.

B.J. Upton will be too expensive to sign as a replacement centerfielder and to keep Hamels and to find a third baseman who can hit. Torii Hunter could be a stopgap for a year or two in centerfield. Or they could keep Victorino.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the Phillies pay up to keep Hamels. What they’ll be doing is mortgaging the future—when both Lee and Halladay will be gone—and rely on an aging Hamels to be their ace for a team that will be in the midst of a major rebuild. He’ll be untradeable, fading and expensive. If they keep him, it would be with an eye on chasing a title in 2013-2014 and not worrying about 2015 and beyond.

Is that worth 7-8 years at $160-180 million?

For Hamels.

There is no reason whatsoever for Hamels to agree to a down-the-line contract during the season and shun his first opportunity at free agency while he’s pitching brilliantly at age 28.

Hamels has thrown at least 180 innings from 2007-2011 and he’ll break that threshold again this season. He’s got the post-season bonafides including the NLCS and World Series MVPs in 2008. He can handle pressure and a tough home crowd.

Why shouldn’t he maximize his dollars by exploring free agency?

The Yankees are always looking for pitching and given the disasters of their attempts to develop their own, if the 2012 season doesn’t go according to their mandate of championship or bust, they might use their checkbook to fill their self-created holes as they did after 2008 when they signed CC Sabathia.

The Dodgers new ownership is aggressive, willing to spend and Hamels is from Southern California.

The Cubs have money; the Mets’ finances are getting in order; the Orioles are finally showing signs of legitimate improvement; the Rangers consider everything and willing to pay; the Blue Jays are about ready to go for a title; the Marlins could continue their spending spree.

Hamels likes Philadelphia and presumably would like to stay, but he’s not going to do the Phillies any favors when it comes down to dollars.

In short, there are landing spots for Hamels. Why would he sabotage himself by signing now?

The answer is he won’t.

The reality.

This talk of the Phillies and Hamels having “discussions” or “contact” or “preparing to engage” or whatever terminology is considered new is just that: talk.

Or nonsense.

There’s not going to be a deal during the season and if the Phillies want to keep Hamels, it’ll take a big check. It won’t be until after the season and both sides will examine their circumstances and move forward accordingly.

It could go either way. Don’t let “insiders” or websites tell you any different.

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