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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Cliff Lee And The All-Star Look

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If there are a trail of bodies or body parts scattered from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Seattle to Texas and back to Philadelphia, be on the lookout for this man.

cliffleeallstar

What is Cliff Lee’s problem? Never mind that his All-Star look was more appropriate for a man awaiting a decision as to whether or not he’d get the death penalty and the question as to whether he’d ever learned to fake a smile and tip his hat. This isn’t about that face which would make a hardened criminal or sociopathic dictator think twice before messing with him, but it’s about the repeated trades of Lee and how he’s seemingly always up for discussion in trade talk. We’ve seen instances of him glaring at teammates who make errors behind him and even confronting them as he did with Shane Victorino. Much like the B.J. UptonEvan Longoria incident when Longoria questioned Upton as to why he didn’t hustle on a ball hit in the gap, it obviously wasn’t the first time that players, coaches and the manager spoke to Upton regarding his lackadaisical play. Lee’s name prominently featured in trade talks, his strange history as a journeyman in spite of how good he is and that face make it a viable question as to whether he’s worth the aggravation unless he’s pitching like an All-Star.

Is Lee a clubhouse problem? While his teammates appear to respect his commitment and status as one of the top pitchers in baseball over the past five years, it reverts back to wondering why he’s always a negotiable topic in trade discussions. With the Indians the trade to the Phillies was spurred by his contract status, that the team was rebuilding and they wanted to maximize his value rather than lose him for nothing a year-and-a-half later. With the Phillies, the club got the idea that he wanted to test the free agent waters after the 2010 season and they preferred someone who was with them for the long-term in Roy Halladay while simultaneously maintaining some semblance of a farm system. Lee denied that he told the Phillies he didn’t want to negotiate an extension prior to the trade.

With the Mariners, the club was in the midst of a disastrous season in which the planned dual-aces at the top of their rotation with Felix Hernandez and Lee wasn’t working out and they traded him to the Rangers for a large package of youngsters. Lee certainly didn’t look any happier with the Mariners than he did during the All-Star introductions.

He went back to the Phillies after the 2010 season, spurning the Rangers and Yankees. Whether or not Lee is a clubhouse problem or is just an introverted, intense competitor who lets his emotions get the better of him is known only to his teammates and the organizations he’s played for. With Lee, though, there’s been a smirking shrug when things aren’t going his way as if it’s not his fault.

The Phillies’ decision to trade Lee once was based on pure business practices. When the parties reunited after backbiting and back-and-forth accusations as to what went wrong the first time, it was viewed as Lee liking Philly better than New York and the Phillies offering more money than Texas. For the Phillies it was an overt admission of the initial mistake in trading Lee. Given their continued willingness to listen to offers on Lee, it’s clearly evident that the relationship is still a business one. Lee didn’t want to bring his family to New York where his wife had a bad experience during the playoffs against the Yankees while he was pitching for the Rangers. The Phillies wanted to build a juggernaut. Both got what they wanted.

Currently there is speculation that the Phillies might trade Lee if they decide to sell at the trading deadline, but they’ve said they’re not going to. It’s not because they’re in love with Lee, but because they think they’re still in contention for 2013 and will be in contention in 2014, so they’ll be a better team with Lee than they would be with the prospects he’d bring back or the players they could sign with the money freed up after getting his contract off the books. Lee doesn’t sound as if he’s all that bothered by the trade talk. His attitude and that face indicate he’s treating the game as a business and if he’s traded, that’s part of the deal. He’ll get paid and will escape another town and use his glare to scare off onlookers yet again in a new venue.

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MLB Trade Deadline: A Phillies Selloff Makes No Sense

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The discussion of a possible Phillies selloff is promoted by the media for the idea that some of the sexiest potential trade targets are on their roster, namely Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon. Unless Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is blown away by an offer, Lee’s not going anywhere. Papelbon is the name to watch, but he’ll get them financial relief and won’t yield a bounty of prospects in return. Apart from that, the Phillies’ situation—both financially and practically—has to be examined before stating with unequivocal certitude of what they “should” do while not being in Amaro’s position.

The Phillies are not a good team and it’s not due to injuries or age. It’s because they’re not very good. They would’ve been a good team if they had Roy Halladay pitching in the form he did in his first two years in Philadelphia, but he’s not that anymore even if he’s healthy. If Halladay was healthy, they’d be mediocre and nominal playoff contenders. With the Braves and Nationals in their own division and the Pirates (who are for real), the Cardinals and Reds in the Central division, snagging one of the two Wild Cards is a delusion for the Phillies in their current state. Ordinarily, that might predicate a housecleaning of pending free agents and marketable veterans. But it again returns to the Phillies’ situation and it leaves them with few options.

Because the Phillies went all-in in 2010 when they were, on paper, playing the same way they are now and traded for Roy Oswalt to spur a blazing hot streak over the final two months of the season, there’s a dreamy hope that they’ll repeat the process in 2013. The difference is that they don’t have any prospects left to trade for a pitcher of Oswalt’s stature and the rest of their club isn’t underperforming, but is performing what they’re currently capable of because they’re beaten up and old.

They can move Michael Young and I think they will, but they’re not going to get much for him. They can offer Chase Utley around, but he’s a pending free agent and despite the fact that a new setting and a legitimate pennant race will wake him up and possibly revert him to the MVP-status he enjoyed during the Phillies years of NL East dominance, teams won’t go crazy for a rental and give up the prospects to justify the Phillies not keeping Utley, trying to sign him to a reasonable deal to stay or letting him leave and taking the draft pick compensation. Delmon Young might be a reasonable acquisition for an AL club that is going to be in the playoffs so he can DH and do one thing he does well: hit in the playoffs. Carlos Ruiz is a free agent at the end of the year and he too would help a legitimate contender, but again, they won’t get bring back stud prospects.

That leaves Lee and Papelbon.

I don’t believe the Phillies are going to trade Lee. It doesn’t make sense considering the rest of the roster being entrenched in trying to win over the next couple of years while the club begins rebuilding their gutted farm system that was neglected as the available money for development was allocated for the big league product. Teams that do what the Phillies did in trading all their top prospects to try and win now and simultaneously ignore the draft know they’re mortgaging the future with a balloon payment. That balloon payment is due soon and they’re going to have to pay it.

Amaro is not going to do a full-blown rebuild because he can’t afford to have an empty park waiting five, seven, ten or however many years it takes for the team to be good again. It’s easier to hope that they’ll get a resurgence with the veterans under contract and slowly start resuscitating their minor league system. Realistically, what would they get for Lee? He has a limited no-trade clause so there are only eight teams to which he can be traded and he’s owed $62.5 million through 2015 not counting his salary for the rest of 2013. To get viable prospects to make the deal worth the Phillies’ while, they’d have to pick up a chunk of his money. To get out from under his full salary, they’d have to take nothing back in return. Then what? They’d need pitching for next year to try and win with the players they still have with none as good as Lee on the market. So it makes no sense to even speculate about in any manner other than to garner attention for something that’s highly unlikely to happen during the season.

As for Papelbon, he’s one name who could help a club like the Tigers who need a closer. He could put them over the top and for the Phillies, he’s replaceable if they’re not in the playoff hunt. He doesn’t appear happy in Philadelphia, they don’t seem to like him very much and getting rid of his salary for a couple of mid-level minor leaguers would appeal to everyone. If they’re out of the race in the second half, they could give Phillippe Aumont a look as the closer and after the season go the cheap (and ironic) route and bring back Ryan Madson who, by then, might not have thrown one pitch for another team after leaving the Phillies only to return two years later to have a shot to be the closer again.

The idea behind trade deadline speculation is to formulate a clear-cut scenario of either/or. Either we’re in it and we buy or we’re out of it and we sell. That comes from the Moneyball school of thought with no obstacles other than financial, but that’s fiction just like Moneyball. The Rays can get away with that kind of attitude. The teams with fans who pay to see the team and live and breathe with the idea that they could possibly challenge for a World Series in spite of the odds—the Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers—can’t do it that easily. The Phillies won’t sell. They’ll tweak. That means Papelbon will be the one of the whales to go and Lee will stay.

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Tamp Down Immediate Zack Wheeler Expectations

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Based on the manner in which prospects are hyped and the number of those prospects that fail to immediately achieve expectations—or even competence—it’s wise to sit back and let Zack Wheeler get his feet on the ground before anointing him as part of the next great rotation with Matt Harvey and Jonathon Niese as a modern day “big three” to be compared with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels or Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. It must be remembered that all of those pitchers struggled when they got to the big leagues.

Other hot prospects who were expected to dominate baseball like the Mets from the mid-1990s of Generation K with Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher flamed out as the only pitcher to achieve anything noteworthy was Isringhausen and he had to do it as a closer. The Yankees’ intention to have Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy function as homegrown starters has degenerated into nothingness with Kennedy fulfilling his potential with the Diamondbacks and both Hughes and Chamberlain approaching their final days in pinstripes. The list of instnaces such as these is far more extensive than the would-be “stars” who either didn’t make it at all or had their careers derailed and delayed.

Given the Mets’ historic clumsiness in recent years, it was a surprise as to how good Harvey really was. The Mets didn’t treat him as a prodigy, nor did they overpromote his rise to the majors as anything more than a young pitcher who’d earned his chance. His maturity, style, intensity and preparedness has yielded one of the best pitchers in baseball whose leap inspires memories of Roger Clemens in 1986. They kept Wheeler in the minor leagues as well in part to make sure he was ready and in part to keep his arbitration clock from ticking so they’d have him for an extra year of team control. These were wise decisions.

As good as Wheeler is and as much as those who see him predict great things, he’s also a power pitcher who has had some issues with control and command. His motion is somewhat quirky with a high leg kick and a pronounced hip turn with his back toward the hitter. If he’s slightly off with his motion, he’ll open up too soon, his arm will drag behind his body and his pitches will be high and flat. In the minors a pitcher can get away with such issues because minor league hitters will miss hittable fastballs with far greater frequency than big league hitters. The biggest difference between minor league hitters and Major League hitters is patience and that big leaguers don’t miss pitches they should hammer.

Wheeler’s 23 and is as ready as he can be for a rookie. As for ready to be a marquee pitcher immediately, that might take some time just as it did with Lee, Halladay, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Saddling Wheeler with the demands of a star before he’s even thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues is a toxic recipe.

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Halladay’s Shoulder Injury

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Yesterday Roy Halladay looked like Orel Hershiser at the very end of his career in 2000 with the Dodgers: a one-time unstoppable force who had no idea where the ball was going once it left his hand. In Hershiser’s case, he’d run out of bullets. With Halladay, he was hurt and finally admitted as much to the Phillies after the game when he said that his shoulder was bothering him since his start against the Pirates on April 24—ESPN story

He was hammered in his next two starts by the Indians and Marlins and it was in a manner that couldn’t have been much worse if I’d gone out there and pitched. It was either admit something was the matter or continue to look helpless on the mound. Not even the greats like Halladay can bluff their way through when their stuff is diminished to this degree where he has no pop, no movement, and no control.

As much as Halladay is celebrated for being an old-school, “gimme the ball and let me finish the game” throwback, this is a reminder of what also happened to pitchers of 30-40 years ago due to the damage accumulated from gobbled innings. While the Marlins and Indians hitters brutalized the once great Halladay, there had to be some semblance of sadness and wonderment in their dugouts while it was going on. Big league hitters want to win, but they also want the challenge of facing and succeeding against the greats. Beating on Halladay like Larry Holmes assaulted Muhammad Ali in 1980, with Holmes screaming at the referee to stop the fight before he severely injured Ali, could provide no sense of fulfillment as it would have had Halladay been at full strength.

Why was Halladay pitching hurt? Maybe it was due to his reputation as a cold, steely-eyed gunslinger that comes along with the nickname Doc Halladay. Maybe it was because the true greats (in any endeavor) are generally the most insecure, spurring them to work harder and constantly prove themselves in fear of losing their jobs or not being the best. Or maybe he felt that the Phillies were paying him a lot of money to pitch, needed him, and that anyone else they put out there wasn’t going to do much better at 100% than he would at 75% or less.

We may hear the best case scenario that it’s tendinitis or a strain and he’ll be back sometime this season.

We may hear that it’s a torn labrum or a rotator cuff.

We may hear that by altering his delivery to accommodate the pain in the back of his shoulder that sidelined him last season, he managed to create a deficit and injured the front of his shoulder or the whole shoulder. If a great pitcher who’s as regimented as Halladay alters one thing, everything else might come undone all at once and that’s what appears to have happened. It takes years to learn to pitch differently and Halladay was trying to use the same strategies with different weapons in a very short timeframe. For a few games, he managed it, but then the shoulder would no longer cooperate. Now we’ll wait to see the amount of damage and whether he’ll pitch at some point in 2013 or beyond and what he’s going to be when he does get back.

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Don’t Expect a Phillies Selloff

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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.

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Good News and Bad News: Halladay’s Not Hurt

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The Phillies would be better off if Roy Halladay was hurt. At least that would be a viable explanation for this sudden and cliff-diving decline from what he was to what he is. What makes the lost velocity and increased confidence of the hitters even more frightening is that there’s no physical malady or mechanical hiccup to fix and get the soon-to-be 36-year-old back to the greatness he’s exhibited for the past decade. His mechanics are fine and if he was ailing, the Phillies wouldn’t continue to put him on the mound. That was true in spring training as the “experts” speculated on what was wrong with Halladay and implied that there was an injury that the Phillies were hiding. What possible reason would they have to do that in spring training?

No. He’s not hurt. His arm slot is around where it was when he was at the top of his game with a slight deviation that has nothing to do with pain or compensation and isn’t going to revert him back to what he was if it’s “fixed.” He’s not finished and not in the last days of a great career. He can continue to pitch this way once he learns how to get hitters out more effectively with diminished stuff, but he’s not going to be the unstoppable, grinding, durable force he was. This is evidence of the ravages of time and work. In the past two decades, we’ve grown accustomed to pitchers continuing to perform in their 40s as they did in their 20s and for the most part in cases like Roger Clemens it was due to the evident use of PEDs, but with the new testing the one thing that can’t be quantified is when the body says enough’s enough. Halladay’s seems to be informing him that he has to figure something else out to be effective.

The sheer number of pitchers and players who weren’t simply maintaining their level of work in their supposed primes, but were surpassing it due to the use of certain substances made it seem normal when they should’ve been seen as a rarity. Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton were anomalies not just because they lasted into their 40s, but for the most part they maintained their effectiveness late into their careers pitching the same way they always did. There was no transition from what they were into something else.

Halladay’s velocity is down from a high of 96 and a consistent 94 at the tiptop of his game two years ago to barely hitting 90 last night. This has been a recurring issue all spring and spurred the worries that are rising with every subpar start. For the hitter, there’s a significant difference between preparing for 96, being used to 94 and seeing 89-90. That’s an eon of pitch recognition time. Add in that he doesn’t have the same pop you get the results Halladay’s produced in his first two starts.

Counting him out is silly. Pitchers like Carlton, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris have been labeled as “finished” and come back to be productive, even Cy Young Award contending arms at Halladay’s age and beyond. He still has his intelligence and his stuff is good enough to get hitters out, but he’s got to learn how to do it and it doesn’t happen overnight.

On another note with the Phillies, the Charlie Manuel contract situation is going to get messy. Were it not for a blown save by Greg Holland of the Royals in which he couldn’t find the strike zone, the Phillies would be sitting at 1-6 with a lame duck manager, an angry fanbase and ominous speculation concerning the age of their roster. Manuel has no intention of walking quietly into the night at the end of the season as the Phillies clearly want him to do and he’s working with his clear heir apparent, Ryne Sandberg, on the coaching staff.

This has happened with Manuel before. With the Indians in 2002, his contract was up at the end of the season, he wanted to know where he stood and basically told them to give him an answer or fire him. The Indians were in a similar position then as the Phillies are now with an aging core and an unavoidable rebuild beckoning, so with the club 39-47 and far from playoff position, they fired him. Manuel deserves better from the Phillies after all he’s accomplished—an extra year on his contract as severance even if they have no intention of him fulfilling it and not having to look at the guy who’s going to replace him every single day—but he’s not going to get it and if this thing spirals out of control, Sandberg will be managing the Phillies by June 1st.

Or sooner.

Extended discussions of this along with predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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Keys to 2013: Minnesota Twins

Award Winners, Ballparks, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Management, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MVP, Players, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors

Starting Pitching Key: Vance Worley

The Twins acquired Worley from the Phillies along with Trevor May for Ben Revere. In 2011, Worley was dominant to the point of making it look easy and acting as if it was easy as the fifth in the Phillies foursome of star starters, caddying for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Worley’s attitude appeared to be one of, “Here, hit my supercharged fastball. This big league stuff is a breeze.”

Then in 2012, it wasn’t a breeze and hitters took him up on his offer of hitting his fastball. Relied on as more than a rookie at the back-end of the rotation, he struggled with his command, gave up a lot of hits and had recurring elbow problems. Once the Twins are back to their normal method of doing business with a fundamentally sound defense combined with a big ballpark, Worley could be a big winner. He has to learn to pitch rather than bully his way through. That prehistoric “me young and tough” act can work the first time through the league, but the second time the hitters humble even the cockiest rookies as they did with Worley in 2012.

Relief Pitching Key: Glen Perkins

If I’m going to have a lefty closer, I’d prefer him to be a flamethrower who can blow people away with a moving fastball a la Billy Wagner. Perkins’s fastball reaches the mid-90s and his strikeout numbers have improved since the move to the bullpen, but I wouldn’t classify him as a strikeout pitcher. He’s also vulnerable to the home run ball. To be an effective lefty closer over the full season, he’ll have to have the threat of an inside pitch to righties. That must be established early in the season so it’s known. Once the word’s out that he’s working righties on the inner half, he won’t have to do it as often and risk leaving a hittable fastball out over the plate.

Offensive Key: Justin Morneau

If the Twins had their sights on legitimate contention, the key might be Aaron Hicks, the rookie center fielder. A team’s true key, however, is contingent on their goals. For the 2013 Twins, they’re incorporating youngsters and looking to move past the era in which Morneau was a mid-lineup linchpin and MVP candidate.

A free agent at the end of the season, if Morneau is hitting, his trade value will skyrocket. A significant return on a trade will speed the Twins’ rebuild.

Defensive Key: Pedro Florimon

Florimon will get the first crack at shortstop. The Twins, with their preferred strategy of pitchers who pound the strike zone and trust their defense, need a shortstop to catch the ball and show good range. Trevor Plouffe is the Twins’ third baseman and his range is limited to a step to the left and a step to the right leaving Florimon with more ground to cover and making defensive positioning and strategy important. He’s not much of a bat and if he doesn’t give the Twins what they need defensively, they’d be wise to throw Eduardo Escobar out there and give him a chance since he’s probably their best long-term solution at short anyway which says more about the current state of the Twins than anything else.

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Carpenter the Terminator

Award Winners, Cy Young Award, Draft, Games, History, Management, MiLB, MVP, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

In a world of pitch counts and overprotectiveness, Chris Carpenter is an example of a pitcher who was abused early in his career and could be a case study of why extremists on the “let them pitch” brigade and the “we must be careful with young arms” crew each have a justifiable argument for their positions.

The 15th overall pick by the Blue Jays in the 1993 draft, Carpenter arrived prior to the in-depth analytics and rampant overuse of cookie-cutter developmental techniques that are now in vogue and in debate. In the minors, Carpenter threw 163 innings at 20; 171 at 21; 120 in the minors and 81 in the majors in 1997 at age 22. Back when Carpenter made his big league entrance, baseball managers were by-and-large old-schoolers for whom there wasn’t an injury unless the bone was sticking out through the skin. Carpenter was also on a staff with Roger Clemens who didn’t want to hear teammates complaining about arm pain. It was natural for a young pitcher—even a first round draft pick—to overextend himself to keep his job and to not be perceived as a “wimp.” His managers were similarly faux tough guys with the only one who had a legitimate claim to the moniker being Buck Martinez. Martinez once recorded a double play after sustaining a broken leg on successive home plate collisions. Other than that, he pitched for Tim Johnson (crafted fictional stories about having been in combat in Vietnam) and Carlos Tosca (wanted to use a four-man rotation).

At 6’6”, 230 pounds, it’s doubtful anyone was going to call him weak to his face, but the implication was still present in those days that you should pitch through aches and pains. There was a physicality to Carpenter that indicated he could deal with a heavier workload than a smaller-framed pitcher would, but there didn’t appear to be any serious concentration on limiting him or protecting him in any way.

Carpenter’s pitch counts with the Blue Jays were bordering on ridiculous especially since the club was not a contender and in many of the games, he was getting knocked around early enough to make it clear that he should probably have been yanked. There had been flashes of brilliance amid long bouts of inconsistency through 2002 when a shoulder injury sidelined him. Somewhat understandably, the Blue Jays under GM J.P. Ricciardi non-tendered Carpenter and wanted to bring him back on a minor league contract. Carpenter instead signed with the Cardinals knowing that a torn labrum would keep him out for the entire 2003 season. He chose to go to St. Louis to work with pitching coach Dave Duncan and manager Tony LaRussa, both of whom were known to work wonders with pitchers whose results had previously been a fraction of their talent level. It was an investment on both ends. The Cardinals wanted to hone Carpenter’s latent abilities and Carpenter wanted to learn from baseball’s resident miracle workers.

Duncan rebuilt Carpenter’s mechanics and altered his mentality. His absurdly good control and movement on as many as six different pitches—four seam fastball, slider, curve, cutter, sinker and changeup—coupled with the new focus and confidence crafted one of the best pitchers in baseball between 2004 and 2011. He won the NL Cy Young Award in 2005; finished 3rd in the voting in 2006; and 2nd in 2009.

Of course mixed in with all of that, he still missed significant time with a variety of injuries including Tommy John surgery, an oblique strain, shoulder/biceps issues, and thoracic outlet syndrome that has probably ended his career. His injuries weren’t to the same area of his body. His entire upper body broke down at one point or another.

The most amazing thing about Carpenter isn’t that he recovered from the injuries, rejuvenated his career to the degree that he became a Cy Young Award winner and post-season ace, but that he kept coming back like an unstoppable killing machine from a series of Hollywood horror movies. He was certainly the stuff of nightmares for the Phillies and Rangers in the Cardinals’ 2011 run to the World Series. His complete game shutout outdueling former Blue Jays teammate Roy Halladay in game 5 of the 2011 NLDS may wind up being seen as the catalyst for the Phillies’ decline, currently underway.

For Carpenter to contemplate retirement because of pain speaks to the level of agony he must be in when he tries to pitch. Considering the number of injuries he recovered from and repeatedly rose to the top of his game again and again, he combined durability, determination, great stuff, and a massive pain threshold to fulfill the potential that made him a first round draft choice when his career should have ended years ago as another case of prospect burnout.

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Phillies 2013 Success Hinges on Halladay, Hamels and Lee

All Star Game, Award Winners, Ballparks, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Here are the facts about the 2013 Phillies:

  • They’re old
  • They’re expensive
  • Their window is closing
  • Their system is gutted of prospects
  • Their success is contingent on their top three starting pitchers

With all the ridicule raining down on Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. for his acquisitions of players who are frequent targets of attacks from the SABR-obsessed in Delmon Young and Michael Young (no relation that we know of), the reality of the situation dictates that the Phillies go all in with players who are the equivalent of duct tape.

It’s the epitome of arrogance to think that the Phillies aren’t aware of the limitations of both Youngs; that they don’t know Michael Young’s defense at third base is poor and, at age 36, he’s coming off the worst season of his career; that they aren’t cognizant of the baggage the Delmon Young carries on and off the field when they signed him for 1-year and $750,000. But what were they supposed to do?

They needed a third baseman and their options were Michael Young and Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis hasn’t distinguished himself on and off the field over the past several seasons and Michael Young was cheaper (the Rangers are paying $10 million of his $16 million salary for 2013).

They needed another outfielder and they were left with the dregs of the free agent market like the limited Scott Hairston, who’s not any better than what they’ve already got; signing Michael Bourn, giving up a draft pick, paying Scott Boras’s extortion-like fees, and having two speed outfielders with Bourn and Ben Revere; trading for Vernon Wells; or signing Delmon Young. Delmon Young hits home runs in the post-season and that’s where the Phillies are planning (praying) to be in October.

This isn’t about a narrative of the Phillies being clueless and signing/trading for bad or limited players. It’s about working with what they have. Amaro isn’t stupid and he tried the strategy of building for the now and building for the future in December of 2009 when he dealt Cliff Lee for prospects and replaced him with Roy Halladay for other prospects.

Amaro, savaged for that decision, reversed course at mid-season 2010 when he traded for Roy Oswalt and then did a total backflip when he re-signed Lee as a free agent. The team has completely neglected the draft for what appear to be financial reasons, leading to the high-profile and angry departure of former scouting director Chuck LaMar.

The decision was tacitly made in the summer of 2010 that the Phillies were going to try and win with the group they had for as long as they could and accept the likelihood of a long rebuilding process once the stars Halladay, Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were past their sell-by date. The signings made this winter are not designed to be lauded or viewed as savvy. They’re patchwork in the hopes that they’ll get something useful from the Youngs; that Utley will come back healthy in his contract year; that Howard is better after a lost season due to his Achilles tendon woes.

As for the open secret that the Phillies no longer think much of Domonic Brown to the level that they’re unwilling to give him a fulltime job and are handing right field to Delmon Young, this too is tied in with the Phillies gutted farm system. Perhaps it was an overvaluation of the young players the Phillies had or it was a frailty in development, but none of the players they’ve traded in recent years to acquire veterans—Jonathan Singleton, Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud, Lou Marson, Jason Donald, Carlos Carrasco—have done anything in the big leagues yet. They wouldn’t have helped the Phillies of 2009-2012 much, if at all. Outsiders can look at Brown’s tools and his minor league numbers and wonder why the Phillies are so reluctant to give him a chance, but in his big league chances, he’s appeared limited and overmatched. There’s a similarity to Cameron Maybin in Brown that his assessments are off-the-charts until he’s actually with the team and they see him every day, then they realize that he’s plainly and simply not that good. The Phillies know him better than anyone and if they don’t think he can play every day, then perhaps he can’t play every day.

The 2012 Phillies finished at 81-81. Even with their offensive ineptitude for most of the season, with a healthy Halladay would they have been a .500 team or would they have been at around 90 wins and in contention for a Wild Card?

This is the last gasp for this group. Manager Charlie Manuel just turned 69 and is in the final year of his contract. Within the next three years, they’re going to be rebuilding with a new manager and young players. In the near term, it’s down to the big three pitchers.

The ages and wear on the tires for Halladay and Lee are legitimate concerns for 2013 as is the shoulder issue that Hamels had last season, but regardless of how the offense performs, the Phillies season hinges on how those aces pitch. If they don’t pitch well, the team won’t win. If they do pitch well, the team will be good for three out of every five days with Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen.

The Youngs, Revere, Howard, Utley, Rollins—none of it matters if they hit at all. It’s the starting pitchers that will determine the Phillies’ fate. Everything else is just conversation.

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