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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Talk of the Phillies’ Demise and Fire Sale is Premature

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Too much is being read into random comments from invisible sources as to the Phillies’ intentions at the trading deadline. If indeed the Phillies have yet to send scouts to have a look at any players they might have interest in—Chase Headley, Carlos Quentin, Zack Greinke, Huston Street, Francisco Rodriguez—it doesn’t indicate that they’re not open to adding any of those players. The truth is that much of the scouting that goes on for name players is done to make sure they’re healthy. How much information that they don’t already have is going to be gleaned by following Greinke around for the next month? Not much.

So too is it silly to interpret the rumor that GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is calling around to see what the market is for Cole Hamels as a definite sign that Hamels will be traded. Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard are expected back within the month and Chase Utley is just getting back into the big league swing.

They’re 11 games out of first place. That’s hard to make up. But they’re only 6 ½ games out of the Wild Card lead and there are two Wild Cards to shoot for in a mediocre National League. Unless they’re trailing by double digits in all three playoff possibilities at the end of July and their veterans aren’t performing, they’re not going to unload Hamels and Shane Victorino for the sake of it.

For a veteran team with an already gutted farm system, it makes little sense to start building for the future when they’re locked in with heavy contracts for Howard, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon. There will not be a full housecleaning in Philadelphia no matter the circumstances.

Just for the record, understand this: THEY’RE NOT TRADING LEE!!!!

If they’re asking for the moon in a trade for Hamels, they’re going to have a hard time getting it with the pitching that’s likely to be available in Greinke, Ryan Dempster, the under-team-control Matt Garza and Jason Vargas. The talk that Amaro let it be known that he wants four to five prospects—four to five!!!—is tantamount to calling the Nationals and asking for Bryce Harper and the Angels for Mike Trout. There’s no harm in asking, but it’s not going to happen.

Given their poor season and the new draft rules that limit the amount of money that can be spent in the draft, the Phillies might be better-served to keep Hamels and Victorino and take the draft picks after the season if they depart. A bad year for the Phillies—say 75-87—would net them somewhere between the 8th and the 12th pick in the 2013 draft. Combine that with the compensation picks for other teams signing Hamels and Victorino and they’re in position to bolster their flagging farm system and have money to improve the big league club.

Don’t be so quick to think the Phillies are dead and that a fire sale is pending, because it’s not.

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Amaro Will Double Down

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In this MLBTradeRumors posting linking a Jim Salisbury piece on CSNPhilly.com, Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is quoted as implying that there’s a possibility that the Phillies could be sellers at the trading deadline rather than the big ticket buyers they’ve been over the past five years.

In that time, the Phillies acquired Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. Amaro is in on anyone and everyone and is willing to gut the farm system to get them.

The 2012 Phillies are ravaged by injuries and playing terribly. Could Amaro really decide to make wholesale changes by dealing Shane Victorino and Cole Hamels?

Forget it.

If he did, he wouldn’t get a ton for either. In fact, somewhat surprisingly, he’d extract more for Victorino than he would for Hamels because Victorino would be an easier signing to keep. Hamels wants to get paid and an interested team would have to give up the prospects to make it worth the Phillies’ while, simultaneously aware of what it’s going to cost to sign Hamels as a free agent.

It’s far more likely that Amaro doubles down and tries to fix the club’s problems by trading for a bat and/or bullpen arm (Carlos Lee, Denard Span, Carlos Quentin if he ever plays, Brandon League); or signing someone (Oswalt) than for him to concede the season.

Amaro tried the “win now and build for the future” approach when he traded away Lee in the series of trades that brought Roy Halladay and several prospects back to the Phillies in December of 2009. It hasn’t worked out yet.

At mid-season 2010 with the club floundering at 48-46 and 7 games out of first place on July 21st, there was talk that pending free agent Jayson Werth would be traded with a deal sending him to the Rays supposedly in place.

Fate stepped in as Victorino got hurt and, with no other capable centerfielder on the roster, they had to keep Werth.

Under siege for having traded Lee, Amaro took the unusual step of essentially admitting his mistake and bolstered the starting rotation by trading for Oswalt.

From there, they went on a 49-19 tear to finish at 97-65 and win the NL East again. They lost in the NLCS to the Giants.

The Phillies are still selling out their games. With the extra Wild Card, their starting pitching and the eventual returns of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, Amaro won’t toss the season unless they’re 20 games under .500 as the trading deadline approaches.

That’s not going to happen.

There won’t be a sell-off. In fact, Amaro is probably willing to deal the Phillies’ remaining marketable prospects (Domonic Brown, Phillippe Aumont, Trevor May) to get help.

Considering the advanced age of their roster and the rapidly closing window to win with this current group, it makes no sense to build for the future. They’re heading for a long lull of rebuilding. There’s no reason to exacerbate it by giving up on 2012.

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