It’s not an identical situation, but it is eerily similar.
By now, the Phillies’ rebuild was supposed to be long over, and at least a few more playoff appearances should have been added to the franchise resume.
You don’t jump from 24th to fifth in the player payroll department over a five-year period expecting to be stuck on a .500 (or slightly worse) hamster wheel. But that’s where the Phillies find themselves on this Fourth of July weekend. Instead of being free from perpetual mediocrity, they are a fourth-place team that is wasting the prime years of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Aaron Nola, and Zack Wheeler.
If all this sounds familiar, you obviously remember the last time the Phillies brought in a guy with a Hall of Fame resume to head up their baseball operations and then lived through the nauseating start to the 2006 season. Phillies managing partner John Middleton undoubtedly wanted to recreate the magic Pat Gillick brought to Philadelphia, but he would have preferred to skip the part where the Phillies were seven games under .500 heading into the All-Star break during the GM’s first season.
Shortly after being hired, Gillick announced that the Phillies were only five wins away from a playoff spot the year before his arrival and that he felt they could make up that deficit in his first season. They were actually only one win behind Houston in the wild-card standings and two wins behind Atlanta in the N.L. East in general manager Ed Wade’s final season.
The first half of Gillick’s first season went so poorly, however, that the new GM conducted a salary dump at the trade deadline with the primary move being a deal that sent Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the New York Yankees for nothing of significance in return. And then he added this depressing comment after completing the deal: “Realistically, it’ll be a stretch to think we’ll be there in ’07.”
Wait until the year after next year is the last thing a win-starved fan base wants to hear.
Phillies president Dave Dombrowski’s version of the Gillick preseason edict came after he convinced Middleton to re-sign Realmuto to a five-year deal worth $115.5 million a few weeks before the start of spring training.
“There’s just too many good players on the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team to be thinking about transitioning,” Dombrowski said. “We’re thinking about winning. That’s what we’re going to try to do. I don’t know why we can’t compete to win.”
Now, with the July 30 trade deadline fast approaching, Dombrowski must decide how he is going to handle the underachieving work of his players and manager Joe Girardi.
Does he pull the plug on the 2021 season by trading veterans Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, and Odubel Herrera? Moving Segura would free up $15 million for next season. Does he do something even more drastic and deal first baseman Rhys Hoskins, who leads the team in home runs but is also a primary target of fan discontent.
And, of course, there’s the radical idea of dealing Aaron Nola, which would bring the best prospect return while also giving the Phillies another $15.5 million to spend next season.
It’s also possible, of course, that Dombrowski does none of the above and opts to make some lesser deals in an attempt to improve the bullpen in the hope that the Phillies can save their season in the second half.
That scenario exists only because the Phillies play in the National League East, a division filled with flawed teams. The division-leading Mets entered the weekend averaging 3.57 runs per game. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates at 3.49 were worse. Washington, with a recent surge fueled by the power of Kyle Schwarber, has climbed above .500 and into second place, but their lineup lacks depth, and their once dominant starting rotation is thin after Max Scherzer.
Atlanta still has the best lineup in the division, but its bullpen has a higher earned-run average than the Phillies’ cast of relievers. The Marlins, of course, always seem to find a way to beat the Phillies, but they were 30-43 against the rest of their schedule before Monday.
Being in such a rotten division could convince Dombrowski that doing nothing drastic either as a buyer or a seller is the best way to go, and maybe he’s right. It’s not an unreasonable thought that the Phillies could be in first place if the back end of their bullpen had been better, and that possibly can be fixed at the trade deadline.
The fascinating thing about Gillick’s work 15 years ago is how it all turned out. The strongest voice in the clubhouse the day the Phillies traded Abreu to the Yankees was Chase Utley. Even though Gillick pulled the plug on the season, Utley insisted that the Phillies still had plenty of reason to play.
“I think this will motivate the guys who are still here,” he said. “I believe we still have a very strong team. We have 58 games to go. There’s still a lot of baseball.”
The Phillies went 36-22 in their final 58 games and ended up with the fourth-best record in the National League. They actually had a better record than the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the World Series, proof that anything can happen if you can get into the postseason. Baseball, of course, has been filled with those kind of stories during the wild-card era.
We all know what happened for Gillick, Utley, and the Phillies in 2007 and the season after that. Dombrowski will need to be really good and especially lucky to repeat that slice of serendipitous franchise history.