There’s something discouraging about seeing Freddy Galvis back in a Phillies uniform.
Not that he isn’t a perfectly adequate big-league shortstop (he is), or that the fan base’s soft spot for him isn’t well deserved (it is), or that his acquisition from the Orioles came at a hefty price (it didn’t).
But as you watched him leaning on the rail in the dugout on Saturday afternoon in that red hat and white P, a short-sleeve warmup shirt hanging from his arms, you couldn’t help but feel like a disoriented hiker who’d spent the afternoon wandering around the woods, looking for a way out, only to end up back where he started. Man, you thought, I’ve been here before.
Really, though, we’ve never left. Not the Phillies. Not the fan base. Not those of us who recognized way back in Galvis’ debut season how treacherous a path the organization was walking. It was 2012 when the Phillies began their swift transition from perennial World Series contender to dime-store peddler of delusion and false hope. They went from denying the need for a rebuild to insisting that one could be orchestrated on the fly to making myths out of any player who arrived on the scene with an unfamiliar face and a youthful energy. Ken Giles, Aaron Altherr, Jerad Eickhoff, Cody Asche -- these were guys you could dream on.
Few of those players would end up personifying the era like Galvis, a wizard of a fielder who did a lot of the things that the old-school baseball followers had long yearned to see out of the Phillies and few of the things that had actually made them good. He played the game the right way, got his uniform dirty, ran out his groundouts with maximum effort. With his cherub-like face and infectious smile, he made you want to believe that the Phillies weren’t nearly as hopeless as objectivity suggested, that they were in the midst of a transition that was little more than the natural life cycle of a baseball roster, a changing of the guard, a turning over of positions from fat-and-happy 35-year-olds to the next generation.
That’s the thing about generations, though. There’s always a next one. But there are few products more perishable than the promise of youth. Between 2012-17, Galvis and the rest of the Phillies’ rotating cast of future journeyman would give you just enough moments to talk yourself into thinking that salvation might be a year or two away, until the years did as they do and became the next and the next until it’s December of 2017 and the Phillies have gone five seasons without winning more than 73 games and Galvis is 27 years old and muscular and grizzled and you can’t even talk yourself into believing in the guy he was just traded for.
Now, here we are, four years after the Phillies fired Pete Mackanin and hired Gabe Kapler and traded Galvis to the Padres for Enyel De Los Santos and moved on from Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp and signed Jake Arrieta and declared that the rebuild was over, that it was time to spend money and win. Here we are. But where, exactly, is that? Two games under .500, 4 1/2 games outside of first place, the former manager out in San Francisco with the best team in the sport, the current manager facing the same batch of criticisms, the other four teams in the division having made the playoffs at least once, three of them having reached the NLCS, two of them having appeared in a World Series, all within a six-year stretch that was supposed to see the Phillies capitalize on a painful yet deliberate organizational reset. It’s August of 2021, they have a payroll pushing $200 million, a four-year record pushing .500, and now Galvis is back in town, along with a couple of pitchers who might as well be named Jeremy Hellickson and Tommy Hunter.
Again, none of this is a knock on Galvis, who is the type of marginal improvement that could win them the extra game or two they need to win a division that all four teams seem determined to lose. It isn’t a knock on Dave Dombrowski, who on Friday made a pair of perfectly justifiable moves in acquiring Galvis from the Orioles and Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy from the Rangers in exchange for pitching prospects Spencer Howard, Kevin Gowdy and Tyler Burch. Rather, it’s a reminder that the Phillies have spent the last decade running in place above woodchips, trapped on a hamster wheel that will continue to return them to the beginning until they figure out a way to draft and develop prospects who end up becoming cost-efficient, playoff-caliber major-league players instead pieces of trade packages that mostly serve to kick a can of disbelief slightly further down the road.
There’s a dark sort of humor in the fact that the Phillies’ acquisition of Gibson, Kennedy, and Galvis came one day after the Dodgers positioned themselves to walk away with the National League by acquiring Max Scherzer and Trea Turner from the Nationals. The Dodgers were in a position to make such a move because of the economic and competitive advantages bestowed upon them by their success in developing players like Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager and Will Smith and Walker Buehler and Julio Urias and Phil Bickford and Victor Gonzalez. Six months ago, Spencer Howard was the Phillies’ answer to those players. On Friday, he was traded for a 33-year-old No. 4 starter.
Therein lies the lesson of this year’s trade deadline. The Phillies got better. Or, at least, they got a little less worse. But until they get a steady cycle of legitimate young talent flowing through their minor league system and feeding this big-league roster, they will be resigned to the position they’ve occupied for the last four years, selling themselves on the fictitious notion that August and September might yet be won.