Here's a projection of what the offseason holds for the newly realistic Phillies
The Phillies say they won't contend for a couple of years. Hey, it was news to them. So, with free agency set to start, what now?
Today is the last day of the World Series, which makes tomorrow the first day of the rest of our lives…or, rather, the first day of the rest of the Phillies life, when they will officially emerge from this afterbirth of a season and nuzzle up to the nourishing teat of baseball's offseason. Yeah, let that image marinate for a little bit.
The free agent signing period begins five days after the last day of the World Series. Barring a rainout, that will be Nov. 4.
So, what should you expect?
The bits and pieces that I have seen and heard over the last couple of months leads me to this two-word psychological profile of the Phillies' front office triumverate (Ruben Amaro, Pat Gillick, David Montgomery): Realistically desperate. As recently as late June, when the Phillies won five straight games against the Braves and the Cardinals, I would have used the words "delusionally hopeful" (although the red squiggly underline thing on spellcheck suggests the first one is not a word).
Keep in mind, Amaro spent last offseason describing himself as "bullish" on his club's prospects, which you might have dismissed as salesmanship if the Phillies did not then sign A.J. Burnett to a big salary on the even of spring training. The Phillies very much thought they had the pieces to win, and, quite frankly, there were some random pieces of reality that suggested such a belief was well-gounded. This seems remarkable in hindsight, but they were actually one game over .500 as recenlty as July 19 of 2013. In fact, on that date, the Phillies were a respectable 87-75 over their previous 162 games. This, despite Roy Halladay duct taping himself together every fifth day and a bullpen so awful it could have applied for federal disaster relief. When Amaro pulled the trigger on Charlie Manuel in August of that year, I really think he thought there was something to save, if only the boys could capture some of that ENERGY and LIFE and HUSTLE and RIGHT-WAY GAMEPLAY that Ryne Sandberg was peddlin'.
And from that point on, Amaro and Co. had little choice but to defend that belief. After all, once a man goes on record with a conviction that opposes popular sentiment, it doesn't take long for that conviction to become pathological. And so we arrived at a third straight July with the Phillies under .500 and the playoffs looking like an extreme long shot. We listened to management declare that the mighty P does not start over, that their fans will have none of it. It had the feel of a homeowner standing on a pile of rubble in the wake of a storm, vowing defiantly, "We will not rebuild!"
I'm not sure when, exactly, it changed, but by the end of the season there had been a marked shift in tone. The Phillies were contemplating cutting Ryan Howard in the offseason, one report said. Chase Utley was getting more time off. Maikel Franco was starting at third base.
It would not surprise me if Utley's decline played a significant role in snapping the Triumverate back to reality. On June 20, when the Phillies were 3.5 games out of first place after the aforementioned five-game winning streak against the Braves and Cardinals, Utley was hitting .305/.368/.472. Over the last 87 games of the season, from June 21 to Sept. 28, he hit just .241/.315/.353 with six home runs in 320 at bats. Before the slump, there were still some fractured pieces of reality for a determined mind to stitch into something comforting. If somebody else could get going (Howard, Domonic Brown, Grady Sizemore, hell, anybody), and if Cliff Lee could get healthy, and if the bullpen could continue to right itself...
Yet one of the biggest blindspots of the Amaro regime throughout its six seasons at the helm has been the Underestimation of the If. If John Mayberry, If Ben Francisco, If Jim Thome, If Howard's heel and Halladay's body and Adams' shoulder. In baseball, the If will always kill you, just like it will always kill the gambler, because the House always wins, and, in baseball, Father Time is the ultimate House. And Utley proved to be no different. . We wrote about this kind of thing in 2013, before the Triumvirate signed him to a contract instead of looking to trade him. He finished the year with the worst totals of his career in virtually every significant category: OBP (.339), slugging percentage (.407), ABs per home run (53.5), walk percentage (8.0).
And while I have little faith in any of the metrics that attempt to quantify performance in the field, his defense, particularly his arm, is flunking the eye test.
At some point, the front office reconnected with reality. Perhaps there was a come-to-Jesus moment with a faction of the ownership group. David Montgomery is the general partner and makes all of the final decisions. The ownership group appointed him to do that. That's how limited partnerships work. But the partners still have vocal chords. And by the end of the season, it was impossible for even the most vested of optimists to ignore the reality of the Phillies roster.
Over the last couple of weeks, you've witnessed what feels like an orchestrated greasing of the skids for an offseason of radical change, starting with Pat Gillick's acknowledgement that the Phillies will not contend again until 2017 or 2018, which was news only because it was news to them (Gillick did not credit any of us for originally breaking that story).
So what does that tell us about the Phillies plan? I've said before that I am a firm believer that human nature tends to follow the Most Rational Path (MRP), and while the Triumvirate has deviated from the MRP more than enough to challenge that theory, it sounds as if they are ready to err on the side of reason.
So what do teh Phillies view as their MRP for this offseason?
In the coming days, we'll further explore the complex nature of each piece of the following prescription. For now, consider this the road map:
1) Trade Jimmy Rollins to one of the several teams willing to take on his $11 million salary for 2015 (Best fits: Yankees, Dodgers, Athletics, Mets). Don't expect much in return. Run Freddy Galvis out there for one last look as a regular short stop before resigning to the fact that he is a career utility man.
2) Agree to eat half of the $17.5 million remaining on Carlos Ruiz's contract in order to facilitate a deal for a useful young bottom-of-the-rotation or bullpen arm (Best fits: Red Sox, Rangers, Pirates). Replace Ruiz with Cameron Rupp.
3) Agree to package Domonic Brown with Jonathan Papelbon in exchange for greater salary relief in a trade (say, $7 million of the $13 million owed him in 2015, which would put the acquiring team on the hook for a two-year, $20 million commitment if Papelbon's 2016 option were to vest). Replace Brown with Grady Sizemore.
4) Use the $22.5 million saved in 2015 and the potential $17.25 million saved in 2016 (see: Papelbon's option) to fund the first two or three years of an offer to Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas.
5) Trade Marlon Byrd. For what? Who knows.
6) Invest the Byrd savings and the remaining $25 million or so in original payroll flexibility in the rotation, starting with Japanese righty Kenta Maeda, whom Amaro personally scouted last month. Nick Cafardo of the Boston globe speculated that the 26-year-old Maeda could land a six-year, $120 million deal, but that seems like a dramatic overestimation, given the availability of a trio of more proven arms on the free agent market (James Shields, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester), and this scouting report from Baseball America that pegs Maeda as a No. 4 starter, above which there are plenty on the market (Edison Volquez, Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana, Jason Hammel).
7) Use any remaining money to invest in a pair of one-year deals for bounce-back pitching candidates who could develop trade value. Examples: Justin Masterson, Brandon Morrow, Paul Maholm, Wandy Rodriguez.
8) Give Cody Asche two months at third base and Darin Ruf two months at first base and Maikel Franco two months at Triple-A before taking the final step into the new era, with Franco replacing either Asche at third or Ruf at first whenever he can safely be promoted without risking an extra year of arbitration.
Again, this is not necessarily my view of the proper course. Rather it is the path that is most rational from the Phillies' perspective, given what we know about their psyche. For example, I would try like hell to trade Utley for something of value, but the Phillies have been hesitant to do so, and they aren't going to give him away strictly to invest his money into some other asset (they'd give Rollins away if forced to choose).
In addition, I'd expect the Phillies to continue to search for a mammoth return for Cole Hamels, who, judging by the teams on his no-trade list, is more than open to a move. But it will be difficult to land such a return with all of the starting pitching options available on the free agent market. Also, there is supposed to be a power-hitting Korean short stop who will become available, but given the greater understanding of the Korean market that other teams have displayed in recent years, it is hard to imagine the Phillies competing there. And, finally, as you all know, and on which you all have made your thoughts very well known, I wouldn't give Domonic Brown away for nothing.
If all of this happens, I think the Phillies would consider their offseason a success. And if Tomas and Maeda and Franco live up to their billing, and if J.P. Crawford continues to develop the way he has, and if Aaron Nola is the No. 3 or No. 4 starter the Phillies thought they were drafting, and if Hamels stays healthy, and if the next couple of June drafts result in two more smart Top 15 picks, then you can certainly see a team that struggles in 2015, features enough young talent to at least warrant watching in 2016, and and then entertains serious thoughts of contending in 2017.
Just remember what we said about If.