Astros serve as warning for Phillies
So far, Houston is proving that acquiring prospects for veterans might not be best way to rebuild.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. - For nine innings yesterday, Pat Gillick and Ruben Amaro Jr. watched their nightmare from the front row.
It was 4 1/2 years ago that the Astros officially began a full-scale rebuild by trading away Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. Over the next few seasons, Houston methodically replenished its stock of young talent with a series of well-reviewed trades and top-10 draft picks. Yet, as Gillick and Amaro sat behind the screen at Osceola County Stadium for the Phillies' Grapefruit League game against the Astros, they watched a team that still has little idea whether it will ever be any good. The line between prospect and suspect can feel like a cavern, and it is in that space where Houston resides.
All day, Gillick and Amaro watched as the Astros strode to the plate and stepped on the mound. Jonathan Singleton, Jonathan Villar, Jake Marisnick, Mark Appel, Collin McHugh. The ghosts of drafts and trade deadlines past. Today, we know them as Blake Swihart and Mookie Betts. The next time the Astros break .500, we might not know them at all.
This was always the strongest argument against a complete implosion of the roster. Throughout the last couple of years, whenever Amaro or former president David Montgomery addressed the notion of blowing it up, they did so with an undercurrent of, "Be careful what you wish for." The suggestion that the Phillies were victims of sentiment is a legitimate one, but their attachment to their aging core was strengthened by an understanding that prospects are called prospects for a reason. There is a big difference between prospective victories and actual ones. The Astros finished with 70 of the latter variety, 19 more than they finished with the year before but 18 fewer than they needed to qualify for the postseason.
That's not to say that the joke is on the Astros. The Phillies won three more games, and they were trying. If Astros GM Jeff Luhnow offered to swap rosters, Amaro would obviously accept. The point is, this kind of thing is almost always slow and painful and much more difficult than it sounds.
Singleton might very well turn into the type of impact player the Phillies feared they were trading away when they dealt him for Hunter Pence in July 2011. But he is not that type of player yet, and his first season in the majors did nothing to decrease the uncertainty: 134 strikeouts and 13 home runs in 310 at-bats with a .168 batting average and a .620 OPS. Villar, whom the Phillies shipped to Houston in the Roy Oswalt trade, has a .629 OPS in 530 plate appearances. Domingo Santana, another piece of the Pence trade, went 0-for-17 with 14 strikeouts in his first stint in the bigs.
All of this works better as an argument for why the Phillies should have started the process a couple of years ago, a point Gillick has conceded in several interviews over the past couple of weeks. Instead of watching Cliff Lee take his first step toward reviving his trade value with a couple of scoreless innings yesterday, Gillick and Amaro could have been watching the prospects they would have acquired for him in 2013. At the same time, if Amaro had swung the deal everybody wanted him to swing with the Rangers in 2012, they'd have little to show for it. Remember Mike Olt? He's projected to open the season on the Cubs' bench.
Maybe there is a question to consider that is more relevant to the Phillies' future than one that concerns what they should have done in the past. Maybe that question is this: Is the veterans-for-prospects model outdated? Does it offer any hope for a rebuilding team? We've heard a lot of talk from the Phillies about their desire to "build a new core." But given the attrition rate of prospects, what are the odds that a team acquires four hitters and a couple of pitchers who all reach the major leagues and succeed at the same time?
Over the last year or so, we've seen three of the more progressive organizations in baseball trade away young, core-type players. Two years ago, the Red Sox sent 23-year-old shortstop Jose Iglesias to the Tigers. This offseason, the Rays sent 24-year-old outfielder Wil Myers to the Padres, while the Athletics traded 29-year-old third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays. All of those players were at least 4 years away from free agency. Granted, the financial situations of the A's and Rays impact their decisions in ways that the Phillies should never need to consider. But when the Cubs acquired lineup cornerstone Anthony Rizzo, it wasn't for a veteran; it was for pitching prospect Andrew Cashner. When the Cubs began their own rebuild in 2012, Jeff Samardzija was one of those guys an organization might have eyeballed as a core-type player. The Cubs have yet to contend, and Samardzija is already gone. It's something to keep in mind over the next few years with regard to players such as Maikel Franco and Ken Giles. Every offseason: Are they worth more on the roster or on the market?
Whether or not there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, teams such as the Cubs and the Astros offer a pertinent reality check for a fan base that has been offered 2018 as a target. A lot will have to break right to hit it. But, then, Amaro and Gillick have always been aware of that.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy