SAN DIEGO - A curiosity. That's the best way to categorize the Phillies' standing here at baseball's annual winter meetings. Like most offseasons, this one has its market-setters and its scrap-hunters and its retoolers. But the Phillies are a class unto themselves, which is why nobody seems to know what course they will end up charting.
Never before has a team built like the Phillies attempted to deconstruct itself in one offseason.
Oh, we've seen teams throw in the towel before, but never the way the Phillies are attempting to throw it, and certainly not in the environment in which it will need to be thrown.
This is a team that finished last season with one of the top-five payrolls in the game, a team that has more money on the books for 2015 than all but four teams, a team whose general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., was swearing at this time last year that he was "bullish" on his roster's prospects for the upcoming season, and who had already signed a 36-year-old outfielder and a 35-year-old catcher to multiyear deals, and who was balking at the notion of a complete rebuild as recently as June of this year.
The shorter version is that the Phillies are attempting to go from 100 mph to reverse in less time than any franchise in recent memory. Further abetting their attempted change in momentum is the unprecedented weight that teams are placing on near-major-league-ready prospects. In July, Amaro scoffed that teams were overvaluing their prospects, but yesterday he conceded the only point that matters: value is relative, and the eye of the beholder is the arbiter.
"Overvalue is an interesting word because this is a world we live in now, where prospects are viewed differently than in the past," Amaro said. "That's probably the better way to view it. We have to make adjustments off of that. We're aware of it. It's common enough now to know that's the way the industry works."
That is probably as accurate of a market assessment as Amaro has ever offered. One can argue that the GM has always had a realistic gauge of the nominal value of prospects. Thus far, the Phillies have received much more major league production from Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence than any of the prospects traded for them. Even the Pence trade has yet to completely blow up on them: The careers of Jon Singleton and Domingo Santana are still far more projection than actualization. In real terms, though, prospects are worth whatever they can purchase in the current market. And if teams really do overvalue prospects, then imagine what Singleton, Santana, et al could purchase in the current market. That has always been the argument against some of Amaro's moves. Was it necessary to acquire Pence, or could the Phillies have sufficed with a patch like Josh Willingham while also retaining high-ceiling prospects capable of landing cheaper, more controllable, more future-oriented players? Why did the Phillies trade away Lee and then 7 months later trade away prospects for an older, more expensive, less productive version of Lee? What would have happened if they had kept Lee and then used the prospects they used to acquire Oswalt to acquire something else that might have helped them avoid an NLCS loss to the Giants?
The shorter version: Do teams currently overvalue their prospects, or did the Phillies undervalue them in negotiations for Halladay, Oswalt and Pence?
The spectrum between those two extremes is what makes the Phillies' current situation so fascinating. We know that they have commodities that other general managers value. Chase Utley would be the best second baseman remaining on the market. Cole Hamels would be in line for one of the largest contracts, if not the largest contract, of the offseason if he was a free agent.Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins - all of them have value. Problem is, they don't have upside. And upside is what teams seem to value most at this point. The perfect case in point is the recent trade between the Blue Jays and the A's in which Oakland sent third baseman Josh Donaldson to Toronto in exchange for infielder Brett Lawrie and a couple of mid-level prospects. A few years ago, the acquisition of Donaldson might have required a top-10 position prospect (which, ironically, is what Lawrie was a few years ago). Now, though, teams are hoarding upside. The question is whether the Phillies can adapt to that, or even exploit it.
Yesterday, Amaro sounded remarkably confident when talking about the discussions he has held with other teams. On the opposite side of the room, manager Ryne Sandberg used the word "anxious" when asked how he felt about the uncertainty of the hand that will be available for him to play next year. Curious, anxious, whatever: The Phillies are a huge hot stove wild card.