Why the Phillies Were Mistakenly Caught Halfway Between Much-Needed Fire Sale
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How long has it been since the Philadelphia Phillies were in the position of selling off talent at the trade deadline, rather than adding players?
Was it 2006, when Bobby Abreu was dumped to the New York Yankees for four nondescript minor leaguers with little to no hope of reaching the majors?
After that season, Philadelphia began its run of five consecutive division titles. The team went on to win a World Series championship in 2008. Ruben Amaro Jr. then replaced Pat Gillick as general manager. The Phillies followed up with another trip to the World Series, but lost to the Yankees. Winning the NL East and making a deep playoff run had become a formality.
So for the Phillies to play far below expectations and become sellers at the trade deadline to salvage a lost season was a position Amaro was completely unfamiliar with as an executive. Perhaps that's why he couldn't manage the extensive sell-off that the team needed to retool and reload for a return to success next season.
Fire Sale? What Fire Sale?
To be fair, Amaro was never going to hold an outright fire sale.
The Phillies were expected to contend for yet another NL East title or make the playoffs as a wild card, at the very least. Unfortunately, many things went wrong at the same time, resulting in a horribly disappointing season. Injuries, poor performance, misguided roster construction and bad managing all contributed to the downfall.
But winning was always the expectation. The Phillies had the second-highest payroll in baseball. Philadelphia fans packed Citizens Bank Park, providing the Phillies with the highest average attendance this season. (The Phillies led MLB in average attendance last year as well.)
With that kind of support, along with the high-priced veteran talent on the roster, a complete dismantling of the team was never going to happen.
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Anyone thinking the Phillies were going to break up the band surely felt otherwise after Amaro signed free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels to a six-year, $144 million contract extension that made him the second-highest paid pitcher in baseball.
A team looking to rebuild doesn't hand out a contract like that. And Hamels wouldn't have re-signed with the Phillies if he thought the team was going to undergo a reconstruction centered around an ace starting pitcher.
Avoid That Luxury Tax
However, trimming payroll was definitely a consideration for Amaro. From all accounts (including this one from CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury), Amaro's priority was getting the Phillies under the $178 million threshold that would trigger a luxury tax.
That would have cost Philadelphia a 20 percent tax for every dollar over $178 million. The tax would go up to 30 percent if the Phillies exceed the $178 million threshold again next season.
If the Phillies were on their way to another division title and looked like a contender to win the National League pennant, perhaps Amaro and team ownership would have been willing to pay that luxury tax. But suffering that kind of penalty for a last-place team with no shot at contention was unacceptable.
To get the payroll under $178 million, Amaro had to get rid of some money. However, he didn't have to slice a drastic amount from the team's player budget.
Not Far Enough?
But did Amaro take the sell-off effort as far as he could have? Should he have tried to trim even more money from the Phillies' payroll?
Trading Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence accomplished the objective of getting payroll under the luxury tax threshold. Pence was particularly important because the salary he would have gotten through the arbitration process was projected to be $14 million (based on his $10.4 million salary this year).
That money could be used to either fill multiple holes on the roster or sign a better player. The Philadelphia Daily News' David Murphy points to Carlos Beltran as an example of a highly productive player who was signed for less money per year. Beltran signed a two-year, $26 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals before this season.
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However, if that's the philosophy, how many other holes could be filled with the more than $100 million owed to Cliff Lee over the remaining four years (including a club option) of his contract?
Signing a center field upgrade over Victorino (such as Michael Bourn) and a lower-cost starting pitcher to replace Lee could be accomplished with that money.
That's presumably why rumors of Lee being traded were buzzing right up until Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET deadline.
The Phillies spoke publicly of fielding a playoff contender with a rotation led by Roy Halladay, Lee and Hamels. But if another team like the Texas Rangers was willing to make a deal for Lee—especially if a coveted third base prospect like Mike Olt was involved—the Phillies surely considered making a move.
But even without dealing Lee, Amaro could have sold off other pieces to pare more payroll.
Joe Blanton was almost traded to the Baltimore Orioles, though the O's supposedly balked at having to pay the $3 million he still has to be paid this season. Without that, what would be the point of trading Blanton?
How about trading Ty Wigginton and the $4 million option on his contract for next season? Teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates needed infield help.
Juan Pierre doesn't make an excessive amount of money ($800,000 this season), but what role could he play for the rest of the season? The Phillies need to give Domonic Brown as much playing time as possible, in order to see if he has a future in Philadelphia or can be traded elsewhere. Pierre would be of far more use to a team like the Cincinnati Reds, who need a leadoff hitter.
Where's the Future?
Some of these failed trade connections can be revisited before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline. And a bigger deal involving Lee could be made during the offseason.
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Amaro has to renew those efforts because he didn't get enough in the deals he made.
The Phillies got a couple of pitching prospects as well as a pair of major league contributors who could help the team next season. They may have also gotten their catcher of the future.
But Amaro didn't get the young center fielder or third baseman, each ideally close to ready for the majors, that he wanted from such trades.
Maybe those players won't be available until after the season. If they are, however, Amaro has to do what he can to fill those needs on his roster. Otherwise, he may get to try another fire sale at next year's trade deadline.
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