After a 73-89 season, the Philadelphia Phillies should be in rebuilding mode. Instead, led by general manager Ruben Amaro, the front office continues to fancy itself a title contender.
Just a week after handing Marlon Byrd a $16 million contract, the Phillies have re-signed catcher Carlos Ruiz to a three-year, $26 million contract, according to Matt Gelb of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The moves signal a win-now approach by a front office that inhibits a team with little shot of competing in 2014.
At 34 years old, Ruiz is coming off a poor season, yet was afforded a substantial raise on his 2013 salary of $5 million. In 92 games, the veteran catcher produced a .688 OPS, good for 11th among catchers with at least 90 games played in 2013. The contract will keep Ruiz in Philadelphia through the 2016 season.
When the World Series concluded, Philadelphia's offseason approach was unknown. Would it retool? Did Amaro have enough in the farm system to acquire a young impact player like Giancarlo Stanton or David Price? Was it time to finally give credence to a rebuild by trading veterans like Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins?
After spending $42 million on a pair of older, flawed hitters, it's clear that the Phillies are lost.
Just months after finishing behind the Braves, Nationals and Mets in the 2013 NL East standings, a clear picture has not emerged within the Phillies offices. If it had, the team would not be spending millions of dollars on multi-year contracts for players that won't be part of the next contending club at Citizens Bank Park.
Unfortunately for Phillies fans, the current approach is delusional and poised to delay a rebuilding process that will soon become the work of another executive. That work becomes more burdensome every time Amaro hands out another head-scratching contract. As of the Ruiz signing, the Phillies owe Ryan Howard, Byrd, Ruiz and Jonathan Papelbon a combined $54.5 million in 2015, per Cot's Baseball Contracts. That quartet combined to provide 8.8 wins above replacement (per Baseball-Reference) in 2013. If age or injury plagues that group over the next two seasons, the Phillies could be spending more than $50 million on four below-average performers.
Of course, the problem isn't with Byrd or Ruiz. In a vacuum, both players can help winning clubs by providing power, clutch hits and leadership. Unfortunately, those attributes will be lost on a club that doesn't have enough high-end talent on the roster to play meaningful games in August or September of 2014 or 2015.
This past season, Byrd was a major contributor to Pittsburgh's playoff push, and Ruiz has been a key member of winning teams in Philadelphia since becoming a starter during the 2007 season. If clubs like, say, Pittsburgh or Kansas City gave veteran contributors those types of contracts, it would be understandable. The risk of overpaying or signing a player past his expiration date would be justified by trying to put a young, rising roster over the top and into October.
In Philadelphia, "young" and "rising" were words associated with Phillies teams circa 2006 and 2007. After dominating the National League East for years, capturing a World Series title and making annual appearances in October, the window is closed in Philadelphia. Yet, the franchise continues to pry it back open under the delusion of winning in 2014.
Over the last two seasons, the Phillies have lost 170 games, a feat matched or surpassed by only 10 teams in baseball. Outside of the Blue Jays, a club that is attempting to compete in 2014 after an injury-plagued 2013, none of the other losing teams (White Sox, Twins, Mariners, Astros, Mets, Marlins, Cubs, Rockies and Padres) have attempted to add veteran pieces to their 40-man rosters this early in the offseason. By understanding their place on the win-curve, those teams will try to improve with an eye toward the long-term future.
Right now, it's clear that the focus is on short-term title hopes in Philadelphia. If it wasn't, Byrd would still be on the open market and Ruiz wouldn't have garnered a three-year contract after a poor year.
Even before any other true contender acquires a free agent or makes an impact trade, the Phillies are still behind Washington, Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Los Angeles in the National League hierarchy. Their recent activity on the free-agent market is moving the Phillies within striking distance of mediocrity, but still realms from contending for a title anytime soon.
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