The Biggest Issues Philadelphia Phillies Must Address at the Trade Deadline
For the third consecutive season, the Philadelphia Phillies are going into the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline as a team that could, in theory, ship off some of its veterans in exchange for prospects who could help out the team in the future. Also for the third consecutive season, the Phillies have not firmly established themselves as definitive contenders or pretenders.
While the 2012 season—one that was considered an anomaly at the time—was the worst of the three, the Phillies have been a losing team and have spent more days in recent years with a losing record than within fighting distance of the top of the NL East division. It's led to the departures of Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, Michael Young and John McDonald over the last two years.
This season, while the murkiest of the three in what lies ahead, could be the most radical yet.
The Phillies are not getting any younger, and they aren't getting cheaper, either. It's why expensive veterans such as Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins and even Chase Utley, to an extent, are possibly available in trades.
This is a Phillies team without a clear road map in front of them. They have approached a fork in the road, yet they remain stuck there, indecisive on which road to take.
What needs to be addressed at this year's trade deadline? Plenty, ranging from players to personnel to prospects, both physically and metaphorically. Not only is the minor league system thin, but so are this team's hopes for future success. Here's a rundown of what exactly are the biggest issues the Phillies must address at the 2014 trade deadline.
Buyers or Sellers?
The most significant question of the present: Are the Phillies going to buy and try to contend, or will they sell off the few valuable pieces they possess to teams making runs at the postseason?
Just days ago, the resounding sentiment had been that the Phillies were a team that had nothing left. They sat at dead last in the NL East with no hopes of digging out of the cellar.
Then something strange happened: The Phillies won seven games out of nine. They swept the Atlanta Braves on the road. Their players seemed to have put some sort of spark together, even if it's only temporary.
Looks can be deceiving, though. Even if the Phillies are playing good baseball, they are not a good baseball team anymore. When a 34-year-old Ryan Howard, at $25 million a season, is still your cleanup hitter, you've got big problems on your hands. And when Domonic Brown, your key to infusing the future with the present, is batting .223 with a .604 OPS, you have even bigger problems on your hands.
The old guys will be inefficient soon enough. The young guns aren't up to the task of bringing this team to its former glory. And the Phillies are blind if they believe that a solid 10-game stretch protects them from an inevitably mediocre future.
The Phillies should establish themselves as sellers. Whether they choose to do so is up to them, but they need to make a decision either way and run with it. The time is now to improve this team, whether for this season or for years to come.
Sell High on Bullpen Pieces?
For years, the Achilles' heel of the Phillies has been the bullpen. It's why Jonathan Papelbon was signed to a record contract for a reliever before the 2012 season. At best, the Phillies have had one, maybe two dependable arms in their relief corps. The rest have been prospects trying to establish themselves or washed-up veterans trying to make one last name for themselves.
The 2013 season epitomized the disaster that has been the Phillies' bullpen woes. Papelbon seemingly blew more save opportunities than he converted. Mike Adams, the supposed saving grace for the eighth inning, was terrible, hurt or both. The rest of the crew was patch-up duty except Antonio Bastardo—that is, until the Biogenesis scandal saw him slapped with a 50-game suspension.
It was more of the same at the onset of the 2014 season, but the Phillies have embarked on an impressive run recently.
Dating back to May 24, the Phils bullpen has an ERA of 2.31 with a 78-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Papelbon only recently blew just his second save of the season and has an ERA of 1.59 on the year. And over the last two weeks, according to SI.com's Spencer Bingol, the Phillies have baseball's best bullpen ERA, FIP (fielding independent pitching) and xFIP (expected FIP), along with being tops in walks per nine innings and second to Miami in strikeouts per nine innings.
This run of bullpen success raises an intriguing question: Should the Phillies continue with their first solid—let alone half-decent—relief corps, or should they sell high on a bunch of overachieving misfits?
The good news is that this promise has lurked for a while—it's just a little late to the party.
Young relievers like Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman have long been expected to perform. Only now are they finally piecing everything together. Add flamethrower Ken Giles into the fold, and the Phillies have some promising young bullpen arms, so much that they could hold some decent trade value.
However, the only arm on the block should be Papelbon. His contract is enormous, and even if the Phillies have to eat most of it, they can get a more important prospect back in return.
Bastardo should be made available as well and traded if the deal is right, but the rest of the bullpen crew could form for the Phillies what other successful bullpens are made of: young, farm-raised arms that flourish in the majors at inexpensive rates.
Eating Salary to Facilitate Deals
Although it's been done before, the Phillies have avoided making certain trades due to their desire not to eat any salary in trades. It prevented them from trading Cliff Lee in 2013 when his value was likely at its highest, as teams like the Boston Red Sox were unwilling to offer top prospects if the Phillies didn't cover a decent chunk of Lee's remaining contract.
This season, though, the front office is singing a different tune. MLB.com's Todd Zolecki notes that Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is on record of stating that the Phillies will consider eating salary in trades. It might be the difference-maker in the team making any moves, so it's good PR, even if the Phillies don't live up to their word.
Nevertheless, it would make sense for the Phillies to swallow some of their contractual obligations.
Players like Lee and Jonathan Papelbon have decent money owed to them, potentially through 2016. Marlon Byrd isn't cheap if he's a desired commodity; the same goes for A.J. Burnett. And if some AL team has decided to sell its soul to the devil and inquire about Ryan Howard, eating money would make trading him at least somewhat feasible.
It's strange that the team has averted this procedure in recent years. The only reason they won a World Series was by eating Jim Thome's contract to promote Ryan Howard and to get Bobby Abreu's monstrous contract off the books. It's not a move most teams want to make, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
That Amaro is at least demonstrating a willingness to take on remaining salary obligations is promising toward an arguably successful deadline plan. Hopefully he'll follow through.
Prospects or Payroll?
Building off the last slide, the Phillies must make a priority between two options. One of them is to acquire impact prospect depth that can help them going forward. The other is to remove contracts from the payroll to avoid surpassing the luxury tax, but also receive significant talent in return.
The only way to receive prospects with a major league future ahead of them is to trade players who are valuable but also reasonable in price. If a contract was an overpay to begin with, the only way to balance it out is to eat money to facilitate the deal. Refusing to do so still means a trade is possible, but one, it is much less likely, and two, any trade that might occur will net worse prospect talent as a result.
The Marlon Byrd trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates last summer is a prime example. Byrd was owed less than a million dollars in all of 2013. Consequently, the New York Mets, who traded Byrd away, were able to receive prospects Vic Black and Dilson Herrera. Both should be major league contributors, and despite Byrd's lack of monetary value, his production at such a cheap rate meant the Mets could reap the benefits.
Conversely, A.J. Burnett's trade to the Pirates from the New York Yankees netted two no-names, Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones. Because the Yankees did not eat a majority of the contract, all they got in return were two career minor league players.
The Phillies should want to be the Mets in this situation and not the Yankees. While it won't be as simple since the Phillies' assets are more expensive to begin with, they can negate their costs by eating salary and prioritizing prospect depth over payroll commitments.
Sure, it's no fun to pay for a player who isn't contributing to your team, but it makes sense if it means improving the team in the future. Speaking of which…
Rebuild, Retool or Repeat?
It's time for the Phillies to set a course. No, not just one for this year, but a plan of action for the next year, the next three years, even the next five years if it takes that long. They have three options:
Rebuild: The Phillies trade away anyone and everyone with value to trim the payroll and gain prospect depth. Even fan favorites like Cliff Lee and Chase Utley are dealt to work toward a promising future. It might take a few years to materialize, but it's what the team feels is the most logical solution.
Retool: The Phillies trade away their most valuable pieces while keeping their core intact. Calls will come in on Jimmy Rollins and Utley, but the Phillies will rebuff all offers. They will spend the next few seasons signing an occasional free agent and waiting for each new prospect to make an impact, though their emergence to the majors will be few and far between.
Repeat: Acquire players at the trade deadline as opposed to trading them away. Hope for a playoff run in October via a wild card or even division title. If they come close, make bold moves in free agency with hopes that the team will stay relevant going forward. Look to repeat the days of old that saw perennial division titles and playoff berths.
There is no right or wrong answer. Some are better than others, but all have their benefits and detriments. It's up to Ruben Amaro Jr. to decide what he feels is the best way to go.
Too much time has been wasted pondering the answer to this question. The Phillies must choose their own answer, their own destiny, and hope that it all works out.
After all, hope is the only thing that the Phillies have left.