Last November, the Philadelphia Phillies had found themselves in one of the most enviable positions in all of sports.
They had just won a World Series Championship and followed it up with a repeat, albeit unsuccessful, trip to the Fall Classic. The organization possessed a tremendous nucleus of talent just entering their prime.
For years, Citizen's Bank Park has continued to be filled to capacity with energetic, passionate fans. And, despite trading away a handful of prospects to acquire one of the very best pitchers in the game the previous summer, the Phillies organization was still loaded with top notch prospects.
The future seemed bright. The present seemed even brighter.
Then the Phillies brain trust, with General Manager Ruben Amaro in the public forefront, began making decisions that seemed more rooted in economics than athletic acumen.
Surely, economics are a large part of modern day professional sports, but it can be argued that it's better to take some one time financial hits than to lose prime-aged, winning talent. The latter is much harder to come by and contributes to earning back the lost dollars associated with writing off some ill-advised decisions.
With injuries, and those previous decisions, the Phillies find themselves currently in a much less enviable situation. The 2010 season seems to be unwinding around them as losses mount and the deficit grows— while everyone anxiously awaits for the team's annual second half surge to kick in.
Unfortunately, the vibrant, winning baseball that punctuated the previous three seasons post-All-Star performances seems nowhere to be found. At this point, the Phillies appear to be a team headed nowhere but home to watch the postseason.
Yes, there is still time to catch fire and capture a playoff spot, but the overall aura of the club increasingly suggests that it is unlikely. Manager Charlie Manuel has continued to talk about the team needing a spark, yet new box scores come and go with no ignition in sight.
The minor league pipeline is no longer bulging with the prospects to acquire another Cliff Lee to light the fires of hope and propel the team on a victory run through the pennant stretch.
And, importantly, Amaro and the Phillies seem poised to compound previous questionable decisions with another questionable decision—once again rooted in economics.
One way or another, last December's trade of Lee was prompted by economics. The Phillies were wary of giving him a large, long-term contract and/or felt they could not afford the luxury of carrying his $9 million 2010 salary on an already bloated payroll.
Of course, previous questionable economic decisions such as the lucrative contracts handed to Jamie Moyer, Raul Ibanez, and Joe Blanton were key contributors to the expanded payroll and ultimately the decisions around Lee.
The Phillies find themselves in a similar situation now as 2009 All-Star right fielder Jayson Werth nears free agency. Because of the predictable void left by dealing Lee last winter, rumors abound that Amaro might be looking to trade Werth to get prospects to acquire a quality starting pitcher.
The line of thinking goes that the Phillies have a future star in Dominic Brown waiting in the wings to take Werth's spot.
This is flawed thinking and is driven once again by economics.
Brown should clearly be taking Ibanez's place in the everyday lineup—not Werth's. Anyone would be hard pressed to find an argument otherwise and here are the main reasons why:
1. Werth is a better player than Ibanez in every aspect of the game— hitting, power, fielding, throwing, and running.
2. Replacing Werth with the left-handed hitting Brown makes an already left leaning lineup further imbalanced. The lack of a slugging righty in the middle of lineup would almost surely be a fatal flaw easily exposed by the opposition.
3. Werth is just entering his prime, whereas Ibanez is nearing the end of his career.
4. Werth is much more versatile than the left-field only Ibanez as he can play all three outfield positions and even catch in a pinch.
5. Werth has been in a funk for a couple months, but the probability of him breaking out are tremendously greater than Ibanez, who's "slump" has now reached a year.
6. Werth has been money in the postseason—Ibanez not so much.
The best scenario for this season and the next few years would be to sign Werth to an extension and form a talented young trio of outfielders. The dilemma that Amaro and the Phillies organization have is that they are hamstrung by the aforementioned large contracts.
The thought of landing Roy Oswalt sounds enticing, but it also would seem to suggest that the Phillies are willing to raise their salary budget. If so, the Phillies could afford to re-sign Werth and take on Oswalt's salary if they were to find a way to trade Ibanez, Blanton, and fore go next year's option on JC Romero.
About the only way that happens is if the Phillies would agree to absorb salary expense on each player. It would be worth doing that rather than head down the slippery slope of tearing up a team built to win over the next few years.
It remains to be seen what it would take to pry Oswalt away from the Houston Astros. Perhaps Blanton could be packaged in the deal along with a couple existing prospects to land the veteran right-hander.
If not, the Phillies would be better off passing on Oswalt and concentrating on setting themselves up with a dynamic, balanced everyday lineup for the next few seasons. If that means taking some near-term financial hits, as painful as it might be, the Phillies should do it.