Should the Philadelphia Phillies Trade Their Starting Pitchers Before They Age?

Ryan WolcottContributor IIDecember 31, 2012

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 28: Cliff Lee #33 of the Philadelphia Phillies delivers a pitch against theMiami Marlins at Marlins Park on September 28, 2012 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Jason Arnold/Getty Images)
Jason Arnold/Getty Images

In an offseason where the Philadelphia Phillies have had to focus on filling several holes after a disappointing regular season, there have been many rumors and transactions proposed to the Phillies by teams seeking one of their aces. 

Before the July 31 trade deadline, Cole Hamels was one such target by teams seeking to improve their pitching staff.  The Texas Rangers were rumored to be in on a trade that would send Hamels to Arlington.  The same rumors circulated involving sending Cliff Lee back to Arlington.

After the trade deadline had passed, the Los Angeles Dodgers had claimed Lee off of waivers before the Phillies had removed him from the trade waivers.  The Phillies are largely built around their strong pitching staff.  Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. had said that trading Lee would be a bad move after having given Hamels the lucrative extension on July 25.  Amaro has built a team around having a strong pitching rotation, and dealing one of the three aces would be counterproductive.

That has not stopped teams from approaching the Phillies about a possible trade for Lee, however.  During the offseason, the Phillies have needed to fill a hole at third base, the back end of the bullpen and essentially all outfield positions, particularly center field.  The Phillies essentially could have filled all three outfield positions this offseason, which did not guarantee players for any of those positions.

The Phillies did acquire Ben Revere in early December, filling their hole at center field, but creating a hole in the pitching rotation, as the trade cost the Phillies pitcher Vance Worley.  The Phillies also traded for Michael Young, who will fill the team’s need at third base.  Shortly before Christmas, the team also signed relief pitcher Mike Adams to fill the hole in the bullpen and John Lannan to fill the hole that Worley left.

Throughout the offseason, there have been rumors of teams offering deals for Lee that would certainly fill a need for the Phillies in the outfield.  One such trade was from the Arizona Diamondbacks, who proposed a trade sending right fielder Justin Upton to Philadelphia and Lee to Arizona. 

The Phillies are lacking right-handed power hitters and a guaranteed right fielder.  The team is also lacking young players, and Upton, at 25 years old, would fill all of those needs.  The Phillies did not bite on that deal, however, even though they would love to acquire Upton, just not for Lee.

The Boston Red Sox likewise offered a deal for Lee that would send Jacoby Ellsbury to Philadelphia.  That would also fill the same needs for Philadelphia, excepting that Ellsbury is a left-handed hitter.  That deal, too, was never one the Phillies seriously considered.

In the recent years, the run-scoring ability of the Phillies has lessened.  The runs scored each season by the Phillies have gone down since the 2009 season.  In 2009, the Phillies scored 820 runs.  That total was down to 684 runs with the 2012 season.  This also happened to be the same season where the Phillies pitching had suffered. 

Usually, teams who score less can still win ball games if they can keep the other team from scoring.  The Phillies had been able to do that, as their team has gradually been built around their rotation.  However, if the rotation is failing to do its job as effectively as it once did, that poses a serious question the team needs to face: Should the Phillies trade their pitchers while they still have value enough to bring a player or players back who can provide offense?

All of the deals that have been proposed seem to focus on Cliff Lee.  That is largely due to him having less years due on his contract than Hamels and being more of a guarantee than Roy Halladay after Halladay suffered his worst season since 2007.  Halladay is coming off of an injury-plagued season, and he will soon be 36 years old.  Many fear that we are seeing his decline after having a 2012 season where he went 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA, 36 BB, 132 K and a 1.222 WHIP.

Halladay has apparently changed his offseason approach, which he claims will make the difference.  A lot of teams are probably fearful that he has started to decline or that his injuries will effect his 2013 season.  That may be why he is not the subject of much trade speculation. 

There are a few things to keep in mind about Halladay however.  He is a competitor, and he will do everything in his power to not only return to where he was in 2011, but go beyond that.  If there is anybody who believes that Roy Halladay is not on the decline, it is Halladay himself.  We should keep in mind that we are only one bad, injury-plagued season away from the best season in his career, where he went 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA, 35 BB, 220 K and a 1.04 WHIP and eight complete games.

Halladay did have a terrible 2012 season.  The injuries could be seen to have effected him even in the spring.  Some people noticed how many breaking balls he had thrown in the early season, which caused some concern for his shoulder before the injury was made apparent in late May.  Halladay at this point will not carry as much trade value as he once did, and probably still deserves, until he starts throwing in spring training. 

In 2012, we only saw one month where Halladay was pitching like the Halladay we all know and expect.  The Phillies remain optimistic about his return to his normal pitching ability, but ultimately, time will tell with that. 

Halladay did appear to be somewhat himself again in August, when he pitched to the tune of a 3.32 ERA and when hitters batted .238 against him.  One thing we should all keep in mind is that nobody works as hard as Halladay does.  He will be focused on returning to ace form this offseason.  The Phillies cannot afford for anything else with a team built pitchers, and Halladay would not allow himself to become a sub-par pitcher.

Despite coming off of the 2010 season where he threw a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter, Halladay’s 2011 season was perhaps the best of his career.  Halladay very well could have won the 2011 Cy Young award had Clayton Kershaw not had the pitching triple crown that year.  The 2011 pitching staff for the Phillies is the best pitching staff in all of baseball since 1990, but we will come back to that shortly.

Cliff Lee suffered a fate that was usually suffered by Cole Hamels, where he received no run support.  Lee was perhaps the unluckiest pitcher this year, having only had a 6-9 record with a 3.16 ERA, 28 BB, 207 K and a 1.114 WHIP.  Lee also suffered some from injuries after he took a shutout through 10 innings against the San Francisco Giants

His record this season does not do justice to how well he played.  Lee was basically lights-out through the month of September, where he posted a 1.05 ERA in six starts and allowed five earned runs and had 44 K in 43.1 innings pitched.  We should expect nothing less than that from Lee in the next season as well.

Cole Hamels was the ace of the staff in 2012 with a 17-6 record and a 3.05 ERA, 2 CG, 2 SHO, 52 BB, 216 K and a 1.124 WHIP.  This was the best season of Hamels’ career thus far.  He was also the recipient of an extension, keeping him in the peppermint pinstripes for many years to come.  Hamels was steady throughout the season, which says something, because he was perhaps the only player who was, other than Carlos Ruiz.

Overall, these three pitchers should not be going anywhere.  Amaro has built the team around these aces.  They collectively are only one year away from their 2011 season where they were the best team since 1990 in things that they can control.  This is referring to a specific statistic: FIP.  FIP measures things directly within the pitcher’s control, which are strikeouts, walks and home runs and removes the variables of the quality of defense and the luck of the batter. 

In the 2011 season, the Phillies had a 2.98 ERA, which is better than any other team in the time period of 1990-2011.  The closest team to them within that time period is the 1997 Atlanta Braves, who posted a 3.30 ERA in this category.

There are several factors as to why the Phillies were only 81-81 this season, and starting pitching is not the leading cause to why they finished the season this poorly.  During this season, the Phillies lost 13 games after the seventh inning, which was due to a poor and inconsistent bullpen.  The Phillies finished tied for last in the majors in that category this year. 

Even if the Phillies had been able to hold onto 10 of those 13 games, we may be talking about a different season where they ended up finishing 91-71 and making the playoffs.  The Phillies hope to have plugged that hole with Mike Adams, who has been one of the most consistent bullpen arms since 2007.

The Phillies also suffered from a lack of offense this year, with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard having missed substantial time due to injuries.  The Phillies did not have both of these players back until July, and Howard was never back to 100 percent during any point of the season.  The Phillies traded away two major offensive players this July, which allowed for the young players to step up and prove themselves.  The Phillies finished the season 36-24, which was the best in baseball.

The Phillies finished strong this year and have filled some glaring holes this offseason, particularly at third base and in the bullpen.  If the Phillies can hold onto more of their late leads and get more production out of third base and the now healthy Utley and Howard, they should have no reason to trade the players the team is built around. 

Michael Young will bring a great deal to the team, both as a leader and as a producer.  Young drove in more runs than anybody on the Phillies in 2012, except Carlos Ruiz and Jimmy Rollins.  2012 was an off year for Young, but even if he brings the same production that he did in 2012 or returns to the 106 RBI 2011 season he had, the Phillies stand in a much better position.

The Phillies do not need to trade their starting rotation pieces.  The Phillies do not have the players who are ready to step up and fill the starting pitching rotation.  The Phillies pitchers suffered a bit of a hiccup this year due to injuries and increased pressure.  The team was built around the strength of its rotation, and the rotation is still and will remain the strength of the team.  

The Phillies need their players return to their normal form, which they can do.  The Phillies need to be in a position where Jimmy Rollins does not have to be the leader in home runs and RBIs.  The pitchers need to focus on returning to their normal ability, and the core players need to focus on remaining injury free and producing runs. 

The pitchers had a lot of weight on their shoulders in 2012 while they were missing the major pieces of Utley and Howard and should be able to return to their 2011 form with the glaring holes now filled and the injuries now healed.


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