What Will Phillies Look Like on October 3rd?

Will Brown Be Patrolling Center?

The Phillies play their last game of the season on October 3rd.  It’s beginning to look more and more like that will be the last time we see the 2012 Phils.  The first half is officially in the books.  The 36-45 Phils are off to their worst start since 1997 and are miles back in the division.  More than the numbers, it’s the product you see on the field every day that makes you lose hope.  If the Phillies had life, if the aces were all firing, maybe you could talk yourself into a 50-31 2nd half and a shot at that 2nd wild-card, but the team isn’t showing any signs of life.  Each Cliff Lee start is worse than the one before and every time you think they’re at rock bottom–another sweep awaits.  So, where will the Phillies go this July, a month that will most likely shape Ruben Amaro’s tenure as GM?

Amaro’s strength as a GM has always been his conviction, his willingness to make big moves.  But, you could argue that many of those moves were not strenuous in terms of degree of difficulty.  Signing your own veterans and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the free agent market are transactions that most GMs could have accomplished.  Even Ed Wade could have dropped 50 million on Papelbon–no problem.  But with the Phillies stuck in last place, with a good portion of his bloated payroll on the DL, Amaro is faced with decisions that will be far more nuanced.  In those terms, Amaro has been far from stellar.  Aside from Juan Pierre, his off-season adjustments this year have provided few dividends.  On the occasion he was the one selling a star for prospects, most people feel the Phillies got short-changed.  Up to this point, Amaro has proven he can shove cash into a slot machine and hammer the “bet max” button.  This month, he’ll have to show something else.  

I give Amaro credit for getting anything in return for Thome and Qualls, but those aren’t franchise shaping moves.  They aren’t even indications of a white flag.  Thome, unable to play first base at all, was a waste of a roster spot in the NL.  Qualls, quite obviously, couldn’t get anyone out.  But no matter the results those two players weren’t going to make or break this season, and they certainly don’t play any role in 2013 and beyond.  The next several decisions Amaro makes will likely determine the Phillies’ strategy for the next few seasons and seal his fate as the GM.  He’ll either be able to side-step the landmine that 2012 has become, or he’ll be gone as well.  Maybe not as abruptly as his manager, but his day could come soon enough.  

I’ve long argued that it was an overreaction by Amaro that triggered the events that led us to where we are today.  Amaro went pitching crazy post-2009 and now that the pitching has mostly failed him, the team cannot prop itself up.  But, 2012 has been a strange year, it really shouldn’t be this bad.  It’s likely that if the Phillies brought back this rotation for 2013 the results would be significantly better.  So, would a sell-off be another overreaction?  Would signing Hamels, making some small adjustments and going to war with pitching again be the team’s best chance in 2013?  

Publicly, Amaro will take that stance.  He’ll preach his continued commitment to this season and to Cole Hamels.  He won’t rule out bringing back Pence and Victorino.  He’ll speak with optimism about Howard and Halladay, but below the surface, things are in motion.  The way I see it, Amaro has three choices.  He can be patient and/or write off 2012.  He can try to buy his way out of this, or he can blow it all up–Flyers summer ’11 style.  

If the Phillies had an unlimited budget they could, I don’t know…Sign Hamels, dump Lee to get out of his contract by picking up a portion of the expense, replace Victorino with a high-priced free-agent, sign a one-year veteran to play 3rd, overhaul the middle-relief and they’d be set for 2013.  I’d call that a “Yankees off-season.”  But, the Phillies don’t have an unlimited budget.  Trading Thome and Qualls prove they have concerns about their payroll.  They’re trying to save hundreds of thousands at this point, not even millions.  The days of Amaro spending his way out of trouble appear to be over.  Forget that option.   

I already touched on the patience route, the Phillies could just hope 2012 wasn’t their year.  Try to get healthy, get a little more lucky, make some small moves and go back to work.  Declining skills seem to be the main roadblock for this strategy.  If all the stars weren’t on the wrong side of 32, if this had happened in 2009, or 2010, you’d probably be smart to wait it out.  But, at this point, you’ve got to think that even a healthy Howard, Utley and Halladay aren’t going to give you what they once did.  

That leaves the fire sale, channeling Homer when he finally got sick of looking at Carter and Richards and turned the launch key.  I’m not sure if this is what Amaro will choose, but if he does, I wouldn’t call it an overreaction and you could see his reasoning.  If he tries to patch this team again and fails, he’s likely gone.  If he blows it up, and convinces the owners to give him the reins, it should buy him at least a couple of more years.  The only question is, how far does he strip it down?  

I’m not going to run the payroll numbers, but if I was sitting in Amaro’s chair right now, committed to trading off pieces, I’d get rid of the following:

  1. Lee
  2. Victorino
  3. Pence
  4. Wigginton
  5. Pierre

I don’t know what kind of value Cliff Lee has, but I’d be hoping he catches fire sometime between now and the end of the year.  At that point, I do whatever it takes to get rid of him.  His contract is far too long, for far too much money.  That money should be going to Cole Hamels.  If the Jays can save themselves 80 million by trading Vernon Wells, then there should be a home out there for Cliff Lee.  

Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence are both too expensive for their roles, which ideally is something like your 3rd or 4th best offensive player.  Pence has been a butcher in right field and Victorino’s play in center will only tail off in the future.  Bringing these guys back in 2013 would probably mean 20 million at the minimum.  We can do better than that for that price.  The other guys are just thrown in, but really any veteran that can be moved, should be moved.  

No Lee, no Pence, no Victorino, no Polanco and no Blanton means about 60 million freed up.  Twenty of that, in a back-loaded deal would go to Hamels.  That leaves you 40 million to fill CF/RF,  3B and 1 starting pitcher.  You’d hope that in dealing these guys  (most likely Pence), that you’d get a future starter at one of these positions.  So, say that’s one of the outfield spots.  That means 40 million to fill CF/3B and a starting pitcher.  What if the Mets don’t pick up David Wright’s option?  You could sign Michael Bourn.  You could go crazy and take a run at Josh Hamilton if you wanted to, but the point is, at least you’d have options.  And, if you couldn’t get the right big name, you could focus on short-term deals with a veteran or two to hold you over.

If the Phillies stand pat, the options seem to be re-signing Hamels and fielding the worst starting 8 you’ve ever seen (a Brown/Pence/Mayberry(?) outfield and a stiff at 3B), or cutting Hamels loose, adding maybe one bat (or sticking with Shane) and living with a rotation where your ace has to come from two guys (Halladay and Lee) who are both well over 30, both hit the DL this year, and are a combined 4-10 with a 4+ ERA.  

I don’t necessarily want the Phillies to sell.  I’m waiting for the miracle.  Maybe they will win 50 games in the 2nd half.  They’re not mathematically out of it, right?  But it’s the logical point of view that the Phillies have to make some big changes, because they’ve sacrificed way too much flexibility.  When Howard went down, when Utley couldn’t play and they couldn’t pitch you’ve seen they have no options–no way to get better.  It may not be possible to get it all done by 2013, but a sell-0ff has to at least brighten your hopes for the years to come.  Even it means staring at this starting eight on October 3rd:

  1. Rollins
  2. Luna
  3. Brown
  4. Kratz
  5. Mayberry
  6. TBD Prospect from Pence Trade
  7. Fontenot
  8. Galvis (In a Back Brace)
  9. Cloyd