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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Biggest Lies are the Ones that We Tell Ourselves

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro should heed this advice.  As one area columnist put it this morning, quoting Bill Parcells, "You are what your record says you are." 

So Ruben Amaro is telling himself that despite a frequently anemic offense and a bullpen that has Venus de Milo stand-ins are members, the Phillies somehow can contend for a wild-card berth.  Rest assured, Amaro is not alone in his thinking.  Callers into local sports-talk radio stations who either don't follow the Eagles or cannot admit that their baseball season will have an unhappy ending also are arguing that with a few of the right additions the team can contend.  They point to 2007, where the team unloaded veteran OF Bobby Abreu near the deadline and actually played a lot better.  They think that the starting pitching will continue to toss quality starts, that the bullpen will improve and that the offense will get better.  So, they want to be buyers, and they don't want to give up.

It's admirable that no one wants to give up, so to speak, and it's better to be a buyer than a seller, because that means that you are in contention.  But with ESPN's Jayson Stark offering that this year is one of the worst buyer's markets in history, it makes all the sense in the world to evaluate whether it makes sense to be a seller and the effects on the near- and long-term if the team is a big seller now or not.  So, here goes.

1.  Reasons to be a big seller.  First, the team already is at a disadvantage, because one of the best opportunities they could have had was to try to peddle Cliff Lee to a desperate Rangers' team whose window is closing for a title.  The Rangers gave up at least one very good prospect (3B Mike Olt) to the Cubs for Garza.  It says here that the Phillies would have gotten more from the Rangers, perhaps not the mother lode they coveted in 2012, but more.  Having dispensed with that, let's look at the problem statement -- the team is trying to rebuild itself so that it can contend again as quickly as possible.  It's had a steady decline since '08, going from World Series champion to not making the playoffs in '12 (getting older and more injured).  Its offense has declined, its starting pitching has improved, but its bullpen has plummetted. 

So, you have a nucleus of the following few:  OF Domonic Brown, SS Jimmy Rollins (he's still one of the best SS's in the game) and starting pitcher Cole Hamels.  You also have some very nice parts in C Carlos Ruiz (whose contract expires after this year and who, despite not-so-great results, still has enough reputational value to draw serious interest), 2B Chase Utley (a rumored Utley to Oakland deal could bring 3 prospects, and his contract expires, too), 3B Michael Young (viewed as a nice piece and veteran leader), P Cliff Lee (he could really make a difference for any team and could put the right team over the top) and closer Jonathan Papelbon (in a bit of a slump, but still a very elite closer who could draw several prospects).  Doing the math, you could draw for this crowd 9-12 prospects, at least half of whom could be in the Baseball Prospectus top 101 (even if at the back end).  That nucleus -- a good mix of position players and pitchers -- could leave you fortified to rebuild quickly, assuming that some of the few minor-league prospects you have actually pan out.  You'll also have a lot of money available, as you won't have the contracts of Lee, Utley and Papelbon (who make a collective $45-$50 million a year).  And, perhaps you'll have a (finally) healthy Ryan Howard to begin next season (after two years of struggling).  Sure, Howard won't be the Howard of old, but at least he'll be healed.   In two years, you'll have great competition for jobs and a chance to do some damage.  Clean house, the reasoning goes, shed contracts, get prospects, perhaps sign a few free agents, and, voila, you'll get younger and more formidable.

Yes, you might suffer at the gate.  You're already suffering this season, and you'll definitely suffer next season.  But. . . you're going to suffer this season more most likely anyway.  And, if you do that, you'll suffer next year under the other scenario because you'll be a year older and creakier.  So, the gate should not be a huge consideration -- it's going to be bad for a number of years.  Under this scenarios, perhaps fewer than under the next one.

2.  Be buyers.  You only go around once in life, so you should go for it, and building for the future is for the teams that never get there.  You have a fan base to honor, a loyal fan base, and one that will walk if they have to watch Freddy Galvis and John Mayberry, Jr. in the lineup too much together.  Buy veterans, who cares if you get older now, and who cares if you give up some of the top prospects (they aren't that good, anyway, as only one is in the top 101 of Baseball Prospectus).  Fortify the bullpen, get another bat, and then watch the Braves and Nationals wilt and then win enough to get to 86 wins and get the second wild card.  Then toss Lee, Hamels and perhaps a healthy Roy Halladay out there, and you'll have a good chance.  Look, the Cards teams that have won it recently got hot at the right time and weren't all that good, so this team will have a chance, even if it means getting nothing for Ruiz and Utley and keeping Michael Young.  Yes, you will not get all of the prospects suggested above, but you'll keep your gate in check, make a good run, keep the fan base excited and worry about the next three-to-five seasons after this season.  Ruben Amaro always has something up his sleeve, you'll still have a lot of room on the payroll, and perhaps we can pick the right cornerstone free agents and build a new team with just them and not with all of the additional prospects we could get, too. 

No, we cannot suffer at the gate this eason, and next season is a different day.  We have a great stadium and good fan base, so we don't expect to fall much below the loss of 8,000 fans per game we suffered this year, even if the team is older, creakier and worse.  We'll still get a pass for a few years as we straighten things out, and who says that we'll have a drought of more than a year or two anyway? 

There are some big assumptions with both strategies:

1.  Who knows which free agents will be available and whether ownership can lure them to the Bank?
2.  Teams will be willing to trade very good prospects for some of our pieces.
3.  If we trade Cliff Lee, the team to which we trade him will take all of his salary.
4.  If we make trades now, we'll be able to get some bullpen help without giving up a lot.
5.  People will give us serious prospects for each and every piece.
6.  Lee's and Papelbon's most recent (and disastrous) performances haven't diminished their value.

There also aren't some big assumptions, but some givens:

1.  The Phillies' farm system is not very good.
2.  The gate has suffered, so it stands to reason that if there is no significant improvement, it will suffer worse.
3.  The team is getting older, and, as it has aged in the past, injuries increase.
4.  The Phillies will have much less in contract obligations after this season.
5.  It's vague as to which Roy Halladay will return in August and whether he will return this season.

So, which way do you go?  You're in second place, but you're about 7 out, and that's just in your division.  The wild card spots seem to be more of a reach.  You're older, but the NL isn't that strong a league.  It's a seller's market, so you could get overpaid for your players. 

It's a tough call, but Ruben Amaro gets paid to make them.  If he were to ask me, I would advise "sell," because I think that it's somewhat delusional to think that as currently constructed this team can make a serious run for a World Championship.  And, given it's age, it's time to sell and start the rebuilding process.  I don't think that when Pat Gillick unloaded Bobby Abreu in '07 that he figured he'd win the World Series that quickly (in '08).  Correspondingly, it stands to reason that the sooner you move forward, the faster you'll have a chance to make a deep run in the post-season.

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