In The Art of War, the famed military general Sun Tzu wrote, “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.” With this in mind, we take a look at the offseason strategies of all the teams in the National League; which players they are losing, which players they intend to pursue, and what their long-term plan is to either make the team a contender or keep the team in contention well into the future. Today, we take a look at the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the not too distant past, The Phillies sat atop the baseball world. After usurping the Mets in September of 2007, they reeled off a string of 5 straight NL East titles from ’07 to 2011. They won the World Series in 2008, the pennant in 2009, and a league-high 102 games in 2011. But their fall from grace has been equally as swift as their rise. Projected by multiple experts to win the East again in 2012, they had a rash of injuries to core players like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Roy Hallady, and at the all-star break, found themselves 13-games under .500. However, they surged in the second half, battling their way to an 81-81 record, and several baseball pundits saw them challenging for the NL East crown in 2013.
As it turned out, that was not the case. Very little went the way of the Phillies this year; their highly-paid veterans, Howard, Halladay, and Jimmy Rollins, whose salaries together accounted for more than a third of the Phillies $140 million payroll, together produced -0.1 bWAR. Howard and Halladay were injured and ineffective the entire year, and lefty Cole Hamels, recipient of a $153 million extension last July, was 4-11 with an ERA over 4 at the all-star break. The newcomers brought on to right the ship, Delmon and Michael Young, struggled along with the rest of the team, combining for -2.2 bWAR thanks in large part to their horrid defense. All in all, they finished 73-89, in 4th place in the division, their worst finish and record since 2000, when they still played in Veterans Stadium. They fired long-time manager Charlie Manuel, and replaced him with Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.This offseason, the Phillies must decide whether they should take only last run at success with their aging core, or tear down the team and rebuild for the future.
Thus far in the offseason, it appears they have chosen the latter. This week, they made two major moves; they re-signed soon to be 35-year old catcher Carlos Ruiz for 3 years and $26 million, and added right fielder Marlon Byrd for 2 years and $16 million. Individually, these moves aren’t egregious mistakes. The Phillies lacked an heir apparent to Ruiz (the closest is 21-year old catcher Tommy Joseph, who had a .514 OPS last year across 4 levels, and was hampered by the ill effects of a May concussion), and Ruiz is a solid player. He had an outlier age-33 season that saw him post career highs in almost every offensive categories, but even at his career levels, he is an above-average offensive catcher with a solid glove that makes him a useful player. The price is not outrageous, and though the Phillies would likely have preferred bringing Ruiz back on a two-year deal, Ruiz has largely avoided heavy workloads in his major league career (averaging only 114 games in his last 7 years as a starter) and thus may not age as poorly as one would expect a 35-year old catcher to.
Byrd, one year after contemplating retirement, somehow became one of the best right fielders in the National League in 2013. In 147 games with the Mets and Pirates, Byrd had a .511 slugging percentage, besting his career high by 32 points and placing him 5th in the NL (the only time in his career he has ever finished in the top ten). Moreover, his 5.0 combined bWAR made him the most valuable right fielder in the league. Of course, there is little proof that he is capable of performing at this level again, but in this pitching-dominated era, power is at a premium, and a 2 year deal for $8 million a year isn’t going to sink the Phillies, even if it goes horribly wrong.
But these signings speak to an organizational philosophy that seems incapable of blowing up the old core and moving on. Now, there are two reasons for this. First, the Phillies may be attempting to raise their average age to the point where the entire team gets a discount at the Golden Corral. But seriously, maybe the reason the Phillies are not rebuilding is because they lack the tools to do so. As an organization, they lack pieces that they could trade in exchange for prized prospects. Aside from Cliff Lee, none of the highly paid veterans on the roster (Rollins, Howard, Hamels, etc.) have much trade value, if any at all. And in order to shed themselves of Howard in particular, they would likely have to either absorb a great deal of the contract, or take on another expensive contract. The Phillies do not have the ability to easily deconstruct the roster they have created. Thus, the best option this offseason is to sign another starting pitcher, improve the team in any way possible, and hope for the best.
The Phillies had themselves a run of success unlike any other in franchise history. But all that success had a cost; in order to keep the core together, they had to saddle themselves with expensive contracts for players on the decline. Between those contracts and a farm system left barren by years of lower draft picks and win-now trades, the Phillies find themselves in a tough position, knowing they need to rebuild but lacking the ability to do so. So the Phillies continue to add on, hoping to recreate the magic of 2008 just one last time.