From an injury standpoint, this spring has gone about as well as the Phillies could have hoped (except for Roy Halladay getting crushed on Tuesday by the Tigers). After a disastrous 2012, optimism has begun to regenerate throughout the Delaware Valley and beyond, with a handful of national baseball pundits adjusting their previously underwhelming expectations for this team accordingly. The key word there is some.
Perhaps by now you’ve read Jonah Keri’s scathing take on the Phillies from Grantland.com – titled “Blow Up the Phillies!” – which from a timing standpoint, almost seems like an intentional attempt at pouring cold water over the collective hopes of Phillies faithful. Keri takes a big-picture look at the Phillies, but his question basically boils down to the following:
“Four months from now, if Philly appears on its way to another mediocre season, should the team cash in their biggest trade chips for younger players who could help build a winning team for 2014 and beyond?”
Keri’s answer to that question is an emphatic yes – so much so that he implies that, in Ruben Amaro Jr.’s shoes, he would even consider moving the non-expiring contracts of Jimmy Rollins and Cliff Lee in addition to Halladay and Chase Utley, who will be free agents after this season.
Essentially, should the Phillies disappoint, Keri is advocating a July fire sale – not a retool, but a rebuild, citing the age of the team’s core and a dearth of near-ready prospects as the reasons why. Using historical examples, he says any other decision could be catastrophic for the competitive future of the team. In doing so, Keri is undoubtedly a little harsh on the Phils. But is he wrong? The answer, as usual, is a little complicated.
While Keri doesn’t mention it, it is important to note the Phillies have already shown that they won’t hesitate to cash in their trade chips when a season’s outlook is gloomy. Last year the team moved Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton once it realized the playoffs were an improbability.
But a fire sale is a whole different animal, especially in a baseball-crazed market like Philadelphia in which the home team is on the brink of a television deal that should boost their payroll for the foreseeable future. If July rolls around and the Phillies are floundering 10 games below .500, they should absolutely look to cash in their trade chips, as Keri suggests, but they need to be strategic in doing so.
With names like Utley, Halladay and Carlos Ruiz in the final years of their contract, cutting ties with those organizational mainstays will be particularly painful. But it might be necessary. If it becomes clear this current roster won’t cut it from a performance standpoint, the Phillies need to carefully identify the veterans that are part of the future and sell the rest, regardless of sentimentality or name power.
That is where Keri’s logic is questionable. A fire sale, from a public relations standpoint, would undoubtedly be a disaster with the fan base, particularly with the television deal looming. The Red Sox did it last year – moving Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford – but that clubhouse situation was as toxic as any in recent memory. The Phillies situation is a little different.
Players like Jimmy Rollins and Cliff Lee are still performing at levels that justify their contracts. Assuming the health and production we’re seeing from Ryan Howard this spring proves real, he is also still a valuable centerpiece, albeit overpaid. If 2013 goes wrong, and the Phillies sell the right pieces, they can supplement their existing veterans with an infusion of young talent and go into free agency with money to spend.
The result could very well be a competitive future in the near-term. But most important, it would be a competitive future that doesn’t involve devastating a fan base that still desperately seeks a follow-up performance to 2008. Keri is correct in pointing out that the path the Phillies took to get here is similar to that of many successful teams with financial resources at their disposal (a path which ESPN’s Jayson Stark recently advocated). But using the same logic, there is also a path suitable for those types of teams to retool their roster after the previous regime falls short. The fire sale that Keri calls for is not it.