Analysis

Is a Sox-Style Rebuild Possible?

On August 25, 2012, the Boston Red Sox unloaded the big contracts of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez, trading the trio along with Nick Punto to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Baseball America’s #49 prospect Allen Webster, reliever Rubby De La Rosa, a year of James Loney, and a few other pieces. The move was half-symbolic, half-salary dump: sure, the Red Sox received Webster and De La Rosa, two small pieces of their AL Pennant-winning squad, and likely larger pieces of their future, but the move was done in large part to add flexibility to their 2012 free agency positioning.

In large part because of the trade, the Red Sox were able to add several veteran mid-level contracts. The Red Sox signed Mike Napoli (one year, $13 million), Ryan Dempster (two years, $26.5 million), Stephen Drew (one year, $9.5 million), Jonny Gomes (two years, $10 million), David Ortiz (two years, $26 million), Koji Uehara (two years, $9.25 million), and Shane Victorino (three years, $39 million). These contracts total $70.87 million and this total does not include arbitration raises for Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Lester and contractual increases for players like Dustin Pedroia.

The 2012 contracts of Beckett, Crawford, Gonzalez, and Punto totaled $58.1 million. Add to this total the ~$37.33 expiring contracts of Ortiz, Marlon Byrd, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Vicente Padilla, Cody Ross, and Ryan Sweeney for a net savings of $24.56 million comparing these two groups. This number does not include the arbitration raises. Boston ended 2012 with a total payroll of $168.6 million with just 69 wins to show for it. In 2013, the Red Sox improved by 28 wins, won the AL East, and will finish, at worst, the top team in the American League, a 3-2 World Series lead with a $158.97 Opening Day payroll. Not bad.

Could the Phillies do something similar for 2014?

Let’s be clear: the Phillies do not have anyone like Xander Bogaerts, the just-turned-21 infield phenom who jumped into the playoff limelight without missing a step. Let’s also be clear that the Phillies do not have cornerstone talent like Jacoby Ellsbury or Dustin Pedroia. The Phillies can match the Sox ace for ace, Cole Hamels for Jon Lester, Cliff Lee for Clay Buchholz. But that’s about how similar things get.

And yet, if the Phillies were willing to, and were willing to get creative, they could do some major improving if they were willing to keep anything not nailed down moving on box cars to be competitive in 2014. Let’s take a look.

The Phillies entered 2013 with an Opening Day payroll of $159.58 million, about $30 million short of the $189 million luxury tax threshold in 2014, but not including things like minor league contracts that also count against the luxury tax. Gone from this number are the contracts of Michael Young ($6 million), Delmon Young (included in the Opening Day projection at $500 K), Roy Halladay ($20 million), and Carlos Ruiz ($5 million), bringing the total to $128.08 million.

There are a few arbitration eligible players that will likely be back. Ruben Amaro has stated that Kyle Kendrick will be tendered a contract for 2014, which is estimated to be around $6.6 million. Add to this Antonio Bastardo ($2.0 million), Ben Revere ($1.5 million), and possibly Kevin Frandsen ($1.3 million) and John Mayberry ($1.7 million). Worst case scenario, the Phillies will add $13.1 million back to their payroll in arbitration-eligible players, pumping their likely Opening Day roster back to $141.18 million before raises built into contracts kick in.

The first raise goes to Ryan Howard, who is set to earn $5 million more in 2014. Meanwhile, Cole Hamels is set to earn $3 million more and Mike Adams $2 million more in 2014. And of course, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is signed for about $4 million in 2014. The number for the team before considering minor league costs then jumps back up to $155.18 million, just $4.40 million less than their 2013 Opening Day payroll, leaving them very little wiggle room to sign anyone, yet alone a top tier free agent.

So if the Phillies tried to free up some money, where would they start? And would a Red Sox-style turnaround be even remotely possible?

The problem the Phillies have, as we all know, is that very few players account for most of their salaries. For lack of a better word, the Red Sox were able to become more successful because they diversified their interests: they signed veteran players to short-term deals to fill holes in their line-up. Unfortunately for the Phillies, three of their larger contracts, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins, are immovable due to size and a pair of no trade clauses. A fourth, Jonathan Papelbon, could likely only be dealt if a significant portion of his salary was absorbed.

The easiest way to get talented players and to shed salary is to start from the top of the rotation: deal Hamels and Cliff Lee. Dealing Hamels is neither ideal or likely, but, even with $112.5 million remaining on his contract, he is among the most valuable trade chip on the roster and would free up $22.5 million from the payroll. Trading Hamels and, say, Adam Morgan and Ethan Martin, to a team looking to make a splash, for instance, the Reds, for Jay Bruce and Billy Hamilton or Homer Bailey and a prospect. A hypothetical trade that nets you $10-12 million in room under the luxury tax and either a replacement (Bailey) or a hole filler (Bruce) with a lottery ticket prospect would benefit the Phillies long term.

Trading Lee may be slightly easier. With two years left on his contract left, there may be a few interested teams for the 35-year old lefty. Who would say no first if the Phillies proposed Cliff Lee and two players to be named later to Texas for Adrian Beltre ($17 million in 2014, signed through 2015), Craig Gentry, and Luke Jackson? What if the Phillies sweetened the pot and included Maikel Franco and the Rangers included Martin Perez instead of Jackson? The Phillies would add a power hitting third baseman, a speedster outfielder, and one of the most-talked-about arms in the game, and net another $7.5 million more in space under the luxury tax threshold.

If we go with the above scenario of acquiring Bruce and Hamilton and the Rangers scenario of Beltre, Gentry, and Jackson, the Phillies would have shaved off $17.5 million from their books for 2014. In fWAR terms, the Phillies would add a 5 win third baseman, a gain of 5.4 wins from their 2013 mark from their third basemen and a 6.9-win swing from their right fielder. The addition of Hamilton makes Ben Revere expendable. If Hamilton is even a one-win player next year, it would improve their center field situation by 2.2 wins. The gain of 14.5 wins is, of course, reduced, by the loss of Hamels and Lee (9.3), but would net the Phillies about 5.2 wins. It would also likely take everyone short of Jesse Biddle to execute these deals.

With the $17.5 million in savings, what if the Phillies solidified their left field situation? The Phillies could sign Shin-Soo Choo for an average annual value of about that amount, adding about four wins. The Phillies would then have any combination of Cody Asche, Domonic Brown, Revere, and Darin Ruf to offer as trade chips. Brown and Revere have the most trade value while Asche has some and Ruf has very little. And even more unfortunately, the rest of the Phillies money is nearly immovable. Unless the Phillies get creative and trade players on minimum contracts for minimum contracts, they will not get very far trade wise and likely would have no money to spend.

 In short, even with fortuitous trades as outlined above, emptying out the farm, the Phillies would gain only about nine wins for 2014, bringing their improved total to 82 with an Opening Day payroll of about $158 million with total salaries near around $175 million (adding 11% of the salaries to the Opening Day total) with quite literally no starting pitching. Assuming the Phillies would choose to add another $12-13 million to go all the way to the luxury tax threshold, the Phillies could add maybe Scott Kazmir and Phil Hughes for 3.5 wins, if everything broke correctly, getting them to about 85 wins.

Even with the most advantageous series of trades and bargain bin shopping in recent history, the Phillies will be unable to blow up their team like the Red Sox did in 2012 to make a run in 2013. Even if they found takers for their largest contracts and were able to somehow obtain like-talent in the exchange, the Phillies are currently handcuffed rather badly to the point where some of their only options are bargain-bin discount players. This team, under the best circumstances, likely has a ceiling of 78-80 wins as is and there is no path out of it in sight.

Sigh.

As remote as it may be, the Phillies could field a pretty competitive team dumping all salary possible and loading up on middle of the road free agents while trading younger players to acquire more established talent. For instance, the Phillies could dump Lee and Hamels’ combined $47 million salary for 2014, combined with the $12 million or so they’ll have under the luxury tax and add a number of pretty decent pieces to fill holes. For an estimated $13 million per year, the Phillies could roll the dice on Ervin Santana (2.7 wins), put Chris Young in right for $7 million a year (1.1 wins), sign Kazmir and Hughes for around $13 combined for 3.5 wins, bring in Jarrod Saltalamacchia for $10 mil for 3.5 wins, and make a splash with Ellsbury in left or center for $19 million a year (4.5 wins).  Those moves would put the team at about the same spot the above scenario would but with the added bonus of having your trade chips in Brown and/or Revere plus no returning salary from the Hamels/Lee deals. All of those moves, however, while making the team more fluid, and likely stronger long term, would only net the Phils an additional six wins after considering the losses of Hamels and Lee.

The most creative thinking may not be able to allow the Phillies to escape this hole. Through 2015, the game plan may be “Hamels, Lee, pray for rain, and that Maikel Franco is the 2015 NL MVP”.

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