Please excuse a brief non-Phillies related anecdote to start. I promise, I’ll tie it in later.
In the 1970s, English soccer manager Brian Clough led Nottingham Forest to two consecutive European championships, a feat no English team has equaled since. Nottingham Forest is a small-market team whose history can be defined in three eras: pre-1975, when they sucked; 1975-1993, when Clough made them into one of the top teams in Europe, and 1993-present, when they sucked again.
Clough’s mantra was to know what all your players were worth at all times, and if you could get market value for them at any point, no matter how popular that player was, to trade him in for someone cheaper or younger. Clough’s approach worked. Need a more accessible example? This is what Bill Belichick does with the NFL’s Patriots, and we all know how well that’s worked out these past 10 years.
I’m acutely aware that what I’m about to write is going to be tremendously unpopular with our readership. I can barely believe I’m saying this now. Neither do I expect a single person to agree with me.
But this is what I think, so here it goes.
I think the Phillies should:
1) Trade Shane Victorino for whatever prospects they can get.
2) Move Jayson Werth to center and Raul Ibanez to right field.
3) Sign free agent outfielder Johnny Damon to a one or two-year contract and install him in left.
If you want to skip right to the end and start questioning my sexuality and calling for me to be tarred and feathered, I suppose that’s your prerogative. I don’t think this is a slam-dunk, and I’m aware that Damon will most likely sign with either Detroit or Atlanta in the coming days, but I think that a good argument can be made for replacing Victorino with Damon. This is that argument.
This is why the thought first occurred to me. Since the Phillies started making the playoffs again in 2007, I’ve been of the opinion that the team’s first and greatest goal should be to continue to contend for an extended period of time–five years or more, if possible. So instead of selling the farm to make one run at a title (a run that, as the Tigers found out in 2006, can be derailed by something as mundane as a pitcher’s inability to throw to the bases), it’s better to continuously roll over the roster. This approach allowed the Braves and Yankees to dominate the 1990s. I thought a better model would be to emulate the Boston Red Sox, who won the World Series in 2004, then won again in 2007 with a significantly changed cast. They made hard decisions to part with key players as they got too expensive or too old, but by trading in players like Pedro Martinez, Bill Mueller, and Keith Foulke, Clough-like decisions allowed them to stay in position to contend again this year and for the foreseeable future.
This is why I supported trading Cliff Lee to the Mariners–it will make the team weaker in 2010, but in 2012, Aumont and Gilles could be contributing well after Lee would have walked as a free agent.
So why does this justify trading one’s 29-year-old outfielder for a 36-year-old outfielder? Many reasons.
First of all, Damon and Victorino are essentially players of equal value. Victorino was an average defensive outfielder last year, and a very good one in years before that. Damon is about as bad a defensive outfielder as you’ll see. Victorino hits for a slightly higher average, but Damon walks more. Victorino steals more bases, but gets caught at a rate that just about negates what bases he steals. Damon was 12-for-12 in stolen bases last year and 27-for-30 in 2007.
Damon hits for much more power than Victorino (even considering that he played last season in the New Yankee Workshop). If you want to roll all that together, in 2009, Victornio was 10th among major league center fielders with 3.4 WAR (oh, no, not that stat again). For comparison, that puts him above Curtis Granderson (in a bad year) and just below Nate McLouth. Among left fielders, Damon was 11th, posting a 3.0 WAR with similar stats (WAR takes into account that left fielders tend to be better hitters than center fielders). Damon was ahead of Carlos Lee but behind David DeJesus.
For 2010, the Bill James predictions, based on previous performance and adjusting for age, Victorino is due for a season of .283/.343/.418 with 12 home runs, 24-for-33 on the basepaths, 95 runs scored and 59 batted in. Damon, on the other hand, is in line for .278/.355/.430 with 17 home runs, 16-for-21 stolen bases, 99 runs scored, and 70 RBI. Factor in Victorino’s superior (though overrated) defense, and the two come out more or less even. So you won’t be losing much, if anything, in terms of production for the next year.
There are a few counterarguments that I think warrant mention. Let’s start with the fact that Victorino is 29 and Damon is 36. If we’re worried about the next year or two, I don’t think that Damon declines a whole lot more from this year to the next. He’s already at the bottom end of the decline curve–he’s not going to get any worse defensively (because he can’t), and while the difference between a 25-year-old running the bases and a 38-year-old is significant, the same can’t be said for the difference between ages 36 and 37. Or 36 and 38. Again, we’re not building the team around Damon, we’re just plugging him in to fill a hole until Domonic Brown or Gilles or Anthony Gose is ready to step up.
The second major counterargument is that replacing Victorino with Damon would kill the Phillies defensively. I have no response to that other than to say it’s true. Last year, the Phillies had average-to-above-average outfield defense. Werth, while he’s a very good right fielder, would probably only be a mediocre center fielder. Ibanez, who is adequate in left, would probably be a bad defensive right fielder, and we’ve already been over Damon. I’m basing this argument on the idea that a Damon-Werth-Ibanez outfield, while not a good defensive threesome, would be enough to get by with such a small outfield. This assumption could be dead wrong, and if it is, I withdraw my objection and concede. But if it’s not, I think it’s a possibility worth exploring.
The third is that Victorino’s good enough as a center fielder–why get greedy and try to catch lightning in a bottle? This is probably the best reason not to trade Victorino and sign Damon. After all, Victorino is about an average center fielder, and it’s not like the Phillies need him to be Mickey Mantle. They’ve already won two pennants and a World Series with him, and they stand a good chance to win more. He’s signed at a fairly reasonable 3 years, $22 million. That’s not a bad deal for a player of his quality, assuming he produces in 2010-12 the way he did in 2007-2009. Another perfectly valid point. I just think the Phillies can do better.
Fourth is the platoon split issue–Victorino is a switch hitter, while Damon is a lefty, and the Phillies already have an extremely lefty-heavy lineup. To that, I say that Victorino’s OPS against lefties was only about 10 points higher than Damon’s last year, even considering that he’s a switch hitter. I’d take that hit.
Ok. On to how Damon’s better.
The whole point to the Cliff Lee deal, as I’ve said, is that you shouldn’t bank on hitting the jackpot one year when you can have a good chance of winning for several years to come. Victorino is one of the most vastly-overrated players in baseball. He has blinding speed but doesn’t cover as much ground defensively as slower players, due to bad jumps and bad positioning. He walks some, but not very much. His stolen base rate, particularly considering how well the other Davey Lopes disciples on the team do, is unacceptable for one of the fastest players in the league. These things, along with his total lack of power, suggest to me that once his legs go, he doesn’t have the peripheral skills to continue to start for a good team. And now that he’s about to turn 30, that decline might come sooner than you might think.
Everyone looks at Victorino and sees a charismatic, speedy, high-average, good-defense guy and thinks that he’s an all-star. But when you take even a cursory look at his stats beyond what you’ll see on the back of a baseball card, you’ll see someone whose reputation is writing checks his performance can’t cash.
So why not sell high? Granted, your prospect haul for Victorino wouldn’t be great, but if the recent deals for Nate McLouth and Curtis Granderson are any indication, I say you can get a decent-quality AA or AAA hitter and a long-term pitching prospect for him. For a team that’s just traded in almost all its quality top-level prospects for three starting pitchers over the past 2 years (Lee, Blanton, and Halladay), the added prospects would come as a relief.
All of the things Victorino does poorly, Damon does well. He has mid-range power, is an excellent baserunner (as we Phillies fans know all too well), and would fit perfectly into the No. 2 spot in the order. You could even structure the lineup as Damon, Rollins, Utley, Howard, Werth, Ibanez, Polanco, Ruiz and not have more than two same-handed batters next to each other. Or bat Rollins first, Polanco second, and Damon seventh. It doesn’t matter to me.
One thing that doesn’t come to mind right away with Damon is how cheap he’ll be. Victorino, while reasonably-priced, makes an average of $7 million and change a year for the next 3 years. Damon’s agent, Darth Boras, overplayed his hand with the Yankees, demanding far more than his market value after the World Series. As a result, he’s still unemployed and desperate for work. Last year, the Angels pulled a similar deal off with Bobby Abreu, who wanted eight figures a year and got a one-year deal for $5 million once the market settled. I think Damon could be had for less, but we should view the Abreu deal as a baseline. Try to sign him for a year and $5 million. By the time that year is up, one of the Phillies’ outfield prospects ought to be ready to step up, and you’ve still got another season to try to find a young replacement for Raul Ibanez. The difference between Brown or Gilles’ pre-arbitration salary, plus Damon’s one year on one hand, and Victorino’s three years on the other might give the Phillies the spare cash to re-sign a more valuable player like Jayson Werth or Ryan Howard.
But by sitting on Victorino, you’re missing out on the chance to get at least one, maybe two major league-quality prospects and eliminating just enough salary wiggle room to keep the real valuable players on the team together. And in the famous words of Ricky Watters, “For who? For what?” To keep your seventh-best position player instead of trying to keep a competitive team on the field for years to come.
This is exactly the kind of tough decision that the Red Sox, Yankees, and Braves made during their runs. Remember, we root for laundry, not players. I’m not saying that trading Victorino and bringing in Damon is certainly the best move, but in order to build the kind of sustained dominance that I’m sure we all aspire to, you need to take the Brian Clough approach. There can’t be any kind of irrational emotional attachment that keeps you from even posing the question: Can the Phillies be better in the long-term without Shane Victorino? My gut says yes, and at the very least, it’s a question worth exploring.