The other day, Dan Szymborski wrote an interesting article for ESPN where he looked at the current state of the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies, just over one year removed from a 102-win season, are off to a 9-14 start this season, and Szymborski recommends a rebuild for the team.
That may sound harsh for a team that was that good that recently, but this very much seems to be the case in this instance. The division-rival Braves and Nationals look to be the strongest teams in the league, giving them a big-enough challenge to start with. On top of that, the roster is looking older and more broken down as time goes on.
Ten players with more than 20 plate appearances this season, and only three have weighted Runs Created+ marks above average (100)-Chase Utley (148), John Mayberry (126), and Michael Young (118). And even then, Young is bringing awful defense with that mark, a year after he had a 78 wRC+ mark (with still awful defense). It’s also worth noting that his batting average in balls in play is 42 points above his career average and 78 points above last year’s mark.
Basically, this an old line-up (the ten most-used batters average out to 30.4 years old, with 23-year old utility infielder Freddy Galvis one of those ten) that struggled to score (93 team wRC+, 21st overall) or field (.686 defensive efficiency, also 21st overall) last year, and they’ve only gotten older.
The pitching doesn’t look much better. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels should still be good, but Roy Halladay is finally starting to look his age (36), and the rest of the rotation is John Lannan and Kyle Kendrick. Altogether, it looks problematic for the Phillies. And not too dissimilar from the 2011 Red Sox.
Last year, the Red Sox found themselves following up a 90-win season with a 69-win one. On top of that, they had a lot of long-term contracts with a lot of years and dollars left total. So, they instead shipped all of them off in the famed “Nick Punto trade”.* Los Angeles took Punto, along with Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford, freeing up over a quarter of a billion dollars for Boston through 2018.
*This may not be the most descriptive name for the trade, but it is the funniest.
Szymborski draws the obvious comparisons between the 2013 Phillies and the 2012 Red Sox. Both were older teams with a lot of money tied up over the next few years, with a sudden downturn in performance (both were 21-game downturns, in fact). And Szymbroski suggests a similar plan of attack for the Phillies, seeing the success Boston has had this season.
Can the Phillies take the same approach though? The Dodgers-Red Sox trade happened under very unusual circumstances, with the Dodgers having a bunch of money to throw around. Or did it? The Blue Jays and Marlins accomplished a similar trade this past offseason, with the Blue Jays taking on $146.5 million. And with the recent increase in extensions, some have begun to wonder if truly great players will stop hitting free agency. That might in turn increase the number of blockbuster trades, and with the apparent influx in money into the sport through TV contracts, maybe someone would match up with Philly.
Question one here would be: what would the Phillies have to offer? The Red Sox offered a star player (Adrian Gonzalez, although he was underperforming) to get rid of contracts that were looking like sunk costs (Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, although Crawford may have turned things around). The Phillies this year stand at a $158.9 million payroll, and their biggest remaining multi-year contracts are:
Cole Hamels: $132 million left through 2018, plus vesting option for 2019 (either an automatic vesting one for $24 million or a team option for $20 million)
Ryan Howard: $95 million through 2016, plus either $23 million for 2017 of a $10 million buyout
Cliff Lee: $75 million through 2015, plus either a $27.5 million option or a $12.5 million buyout on 2016
Jonathan Papelbon: $39 million through 2015, plus a $13 million vesting option on 2016
Jimmy Rollins: $22 million through 2014, plus an $11 million vesting option on 2015
Mike Adams: $12 million through 2014, plus a $6 million option on 2015
Chase Utley ($15 million), Michael Young ($16 million), and Carlos Ruiz ($5 million) are all free agents after this season, and Roy Halladay may join them ($20 million this year, with a vesting option for the same amount in 2014). That may make them trade candidates, but all of the deals would be closer to the Shane Victorino deal last year than the Nick Punto trade. They may help a little in rebuilding, but none will cause in a huge drop in guaranteed future money or a massive influx in farm talent (as one year rentals, they’ll draw less interest this summer I would imagine).
Losing those four would free up $56 million, so they’d have more money to spend on the free agent class. But the 2014 class isn’t a particularly awe-inspiring group. I mean, MLB Trade Rumors rated Chase Utley the sixth best in the current bunch, and he’s a 34-year old middle infielder. If they really want to rebuild and retool in earnest, they’re going to have to do more than just save their money and reinvest it this winter. They’re going to need prospects, which means a New Blockbuster-type move.
This leaves six candidates for such a trade: Hamels, Howard, Lee, Papelbon, Rollins, and Adams. They’ve been rumored to be shopping Lee in the past, which makes sense; he’s 34 to Hamels’s 29, and hasn’t been on the team as long. If you had to make one pitcher expendable, Lee would be the one. Rollins and Hamels are both franchise players, and Rollins’s contract isn’t particularly outrageous. $11 million per year isn’t ideal for a 34-year old shortstop, but you could do much worse. Of course, that may make him valuable in a trade.
Hamels is the only one that I would guess is a definite no-go; if the team really wants to give up a pitcher, Lee makes more sense from their perspective, and I would imagine his lower years and dollar values would interest more teams. Rollins will probably get inquiries due to the league-wide weakness at shortstop, but that contract isn’t too unreasonable and it makes sense to keep him too unless they’re overwhelmed.
That leaves Howard, Lee, Papelbon, and Adams. Adams isn’t too bad either, but an $18 million, three-year deal for a set-up man seems over the top. His contract is small enough that he may be a good throw-in, though, and teams usually appreciate bullpen help.
They would probably love to drop Howard, but I struggle to see that happening. He would have to be the bad contract in any deal, but he’s different than Crawford and Beckett. At least there was some ray of hope for each of them; Crawford even seems to have hit his best-case comeback scenario. Howard carries none of that upside. He’s 33 and wildly overpaid for the foreseeable future. In an age where free agents are getting something like $5 million per Win Above Replacement (Fangraphs), Howard is coming off four seasons in which he posted 1.5 WAR total. From now until the end of his contract, he’s guaranteed at least $105 million. That works out to 21 WAR in 2013 through 2016, or just over 5 WAR per year; Fangraphs says he hasn’t reached that mark since his MVP campaign seven years ago. I feel like any team agreeing to take Howard would be doing so only if a) the Phillies wound up paying most of his salary; or b) it more or less excused them entirely of forking over prospects. If the Phillies really want to improve, it looks they’re going to have to wind up paying most of Howard’s salary regardless of what happens.
That leaves Papelbon, the ace closer, which is a bit of a luxury on a middling team. $52 million over four years for a reliever is ridiculous, but not quite to the extent that Howard’s contract is. This one probably makes the most sense as the acquiring team’s “bad contract” taken on, the Carl Crawford of the deal, so to speak.
Now then, who might take such a deal? First, I‘m going to throw out teams that likely won’t compete. There’s more or less no reason for the Astros, Mets, Mariners, Twins, Marlins, Cubs, or Padres to make this deal. We can probably rule out the smaller market Rays, Athletics, Brewers, Pirates, and Royals as well; taking on big contracts would do them no favors. The remaining candidates:
Some of these are a stretch, but it’s more or less accurate. We can probably scratch the White Sox from this list; they’re regarded as having a weak farm system, and the Phillies would presumably want something to rebuild with. The Indians and Blue Jays just went out and spent a lot this off season, and I’m not sure how much more they can throw in, especially long-term.
Boston just gave up a lot of long-term contracts, so I’m not sure that they’ll want to turn around and take more on right away. I don’t think that the Rockies being willing to take on almost $40 million per year in salaries when their payroll is consistently around $80 million. I can’t see the Cardinals making this trade; they have a farm system with spare bits, but they really don’t need Cliff Lee and they have too many corner infield/outfield-type players to even joke about getting Howard. Papelbon might help their shaky bullpen, but he’s more of the throw in to get rid of than the centerpiece; there will be cheaper bullpen options to trade for.
So, with that further cutting, we’re down to:
Even then, some of these seem to be stretching; the Nationals and Reds seem to have more than enough pitching depth. The Dodgers have been trading away pitchers (see, Aaron Harang), and Zack Greinke looks to be healthy sooner than expected. The Rangers apparently feel comfortable with so many pitchers returning later in the year from surgery. The Orioles seem dedicated to keeping their young prospects, seeing as they were relatively inactive over the winter. The Braves seem to be in the same boat as the Rockies, with combined salaries that have mostly been in the low 90s for the past few years. The Yankees have been making comments about the getting under the luxury tax limit next year, The Tigers have been spending a lot of money lately, so you have to wonder whether they’d want to throw another $40 million or more on top of all of that. The Angels might be desperate for another arm, but they’ve pretty well depleted their farm system too.
Really, a mega-deal probably just isn’t going to happen; their bad contracts are just too bad to ship off with good ones. If the Phillies want to turn long term deals into younger players, they’re going to have to do it one at a time, and they’re more or less going to have to give up any hope of dropping Ryan Howard for something worthwhile-even paying part of his salary may not bring any significant return. I’d even be skeptical about whether they could get a good return for Papelbon right now if they tried.
Cliff Lee is easily the first to go, and maybe they get rid of Rollins too if they’re feeling particularly bold. The biggest trade they might pull off is a Lee/Rollins/Papelbon-for-something deal, and I still doubt that they’ll trade Rollins or find a taker for Papelbon . Really, a massive one-trade retool just doesn’t appear imminent for Philadelphia, and that’s the only way they could hope to get rid of one or two of these contracts.