Hello Baseball! The Phillies are ‘Winning Now’ (read: mediocre again)

Having yesterday looked at how top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud will finally get an everyday chance with the Mets after 7 years of seasoning in the minors, today in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I move one place down the 2013 standings of the NL East- it’s the turn of the Philadelphia Phillies. After enduring their second straight losing season, and with the well-renowned Philadelphia fans baying for change, surely they were going to shake things up this offseason right? Right?! Not so much I’m afraid. I would not step out in public if I were Ruben Amaro Jr.

2013 was an odd year for the Philadelphia Phillies. Both Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels stayed healthy and pitched like their usual no. 1 starter selves, Dominic Brown finally demonstrated why he was once such a hyped prospect – swatting 12 HRs in the moth of May alone – and clubhouse leader Chase Utley played the majority of the season unhampered by injury. Yet despite this, and the preseason trumpeting of GM Ruben Amaro that the team would return to contention after regressing from 102 wins to 81 in 2012 and not winning the NL East for the first time in 6 years, the team’s downward slide continued. Philadelphia barely scraped to 73-89, outperforming their Pythagorean W-L expectation by a staggering 7 wins (the Phillies scored 610 runs, but allowed 749 – meaning they should have gone 66-96). Questions abounded entering the 2014 offseason – should the Phillies go all in, cashing some advance checks from their upcoming TV deal in a serious bid for 2014 contention? Or should they blow it up and trade their two aces packaged off with some of their more egregious contracts, in order to simultaneously cut their bloated payroll and re-stock the farm system? With two clear paths to take, Ruben Amaro and the Phillies chose to… well, just stand pat and run the 2013 script back really.

In fairness, Amaro and the Phillies did make some moves. Having witnessed firsthand the disastrous RF triumvirate of Delmon YoungJohn Mayberry Jr., and Darin Ruf combine for a slash line of .243/.305/.405 in 2013, Amaro struck early in free agency, signing 36 year-old Marlon Byrd, fresh off a 5.0 WAR and career-high 24 HR season, to a 2-year $16 million contract. This is the same Byrd of course, who had washed out of the league in 2012 after posting a wRC+ of 26 and receiving a 50 game PED suspension. Not long after, Amaro moved to re-sign his 35 year-old catcher, Carlos Ruiz, securing his services for the next three years at a cost of a further $26 million. This after a season in which he too, had served a drug suspension, and battled injury on the way to hitting .268 with a .388 slugging percentage – both well below his usual marks. Two new additions will also be filling out the rotation behind Hamels and Lee next year; mysterious Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez was signed to a 3-year $12 million contract, while the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona was signed to a 1-year $4.5 million deal, a gamble which Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs kindly reviewed as “better to take a cheap chance than a more expensive one.”

Amaro certainly has a curious method of ‘going for it’. By refusing to trade the aforementioned Lee (aged 35 and owed $ over the next two seasons), Chase Utley (also 35, with chronic knee problems), Jonathan Papelbon (2 years, $26 million remaining), or even sell high on Brown, the Phillies GM clearly believes the core of a team that struggled so mightily last year can return to contention despite being a year older. As ESPN.com‘s David Schoenfield pointed out in his rankings last week, “With Ruiz, Howard, Byrd, Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies are counting on five regulars in their age-34 seasons or older.” Not that relying on older players is specifically the problem – the Dodgers technically trotted out an older lineup than the Phillies last year (30.5 years old as opposed to 30). Philadelphia’s old players just aren’t that productive anymore, as Joe Giglio of Bleacher Report noted;

“In 2007, a lineup led by Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard scored 892 runs, by far the most in the National League. In 2013, a lineup led by Rollins, Utley and Howard scored 610 runs, tied for fourth-worst in all of baseball with the hapless Houston Astros.”

Instead, Amaro clings to his misguided belief that were it not for injuries in 2013, his team would have been right there with the 96-win Braves at the NL East pinnacle. And while his $4 million-plus earners missed a total of $28.6 million worth of games in 2013, or 18 percent of the Opening Day payroll, they suffered far less than the Dodgers ($67.4 million, 31 percent), Cardinals ($37.6 million, 32 percent) or Braves ($18.9 million, 21 percent). Y’know – the NL Division winners. That Amaro has since cried that financial restrictions prevented him from going after Carlos Beltran – despite Beltran’s ultimate value being about the same as the sum of Byrd and Roberto Hernadez, and Philadelphia being one of America’s largest baseball markets – only adds to Phillies fan’s growing angst towards him.

It appears then, that Philadelphia are destined to continue spinning their wheels in mediocrity for another season. If everything breaks right, perhaps they will reverse the trend of losing seasons. More likely on the other hand, unfortunately for the fan base that can only be compared to the Yankees’ in their yearly expectations, the age-related collapse takes place and simple regression continues, and the team finds themselves looking up at the Marlins at the end of the year. Should the worst take place, take solace Phillies fans; Ruben Amaro will be out of a job, and the rebuilding effort can begin in earnest.

[UPDATE] With the news that Cole Hamels will not be ready for Opening Day – he’s experiencing what’s been vaguely released as shoulder tendonitis – the Phillies have reportedly agreed to a one year $16 million deal with AJ Burnett. The 37 year old had previously told the Pittsburgh Pirates that he planned to retire and subsequently wasn’t given a qualifying offer, meaning Philadelphia will not lose a draft pick as compensation. 

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3 comments

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