Sports

Are the Phillies rebuilding or retooling?

The Philadelphia Phillies have been making all the headlines in recent weeks and mostly for all the wrong reasons. As I write this blog entry I think about the past 5 seasons of Phillies baseball and how it all came crashing down so quickly in 2012. Like many fans around the Delaware Valley I started asking how did this happen to our team and what does the future hold for baseball in Philly.

The recent trade of the Flying Hawaiian Shane Victorino was one that really got to me. Victorino was a huge part of the Phillies success over the past 5 seasons especially during the memorable 2008 World Series run. I remember like it was yesterday when Victorino stepped up to the plate and knocked a grand slam off then Milwaukee Brewers pitcher C.C. Sabathia in the division round of the 08 playoffs. That same post season Victorino played the role of the villain as he started a benches clearing brawl against the Dodgers in the NLCS when he was thrown at during an at bat in game 3. He hit the game tying homerun in game 4 of that same series which set up the game winning home run by Matt Stairs.

The Phillies eventually went on to beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series in 5 games and just like that a 25 year championship drought for Philadelphia sports ended and it couldn’t have been done without the fantastic play of Victorino. Shane continued to have great success through his remaining years with the Phillies as he was voted by the fans to his first ever All Star game in 09. But 2012 was a contract year for Shane and he struggled all season before being dealt to L.A. He would have commanded big money in the off-season as a free agent and the Phillies wouldn’t have been able to afford to keep him which prompted the trade of one of the greatest Phillies outfielders of all time.

Along with Victorino came the trade of Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. Pence was only in Philly for a short period as he was acquired in a trade last July when he came over from the Houston Astros. Pence provided a right handed spark the Phillies needed but in the end his quirky play in the outfield and salary made him expendable to the front office. I never really got too attached to Pence mostly because he wasn’t here that long and wasn’t one of the guys on the 08 squad but his bat surely will be missed.

It hasn’t been all bad news for the Phillies though as they recently locked up pitcher Cole Hamels to a 6 year contract extension. Hamels, still only 28, has plenty of great baseball left and is clearly the future ace of this staff. With a World Series MVP and ring already intact the front office knew it had to lock up Hamels in order to keep any type of competitive rotation going forward. Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have struggled all season and many experts believe they could be on the downside of their careers which made the Hamels signing that much more important for the future of the Phillies starting rotation.

So how did it get to this low point in 2012? During this entire glorious run the Phillies found themselves year after year unloading top prospects from their minor league system for guys like Hunter Pence, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay. Sure at the time it all sounded great but down the line this style of roster management was sure to catch up to the franchise. Each of these players commanded a big salary combined with the already existing salaries of guys like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley and what we had was a Phillies franchise spending more money than ever before on its roster. Currently the Phillies have no prospects in the top 100 in their minor league system which means with the current roster aging at a rapid pace they have no young talent in place ready to step up and keep the level of play where it’s been over the past 5 seasons.

So where do the Phillies go from here? What does this all mean for the future? Clearly the trade of Victorino signals the end of an era in Phillies baseball. Money is a clear factor in all of these moves as well. The Phillies were reluctant to go over the MLB luxury tax which for those of you who don’t know is basically the baseball version of the salary cap. When the total payroll for a team’s roster goes over the luxury tax the franchise is responsible for paying 20% for every dollar they’ve gone over. For second time offenders you would pay double the percentage and so on for each year you go over. Most of the time if you’re going to go over this tax and spend the extra money you usually want to do it when you’re certain you’ll be in the post season with a good shot at winning the World Series. With the way the team has performed in 2012 it’s pretty obvious the playoffs are out of the picture so why pay the extra money when you won’t be competing in October. By trading away Victorino and Pence the Phillies got under the luxury tax for 2012 and were able to avoid spending millions of dollars extra on a roster that wasn’t going anyplace this season.

Right now as it stands I believe all of these moves are an attempt to retool for 2013. Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro has indicated the team will be competitive next season meaning he won’t completely dismantle the roster between now and the start of 2013. A complete dismantling of the roster would have indicated full rebuilding mode where the Phillies would have been looking at possible last place finishes for the next 3-5 seasons until any young talent they’ve acquired in trades had time to develop. Also rebuilding mode means the Phillies probably would not have resigned Cole Hamels to a long term extension. The signing of Hamels clearly indicates to me this team wants to stay competitive for the next few years. Hamels seems like an intelligent guy and probably would have chosen to go out on the free agent market if the Phillies were going into rebuilding mode for the next few seasons.

As much as it hurts to see Victorino go it was the best thing for this franchise. The Phillies needed to free up some money and get younger. They accomplished both of these goals with the trades. They’ll now have an opportunity to see what outfielder Dominic Brown can do on an everyday basis in the majors. Anytime he came up to the big club in the past it was to fill in for someone who was injured which means he knew eventually he’d be back in the minors. One of the outfield spots now belongs to him on a permanent basis if he can prove it to the front office in the final 2 months of 2012.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they let a few more guys go in the off season especially Cliff Lee due to his large salary and mediocre 2012. Either way the Phillies will be under the luxury tax at the end of 2012 which will allow them to have some wiggle room to make a few signings in the off season. I trust the Phillies will do the right thing and do whatever it takes to make sure this team comes back stronger than ever before in 2013. Many fans including myself still remember how awful it was to watch baseball in this town before 2007. The biggest fear right now among fans all over the Delaware Valley is that we’ll have to go back to watching that pitiful brand of baseball. But the signing of Cole Hamels has reassured me this Phillies front office won’t let that happen just yet. Get ready for an exciting off season as the Phillies retool and come back for a competitive 2013. Until then let’s all take a look back at the Flying Hawaiian Shane Victorino and the 2008 World Series run.