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Anthony Rodin is a Phillies and Mariners fan, as well as a freelance blogger whose work has been posted on Phillies Nation and ProBallNW. You can follow him on Twitter @AntsInIN or e-mail arod1300 [at] gmail [dot] com.
The Phillies have lost eight of their last nine games, with some losses coming in heartbreaking fashion. Even though it is only June 12th, it’s beginning to get late quickly. In the broader sense of the things, the Phillies as a franchise find themselves at a crossroads, with the window for contention rapidly closing. For these and other reasons, I believe that the Phillies need to start selling, and start selling now.
Some may believe that this is tantamount to defeatism or a knee-jerk reaction to a losing streak, or that I’m advocating throwing in the flag early. After all, even after these recent doldrums, the Phillies are only eight and a half games out of first, only five and a half games back of the second wildcard spot. There are more than 100 games left. The Phillies have time and again shown themselves to be a second-half team. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are actually playing baseball and are on their way back. Roy Halladay will be back soon. And besides, this team can’t be this bad…can they?
The problem is that even if Utley and Howard somehow manage to come back by or close to the All-Star Break, and if the Phillies somehow manage to stay healthy for the rest of the year, this is still a deeply-flawed team. In order to compete this year, the Phillies need another bat (third base is the easiest offensive upgrade) and at least one reliever. Those types of pieces are going to be expensive, as the additional wildcard means there will be more buyers than sellers. Even short-term relief rentals will be expensive. To get the necessary pieces to compete, the Phillies will need to fully deplete their already barren farm system. Even this, though, would be a risky gamble, and come 2013 the Phillies would find themselves at the start of a long and painful rebuilding process.
Instead, by trading early, the Phillies can immediately begin the rebuilding process and generate a return that, when coupled with the financial flexibility they have this offseason, should immediately open a new window of contention. In short, rather than punt 2013-2014, the Phillies can compete in the foreseeable future and only sacrifice the next three months.
But why sell early? Why not just wait and see where the Phillies are at the deadline? There are three primary reasons for this: the value of the players the Phillies currently have, the market itself, and the undue pressure that a desperate playoff run will put on Utley, Howard and Domonic Brown.
First, the chips themselves. The most valuable chips the Phillies have are Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. In the current market, ace-caliber pitching and outfield offense are scarce. Thus, these three should command an impressive return. However, their value is only good so long as they are healthy. While Hamels has never been an injury risk, Victorino and Pence have been banged up in the past. Given the current state of the team’s offense especially, Victorino and Pence need to be in the lineup, and are more likely (and expected) to “play through pain.” All it takes is one collision with the wall, one tweaked hamstring or one missed start, before a player’s trade value plummets. By trading sooner rather than later the Phillies are risking less and maximizing their return.
Second, the market itself. Right now there are 18 teams in baseball that are within four games of a playoff spot. That’s 18 potential buyers, and all it takes are two or three teams to get a good bidding war going. The Phillies’ trade candidates are especially valuable. Unless Milwaukee decides to sell and makes Zack Greinke available, Hamels would be the sole ace-caliber starter available. There isn’t a team in baseball that wouldn’t be better with him. The problem is that, while the new collective bargaining agreement created a new wildcard, it also ensured that rental players, or players that will be free-agents this year, don’t yield draft picks. Thus, trading Hamels will most likely fetch less than CC Sabathia did in 2008, or Cliff Lee in 2010. However, there has not been a trade yet in the post-CBA world of an ace for a half season. As such, this is uncharted ground. By trading first, GM Ruben Amaro will not only set the market this year, but for aces in the years to come*. Instead, if Greinke does become available and is traded before Hamels is, the market and package for Hamels becomes defined by what Greinke got.
*The concept of Amaro defining a market terrifies me, but that’s a whole other post.
As for Pence and Victorino, the market for bats is also very shallow. Carlos Quentin is currently thought to be the best bat available, and while he’s had a hot start, he also has injury concerns. If the Phillies are willing to eat salary (and they should be), Pence would be especially valuable, as he is under team control for another year. Of course, he will most likely cost about $14 million in arbitration, but it’s still cost certainty, and middle- and upper-tier clubs should be willing to spend for power from a corner outfielder. Victorino probably won’t yield a king’s ransom, but should at least fetch an MLB-ready reliever or role player.
Between Hamels, Pence and Victorino, the Phillies should bring back at least three young players that are close to MLB-ready, with at least one of them being a for-sure above average player. The Phillies also have a lot of money coming off the books next year, with Blanton, Victorino, Hamels and Polanco all hitting free agency. They could trade Hamels, and then sign him in free agency after the season. It might be more expensive than an extension would be, but the lack of progress on that front shows that he may be hitting the market even if he isn’t traded. Between the trade hauls and the financial flexibility, and coupled with the core of Lee and Halladay, the Phillies should be able to compete as soon as 2013.
The third reason to sell now is to alleviate pressure on the rehabbing duo of Utley and Howard, as well as creating a hospitable environment for Dom Brown when he eventually gets called up. Rather than hurrying back for a long-shot run at contention, punting the second half of the season would allow Utley and Howard to go slow and steady, with a focus on being ready Opening Day 2013. As the Phillies playoff chances grow more and more dire, and the team more desperate for any type of good news, Utley and Howard may feel the need to hurry back into the fray even if they aren’t 100%. If they do this, or if they are quickly needed to play the majority of games in the second half, then they could become a risk for a significant injury that not only impacts the rest of this season but 2013 as well. By focusing instead on 2013, the Phillies would be ensuring that Howard and Utley are at their peak of health (whatever that looks like at this point of their careers), and can healthfully and consistently contribute as the next window of contention opens.
As for Brown, a post-sale Phillies team would be a comfortable environment for him. Rather than being hailed as the savior of the Phillies’ offensive woes, Brown would become the face of the future franchise, along with the pieces that the three trades bring in. If the Phillies continue to go for it, Brown will be expected to perform immediately, with one bad week most likely reverting him back to a bench player. By selling early, the Phillies can also see whether or not Brown can stick in center field, or if that’s a need that will need to be addressed in free agency.
The Phillies are quickly finding themselves at a crossroads. They can go all-in for one last-ditch effort at contention in 2012 and hope that the core trio of Pence, Victorino and Ruiz all stay healthy, that Utley and Howard come back and contribute, and deplete their farm system for another bat and relief pitcher. Going this route almost all but ensures that the team will need to rebuild in at least 2013, if not longer, as the team will have even less help in the farm system and no pieces left to trade with. Or the Phillies can trade now, setting the market (rather than being dictated by it), getting maximum value for their three valuable pieces, and begin another multi-year run at contention in 2013, with a healthy core of Lee, Halladay, Utley and Howard surrounded with young, cost controlled stars and financial room to maneuver.
Sell. And sell now.