The Purge

A few weeks ago, a rumor popped up that the Cincinnati Reds were interested in Juan Pierre. Nothing ever came of it. Last night, a second rumor popped up that the Baltimore Orioles were interested in trading for Placido Polanco. Both teams’ interest is well-founded. Pierre, at least for the moment, is hitting .305/.346/.370, a combination of OBP and speed (don’t tell the Reds he’s actually an awful baserunner) that would look good atop a lineup that has, more often than not, featured Zack Cozart (.292 OBP) and Drew Stubbs (.289 OBP) batting first and second.

For the Orioles’ part, their third basemen have hit .233/.291/.383 this season, and while Polanco wouldn’t be much of an upgrade offensively, the difference he’d make with the glove over Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit is enormous. Both the Reds and Orioles are within sight of a playoff spot and could use any help they can find.

Of course, the Phillies don’t really care whether the Orioles or Reds make the playoffs. But it still begs the question: if the Reds or Orioles asked about Polanco or Pierre then why the hell haven’t they been traded already?

As far as the playoffs are concerned, the Phillies are done. They’re 11 games under .500, with playoff odds below 1 percent, closer in the standings to the Houston Astros, who have the worst record in baseball, than they are to the Dodgers, who currently hold the second Wild Card place. With 2012 over, there is one reason and one reason only why the Phillies should refuse to trade any free agent-to-be is if they intend to re-sign him. Both Polanco and Pierre are in the mid-30s and obviously in decline. Whereas Cole Hamels would be a huge cog in the Phillies in 2013 and beyond, Polanco and Pierre are easily replaceable. There is nothing more to gain by their continuing to play them every day, except maybe winning a couple of games that would drop the Phillies in the draft order. Their trade value, as would-be free agents whose careers are nearing a close, is minimal–any return, whether it’s salary relief or even minor-league depth, would have to be seen as a fantastic return.

For Shane Victorino, that question is a little more complicated. Victorino is a good enough player that he could have a significant influence on a pennant race, so he doesn’t fit the same profile as Pierre and Polanco (and probably Joe Blanton as well) where literally any return is a good return. But with the new CBA having changed the rules for free agent compensation, the only intelligent thing for the Phillies to do with Victorino is trade him. Almost 32 years old, and in line for a significant payday, Victorino just doesn’t make sense anymore for a team that has more important things to do with its payroll.

Up until this season, there would be an argument to keep a would-be Type A free agent like Victorino and just take the compensation picks if no one made a compelling trade offer. However, nowadays, the Phillies would need to make a qualifying offer equal to the average of the top 125 contracts, likely in the neighborhood of $12 million a year, in order to even get one pick back. Given Victorino’s stated preference to play here, odds are he’d sign such a contract offer. Again, the Phillies aren’t going anywhere this season, and thus have nothing to gain by keeping Victorino on, particularly when they could pick up a prospect of some kind by trading him.

As an aside, the first obvious question when discussing any Shane Victorino trade is “Who would play center field in his absence?” My answer to that is: “Who cares?” Maybe they get a young outfielder back in the trade and stick him in center. Maybe John Mayberry and Jason Pridie fill in. I know they’re both awful, but what’s the worst that can happen–the Phillies don’t make the playoffs?

As for the risk that fans will stop showing up if the Phillies trade Polanco, Blanton, Victorino and Pierre, I doubt anyone is coming to the park to see any of those players specifically, with the possible exception of Victorino. And if you’re convinced that the fans that are buying tickets to see a team that will most likely have its first losing season in a decade will stop doing so, en masse, because Shane Victorino goes…well, I guess you’re welcome to believe that. I find the notion completely absurd, but I guess we won’t know for sure until he’s traded. The Marlins just did this with Anibal Sanchez, trading the free agent-to-be to Detroit in a package that netted them pitching prospect Jacob Turner, a massive return for a pitcher like Sanchez. The Seattle Mariners, who are only scarcely more out of it than the Phillies, just sent Ichiro to the Yankees yesterday afternoon. They didn’t get much back, but they saved some money and removed any pressure to re-sign the franchise’s biggest star. If trading Victorino is an admission of defeat, it’s because the Phillies have indeed been defeated.

Hunter Pence is a more complicated story. He’s got another year’s worth of arbitration left, and so could help the Phillies in 2013 if they think they can return to playoff contention. However, that year of arbitration makes Pence a more valuable trade chip than any other asset they could dangle, except, possibly, Cole Hamels. Scuttlebutt is that the Phillies are listening to offers in an attempt to avoid giving Pence an eight-figure arbitration payout. They won’t get a package as good as the one they sent to Houston for two reasons: Hunter Pence wasn’t worth anything close to what they paid in 2011 and being a year older and a year closer to free agency, Pence is worth less now than he was then anyway.

What they can do is get a legitimate prospect or young major leaguer back, someone who could start at a position of need either immediately or in the near future. People say the Phillies should “retool” or “reload” rather than “rebuild,” and by trading these five players, the Phillies would net a noteworthy, if not franchise-altering, return in young talent, but most importantly, it would free up enough money in salary to re-sign Cole Hamels long-term and add another free agent on top of him.

Purging the roster might seem like a cynical move, but it’s not. This season cannot be punted because the Phillies don’t have even a remote hope of making the playoffs–trading Pierre, Victorino, Polanco, Blanton and Pence isn’t giving up. It’s acknowledging reality. Then, in 2013, with Hamels re-signed, Domonic Brown in the outfield, the bullpen shored up with another wave of young reinforcements, a healthy Roy Halladay, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard and some money to play with on the free agent market, the Phillies can get back to where they want to be rather easily. And with a top-10 draft pick and some newly-acquired talent developing in the minor leagues, they’ll have the potential to stay there well into the future.

But they can only do this if they’re pragmatic about where they stand in the next seven days. Otherwise, we may very well be in for more of the same for a long time.