What Happened to My 100-Win Team?

Sometimes, being a fan is difficult. Usually, the most arduous times come simply from losing, but there seems to be a special, intense pang of despondency attached to the difficulty associated with watching a once mighty team crumble from within and without. Nationally, Philadelphia – the team and city alike – were never darlings, but I didn’t care; major-city sports teams always get plenty of attention, but rarely any non-partisan admiration.

So there’s no pity to be expected from the continued devolution of what was once a squad called the Philadelphia Phillies. No one who isn’t connected to the team in some way will feel badly for this string of events. They likely delight in it. And so be it; they’re entitled to react as they please. All that being said:

What the hell happened here?

In a sense, things have been going backward since the parade down Broad Street on Halloween 2008 ended. In 2009, the Phillies returned to the World Series, but were bested. In 2010, they bowed out a round earlier. In 2011, they were on the wrong end of one of the better postseason pitching duels in history in the NLDS. In 2012, they didn’t even have the chance.

And now, here we sit, spectators to the composing of another bizarre chapter in one of the strangest rebuilding parables ever told: the 2012-13 offseason. The roster has been transformed, through age as well as acquisition, into one that harnesses but a sliver of its former potency.

The progression of the Phils’ team slugging since 2007 reads as follows: .458, .438, .447, .413, .395, .400. The progression of the Phils’ team OBP since 2007 reads as follows: .354, .332, .334, .332, .323, .317. That is…um…not encouraging. But at least the problem is fairly easily identifiable: to complement an aging, papier mache core, corresponding moves had to be made. With, presumably, a sizable amount of budget room and a decent crop of free agent outfielders to choose from, the Phillies decided to hang onto their 16th overall pick and not sign a Michael Bourn or Josh Hamilton or Nick Swisher (although Hamilton’s eventual price of 5/$125M is out of the reasonable price range anyway).

Instead, the Phillies, having added the controversial and not-that-good Delmon Young to their bounty, now possess a bushel of nine outfielders on their 40-man roster, of whom six have seen Major League action:

  1. Domonic Brown: the former top prospect who’s had to battle nagging injuries and inconsistent playing time. Hit .235/.316/.396 in 212 PA in 2012.
  2. John Mayberry Jr.: made a fan favorite with a white-hot finish to 2011. Hit .245/.301/.395 in 479 PA in 2012
  3. Laynce Nix: given a two-year deal before 2012, he’s currently the most expensive outfielder on the roster. Hit .246/.315/.412 in 127 PA in 2012.
  4. Ben Revere: cost a depth starter in Vance Worley and well-regarded prospect in Trevor May to acquire. Defensive specialist. Hit .294/.333/.342 in 553 PA in 2012.
  5. Darin Ruf: the powerful, flash-in-the-pan never-prospect who might have a career as a bench bat. Hit .333/.351/.727 in a certainly sufficient 37 PA sample in 2012.
  6. Delmon Young: the former No. 1 overall pick with character, weight and baseball ability issues. Hit .267/.296/.411 in 608 PA in 2012.

On the infield side of things, the Phillies sent two relievers to Texas and assumed $6M of responsibility for Michael Young, who contributed a .277/.312/.370 line in 651 PA for the Rangers. This is to say nothing of Rule 5 draftee Ender Inciarte, who almost certainly faces waivers and an offer back to the Diamondbacks at some point this spring.

These are borderline penny-pinching moves, brought on by a combination of paying top dollar for top talent (Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee), unnecessary top dollar for for very good or not-so-top talent (Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon) and an emptying of the farm for deals ranging from great (Halladay) to acceptable (Roy Oswalt) to just bad (Pence). It would be another thing entirely if the majority of these moves were made with sound baseball logic at their foundation, but the reality facing us here is that’s simply not the case. It is those second- and third-category moves that make this more frustrating than it needs to be, rather than an acceptable placement in the cycle of rebuilding -> contention and back again.

Now, here we sit, fewer than two years removed from a 102-win season, having to rely on a likely dual-platoon, five-outfielder system, an aging infield that provides no certainty of full-season health and questionable depth in the rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench.

These cobwebs are tough to peel off. It feels as though the club has arrived at or near the place many of us feared it would arrive as the risky and head-scratching moves began to pile up: on the doorstep of relegation to “also-ran” status with a shaky outlook for a return to “elite” status within the next three years. The playoff hopes of this team as currently constructed rely on too many low-probability bouncebacks from too many players than should have been necessary. And far too many to be a viable plan. The 2011 season has never seemed further away.

I write this before a single game is played in 2013. I write this before these players can be given a chance to prove me wrong. As with most of my negative notions, I hope to eventually be proven wrong. But I also write this under cloud cover that feels thicker than any I can remember for years back.

And you may ask yourself, well, how did we get here?

Phillies Sign . . . *sigh* to 1 year, *groan* thousand dollar contract

The Phillies have signed Delmon Young to a 1 year, $750,000 deal.

twitter.com/jaysonst/status/293809333563707392

This is what happens when you get wrapped up in superficial identifiers like “right-handed bat.” We’ve arrived at the point where “right-handed bat” can refer to any player that has had marginal or better success against left-handed pitching in the last decade, regardless of the quality of his overall contribution to the team. Delmon Young is terrible. Full stop. By rWAR, he was a full win and two-tenths below replacement last season, and a total of almost a win and a half below replacement in the last two seasons, compiling a .267/.299/.403 line over that period. His walk rate from 2011-2012 is 3.9%, about half the league average for hitters, making him, at least in that respect, a good fit for the current Phillies lineup.

By the grace of Jim Leyland he accrued 608 plate appearances for the Tigers last season, and an accompanying 226 innings in the field, where he is one of the worst defenders in baseball.


Credit for this .gif to GIFULMINATION

This is where a past, more naive version of myself would write “Young can be useful if strictly limited to pinch hit plate appearances against left-handed pitching.” He has, after all, always hit lefties well — .307/.341/.483 for his career, with a .308/.333/.500 line in 189 plate appearances against them last season. But the Phillies don’t exactly have a stacked outfield at the moment. Ben Revere will certainly anchor the centerfield position, and the corner spots will be filled by some combination of Young, Domonic Brown (he screamed, into the uncaring void, season after season), Laynce Nix, John Mayberry, Jr., Darin Ruf, and, if he’s not offered back, Ender “‘s Game” Inciarte (though he’s more likely an emergency centerfielder).

If you’ll indulge me in a jaunty youthful fantasy for a moment, assume that the Phillies’ plan is for Domonic Brown to be the everyday rightfielder in 2013. That — stop laughing, please. That means the 2013 outfield is a high upside but big question mark mainstay (Brown) and a collection of players who each have a useful attribute or two, but who I cannot think it could be argued should be full time players on an ostensibly first-division team, and I include Revere in this. If this were the 2010 outfield of Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth, a player like Delmon Young would be helpful for 150 to 200 plate appearances against almost exclusively lefties. The same could be said for Mayberry.

But with 600 plate appearances or more to allot to this collection of would-be left-fielders, it’s impossible to parcel them out in such a way that shields you from each of these players’ severe respective weaknesses. You’re inevitably going to get intolerable doses of Young’s fielding and adverse platoon futility, Ruf’s defending and baserunning, Mayberry’s flailing against righties, and so forth. Right-handed pitching handled 58% of the league’s plate appearances last season. You can’t leverage 3 or 4 different platoon pieces against that. And all of this is presuming that Charlie Manuel is willing to get more creative than he’s ever shown the capacity to be. And it presumes that my Domonic Brown precondition is correct; it probably isn’t. If you’re going to go with a smattering of likely marginal guys and hope that a few best case scenarios find the light of day, why not at least round up marginal guys with average or better defense? That’s not the case here either.

In the Phillies lineups of yore, writing off one weak lineup spot wouldn’t be a problem. But which positions can be penciled in as certain offensive contributors in 2013? Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, and, if one is willing to be generous with the health prognosis, Chase Utley. As I tweeted this morning, the model for a playoff-contending Phillies team is to hope that the offense somehow manages league-average performance, and that the pitching staff achieves 2011 levels of greatness. The overabundance of below league average role players is not going to help the chances of the current roster managing that.

This is not to even mention, by the way, that Delmon Young is a bigot. Stark’s reference to off-field issues alludes to an incident in which an intoxicated Young assaulted a man after repeatedly calling him a “fucking Jew.” I’ve long been on the record about taking a clubhouse full of jerks that can play baseball over a less effective squad of nice guys. But I have to draw the line somewhere, and I think just shy of an anti-semite being on my favorite team is a good place to draw it. No Luke Scott or Josh Lueke, and no Delmon Young please. If $700,000 wasted is the price to see Delmon Young fail his way out of baseball, I’d be more than happy with that outcome.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE: There is nothing good in this world.
twitter.com/magelb/status/293831734674477057