The July 31 trade deadline is fast approaching and the Phillies are in an unenviable position. They reached .500 just as the first half ended, the Braves are limping and their stranglehold on the NL East has weakened, and the Nationals have been uninspiring for three and a half months. Arguably, the NL East is more winnable now than it was at any other point during the season. But their core is old and injury prone. Several key players become free agents after the season. The Minor League system still needs some help. This is why Phillies chairman Bill Giles called it “the most difficult July I have ever seen“.
Fortunately for the Phillies, I think I have a pretty good plan for navigating the next two weeks with style, under the assumption the team is serious about contending in the NL East.
The Phillies must trade Michael Young
Among Phillies who have logged enough plate appearances to qualify, Michael Young leads the team in on-base percentage at .344. At first glance, trading your best OBP player seems counter-intuitive, but Young kills any value he provides offensively with his predisposition to ground into double plays and his inability to play even passable defense at third base.
The Rangers are paying $10 million of Young’s $16 million salary this year, so the Phillies could very easily consume the remaining ~$2.5 million on his salary. This would allow them to get the maximum return in a trade. Ken Rosenthal lists the Yankees and Red Sox as two of about a dozen teams interested in Young’s services.
Once Young is gone, the Phillies can plug Kevin Frandsen in at third base. Frandsen has actually been significantly more valuable to the team than Young has: Baseball Reference lists Frandsen at 0.9 WAR and Young at -0.1; FanGraphs lists Frandsen at 0.9 and Young at 0.3. In 119 trips to the plate, Frandsen is hitting .297/.390/.446, so he has actually been significantly better than Young in the on-base department, though some regression is to be expected. Defensively, Frandsen still needs work at third base, but he is markedly better than Young nevertheless.
So, by trading Young, the Phillies would not only recoup value on an aging, soon-to-be free agent, they would actually be upgrading by putting a better in-house candidate at the position.
The Phillies must trade Jonathan Papelbon
The Phillies have a huge bullpen problem. At 4.43, their bullpen ERA is the second-worst in all of baseball. And despite a bad last month, Jonathan Papelbon has been their best reliever with a 2.33 ERA. Trading him would significantly weaken the ‘pen, no?
Thanks to manager Charlie Manuel‘s repeated misuse of his relievers, Papelbon only pitches in the handful of high-leverage situations every week that fall into a ninth-inning save situation. The rest of the terrible bullpen has tended to handle high-leverage situations outside of the ninth inning.
As mentioned recently, Papelbon has seen a significant decline in velocity on all of his pitches, and as a result, he hasn’t been able to live up in the strike zone and generate swings and misses the way he used to when he was one of the league’s most dominant relievers. Papelbon has drawn interest from a few different teams including the Tigers and Red Sox. Cutting bait on a clearly declining Papelbon, who is 32 years old and owed $26 million over the next two seasons and an additional $13 million in 2016 if his option vests, would actually impact the Phillies very little. If the Phillies are interested in improving the bullpen, they would need the current crew to improve overnight, or start a complete redesign.
Furthermore, Papelbon could net the center fielder Ruben Amaro says he wants. Or he could bring back a couple useful prospects. Either would be more beneficial to the team than Papelbon is now and will be over the next two seasons.
The Phillies must avoid star players
The Phillies crippled their Minor League system in the summers of 2010 and 2011 trying to bring in a star player to bolster the roster for a second-half run. Though Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence were more than productive in their short time in Philadelphia, they never could have provided a good enough return on investment unless the Phillies reached the World Series.
The defending champion San Francisco Giants are a good example of how to handle July trades. Last year, they traded Charlie Culberson, a mediocre hitter in Triple-A, to the Rockies for Marco Scutaro. With the Giants, Scutaro hit .362 until the end of the regular season, and then hit .328 in the post-season. Aside from trading fourth outfielder Nate Schierholtz to the Phillies for Hunter Pence (paying a much cheaper price than the Phillies did with the Astros), they did nothing else.
Amaro is looking to replace Ben Revere in center field and there just aren’t many center fielders available. The White Sox are open to trading 32-year-old Alex Rios and the current fielder has logged nearly 3,600 defensive innings in center field over his career. Rios is earning $12.5 million this year, which means the Sox still owe him about $5.1 million. He is owed another $12.5 million for 2014 with a $13.5 million club option and $1 million buyout for 2015. Rios, who has been worth one win above a replacement-level player this season, is not the type of player worth dealing precious Minor League talent to acquire.
Mets GM Sandy Alderson has gone on record saying he is not in a rush to trade Marlon Byrd, who has had a rebirth in Queens. He has a slugging-heavy .818 OPS, but is 35 years old and a free agent after the season. There is no chance the Mets are thinking about offering him a multi-year extension, so they will eventually realize their move is to trade him by July 31 and get some value before Byrd parlays his great season into his last chance at a rich deal in the off-season. As of July 6, the Mets hadn’t taken any calls on Byrd, but that may have changed since then. Still, teams may be put off by his age and the seeming flukiness of his season, which would be great for the Phillies.
Another option is to re-acquire Nate Schierholtz and platoon him in center field with John Mayberry. Schierholtz has posted an .862 OPS against right-handed pitching this year, while Mayberry has gone .769 against lefties. Schierholtz has minimal experience in center field, but plays great defense in right and it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t transfer over to center in a pinch.
The Phillies must trade or cut Delmon Young
Aside from the two-week stretch between June 26 and July 9, when Young posted a 1.043 OPS, he has been a black hole both offensively and defensively. Even with that two-week stretch, which accounted for 22 percent of his 232 plate appearances on the season, he still falls below the league average with the bat. And watching him patrol right field has been a slow-motion car wreck. Overall, he has been worth -0.7 WAR according to Baseball Reference.
If the Phillies are serious about pushing for a second-half surge to win the NL East, they will need to acquire two outfielders: one to replace Ben Revere, and one to replace Young. Fortunately, finding a right fielder is easier than finding a center fielder. If the Phillies go after Byrd, they could use Mayberry in right field. If they find a left-handed hitter and use a platoon in center, Alejandro De Aza of the White Sox could be a trade option. He is earning $2.075 million this season and will enter his second year of arbitration eligibility going into 2014. Unless he is a superstar-in-hiding, the Phillies could non-tender De Aza the way they did Schierholtz if they would prefer to reconfigure their outfield after the season.
The Phillies must sign Chase Utley to a contract extension
This is the most important item on the list. If the Phillies want to make a post-season run in 2013, they will be forgoing the opportunity to trade Chase Utley. Utley, more than Papelbon, could breathe new life into the Minor League system by helping the team get a significant return on their soon-to-be free agent second baseman. Keeping him for a second-half surge, however, means Utley can walk into free agency and the Phillies will be left with nothing more than a first-round compensatory pick. That risk far outweighs the expected value in attempting to climb atop the NL East, so the Phillies need to reduce that risk by signing Utley to a short-term, incentive-laden contract extension — soon.
Both Amaro and Utley have publicly stated they wish to continue the relationship. As long as the Phillies don’t try to lowball Utley, it’s quite possible he would pass up what could be his final opportunity to get a rich contract.
If Utley isn’t willing to play ball on an extension, the Phillies should disregard everything written above, go into complete sell mode, and get as much value for Utley as possible. It is more important to get a good return on Utley in a trade than anything else at this point in the timeline.