Why the Phillies Can’t Contend No Matter How the Offseason Shakes Out
When the Red Sox went from 69 wins to the World Series last year, it wasn’t the craziest thing in the world to ask if that blueprint–not tearing the team down, but just making a few shrewd free agent signings–could be replicated. Particularly, if the Phillies could do it. The Phillies have some payroll flexibility, and their farm system isn’t as bad as it was 18 months ago, but they can’t just go out and buy a championship team right now, and most of their internal help is still at least a year away.
But why can’t they improve like the Red Sox did, by signing mid-level free agents?
Well, a few reasons:
- Not only did the Red Sox benefit from signing Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes and whoever else, they got about nothing from Jacoby Ellsbury and, well, their entire starting rotation. So it wasn’t just the free agents–Boston’s improvement was as much about injured or underperforming veterans from their own team returning to form in 2013. Which of those do the Phillies have? Are Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard going to return to their MVP form of the mid-2000s? Were they hurt or unlucky, or are they just old?
- The Red Sox won 69 games in 2012 with the run differential of a 74-win team. In 2013, the Phillies won 73 games with the run differential of a 66-win team. In short, the Red Sox didn’t improve as much as it looked like they did, and the Phillies have farther to go than you’d think.
- I’d been looking for a way to express the main point, but couldn’t find it until Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the Phillies came out at FanGraphs (which is why you’re reading this now and not a month ago). Here’s the Phillies’ projected WAR for 2014, by position:
Look at infographic and pretend that the big impact free agents hadn’t signed yet. Where do the Phillies really suck? Not really anywhere. Playing the add-up-the-WAR game isn’t real analysis, but we’re not doing that–this is just a back-of-the-napkin exercise. Take all these players, plus another three or four wins for the bench and MAG (who Szymborski doesn’t project for reasons explained in the post, which you should read)–once you figure in the 48 or so wins you get for a replacement-level team, ZiPS likes the Phillies to post a win total somewhere in the high
60s 70s. (Sorry, I apparently can’t do math.)
Let’s look at the Marlins, who had a Pythagorean record of 64-98 last year, about the same as the Phillies’ pythag. The Marlins sucked they had Jose Fernandez and The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton and 23 guys who just flat-out sucked. Let’s say it’s two weeks ago, and they go out and sign Robinson Cano. Steamer has Cano being worth a little over 5 wins next year, though he could easily be worth more. Let’s say they’d also signed Jacoby Ellsbury, whom Steamer projects for 3.8 wins next year. Let’s be a little a little more optimistic and say they’re worth an even 10 wins. Those two would be replacing Justin Ruggiano, who’s terrible, and Donovan Solano, who’s abjectly fucking terrible. The Marlins would gain almost the entire 10 wins above replacement by signing Cano and Ellsbury.
Let’s say the Phillies signed those two–Cano and Ellsbury, and replaced Chase Utley and Ben Revere. (Moving Revere to left and Domonic Brown to right, and moving Utley to third would be roughly the same, because you’d be moving both Utley and Revere to positions where they’d not only be worse defensively, but where the offensive standards are higher.) Cano and Ellsbury are worth the same 10 wins, but represent a gain of only four or five wins for the Phillies, versus the nine or 10 they’d represent for the Marlins.
Let’s put it this way–the Phillies are a high school student with a report card of an A, a B-plus, four C-minuses and a D. The Marlins have two As and five Fs, and Cano and Ellsbury represent an A and a B-plus to put anywhere on your report card. Those two replacements make a bigger difference for the student that was worse to start.
The Red Sox last year changed a bunch of Fs to Bs, and had to be incredibly smart and incredibly lucky to do even that. If the Phillies were that smart and that lucky, the impact wouldn’t be that great. Weakness in the form of one or two disastrous gaping holes is relatively easy to solve in free agency. But the Phillies have a case of general mediocrity, an across-the-board malaise, and for 2014 at least, they’re going to drown in it.