The Goldilocks Zone of Losing
There is a point at which all things break, or melt, or freeze. There is a point at which something’s physical state becomes changed, transformed into something atomically similar to what it once was, but usually not physically or visually reminiscent of past form.
In 2012, the Phillies resembled the early stages of 2003’s disaster-porn flick The Core, wherein the Earth’s magnetic core has stopped spinning, creating ever-intensifying abnormalities on the surface that ever-increasingly threaten normal life. In 2013, those surface problems were dialed up a notch. You see where I’m going with this.
Ruben Amaro, Jr. is looking for the nuclear reaction to get the core of this team spinning again, and he’s trying to do it by straddling the line between full competitive team-building and blow-it-up rebuilding, as noted by CSN’s Justin Klugh. As also noted by Klugh, this isn’t really a thing that happens. At least, it isn’t a tactic that results in something even remotely resembling a quick turnaround.
The Mariners, for one, have struggled with this and have produced just two 80-plus-win seasons in the last 10. Even in both of those years, they were outscored by their opponents and failed to make the playoffs. They’ve made it a point to retain Felix Hernandez, even through a stretch of four consecutive fourth-place finishes and the dangling carrot of a massive trade return. Now, for 2014, they’ve decided to flip the switch to full-on contention with the signing of Robinson Cano, ending years of philosophical limbo. Whether it pays off remains to be seen, but at least they’ve made the commitment in a single direction.
The Phillies have made few strides toward youth, with only four players 24 or younger by opening day receiving at least 100 PA since the start of 2012. They have that in common with a few clubs, but it’s importance to notice some differences.
The Phillies have one player among their four who was, at any point, a nationally reputed prospect: Domonic Brown. Look among the names listed for other teams and, depending on your familiarity with prospect lists, you’ll notice these other clubs are often giving significant playing time to multiple top-100 prospects. The best hope for the likes of Asche, Galvis and Hernandez is that they find a way to somehow become everyday-caliber players, much less stars like the likes of Freeman, Heyward, Bumgarner, Harper, Strasburg, Trout, etc. Some of that has to deal with a lack of high draft picks after years of success (and, regrettably, the Jonathan Papelbon signing), which will hopefully be remedied with the seventh overall selection in this coming June’s draft.
All of this points to a singular question, though: where is the “Goldilocks” zone of losing? I don’t mean finishing 81-81; rather, how long is just long enough to lose, acquire good amateur talent and convert that into a core that can be supplemented through free agency or trade? How long a leash can Amaro be afforded, given that this club has descended from 102 wins just three seasons ago to a noticeable chance at finishing in the division’s cellar in 2014?
It stands to reason that, with a 2014 at the low level of ’13, Amaro could feel the water temperature rising. Another disappointing season this year likely won’t force Amaro out of his role, but if this sort of thing can be judged simply from the outsider fan’s perspective, it certainly feels like the “just right,” acceptable period of losing seasons won’t be very long at all.