Raising the White Flag
Last Thursday’s trade of Roberto Hernandez to the Dodgers is both troubling and encouraging. The deal sparked a series of events and renewed old questions that bear heavily on the future of the Phillies. Josh Beckett‘s going on the disabled list, possibly for the remainder of the season, certainly factored significantly in the specific timing of the trade, but that’s really only relevant from the Dodgers’ perspective. The trade’s immediate impact was that it forced the Phillies to call up emergency starter Sean O’Sullivan, a replacement player if there ever was one, to take Hernandez’s turn in the rotation. (Sorry, Sean.) From a broader viewpoint, Thursday’s interrelated events were an indelicate signal that the front office really has given up on this season.
Which I’m obviously fine with on all levels. This season has been over for a while, and probably was even before it began. But if Roberto Hernandez could be traded last Thursday for two lottery tickets, why not two weeks ago before the non-waiver trade deadline? Why was this the first trade the Phillies made this season, and did they have a chance to make a Hernandez trade in July? What about Antonio Bastardo? If the season is so far gone that you spot start a guy with a career 144 ERA-, why are there valuable, eminently tradable assets still on the team?
Let’s for a moment set aside the contract details, vesting options and no-trade clauses included, that
probably limited the appeal of guys like A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd. I can understand, at least conceptually, that not trading them in July was partly because of their contracts. But understanding those hurdles and accepting inaction are two different things. If Seattle wanted Byrd, and Byrd wanted his ridiculous 2016 option guaranteed, why not just send that money to Seattle? Maybe Amaro was willing to do that; I’m not going to pretend that wasn’t discussed. If the Phillies really couldn’t find any acceptable trades for Byrd, Burnett, or Kyle Kendrick, which is highly questionable, why couldn’t they find any trades for Bastardo, Hernandez, or for the love of God, John Mayberry?
Not trading reasonably priced impending free agents (OK, so maybe not JMJ) before the end of July, in a lost season, seems irresponsible. I’m sure the Phillies had trade conversations with other teams besides the Dodgers. But giving the organization the benefit of the doubt is going too far in this case. The Red Sox did what we hoped and expected the Phillies would do: they traded everything that wasn’t nailed down, and in the process showed once again how a smart organization works.
If you’re going to trade Hernandez, fine. Trade him in July when you can offer him to Baltimore, the Yankees, the Dodgers, St. Louis, Oakland, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh. Don’t make the deal in August when you have your hands tied behind your back. If you’re going to have a team that needs to rely on a spot start from Sean O’Sullivan (or Jerome Williams), don’t wait until August to admit that this roster is a failure.
There are two major intersecting problems here. One is that the front office has hamstrung itself by adding clauses and options to contracts for veteran players who are past their prime, making those players less valuable. The second problem is more glaring, and more ominous. The front office doesn’t seem to have a plan, or if it does have one, it can’t seem to stick to it at all. Not making any trades in July was maddening, and I know there is an argument to be made that there will be opportunities to trade this winter (when all of the players will be older and more expensive relative to expected performance, but I digress). But to dance to that tune, only to then have an early August trade of an actually productive player and an emergency start by a replacement player, is like, so uncool dude.
The Phillies have had some good drafts recently, and there’s a glimmer of hope for the future with a few of the prospects, particularly J.P. Crawford and Aaron Nola. However, until the front office catches up with other organizations, or is replaced with people who will, the Phillies are going to be stuck in limbo: a high-payroll, low-production team with old players and few promising prospects.