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.

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16 comments

  1. ASK

    August 12, 2014 09:02 PM

    Was Hernandez claimed on waivers? I do not think so. If not, there was no difference between trading him by July 31 and trading him in August. In fact, maybe there was no market for him until Beckett got hurt.

    I’m all for criticizing RAJ & the front office when it is warranted, but I just don’t see the case for criticism here. I think the whole Hernandez affair – from the Analytics Department finding an under-valued 5th starter to his production for ~$3M to the two lottery tickets – was a win for the Phillies.

    • Adam Dembowitz

      August 12, 2014 10:14 PM

      I am not criticizing the signing. It was a good deal. But there are two major problems with your comment. One, I find it really doubtful there was no market for Hernandez. More significantly, there is a difference between July and August. In August you have 48 hours to do a deal, and if you can’t get it done, you have to pull the guy back and that’s it. I think that’s a big difference.

      • ASK

        August 13, 2014 03:11 AM

        The 48 hours is only a limitation if the player was claimed on waivers. As I wrote, I don’t believe that Hernandez was claimed. If so, I stand corrected and the criticism for waiting to trade him is warranted.

      • hk

        August 13, 2014 12:34 PM

        I know it has been speculated that the Dodgers actually claimed him, but I have not seen any definitive comments to that extent. Have you? Even so, the fact that he fell to the Dodgers, the team with the best record in the NL, shows that there really wasn’t much of a market for him. As much as I like to criticize this front office, I find it hard to believe that there was a market for him on July 31, but the Phils turned down offers only to turn around and trade him a few days later. I think it is more likely that the market for him developed when the Dodgers learned of Beckett’s injury.

  2. Jordan

    August 12, 2014 10:23 PM

    Agreed on everything you said. I just read (I think at Bleacher Report?) that the Phillies are ranked 30th in MLB on how they will be doing in 2017. They broke down the prospects, etc. and came up with a power rankings. 30th. Embarrassing.

  3. Pencilfish

    August 13, 2014 12:45 AM

    Bill, whether the team loses 90+ games with these veterans or with a bunch of AAA players over the next 2+ seasons, it makes no sense to trade most of the names you brought up for a bunch of low-level prospects. Aside from Hamels and possibly Utley, the Phillies WILL NOT get ML-ready players in trades. If all we are getting is a bunch of lottery tickets with a very low probability of them turning into useful ML players, then why trade before the deadline? In effect, you are saying the Phillies will get better lottery tickets before July 31 than after–not very convincing.

    The Phillies don’t need to trade anyone for the sake of salary relief or to create headroom to sign high-profile FA’s this winter. Regardless of whom they sign this winter, let’s face it, the team will stink for a while until it accumulates enough talented critical mass. Speaking of Bastardo, his performance tonight (0.1 P, 4H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 0 SO) illustrates a common problem–he is not worth much. Who wants a reliever who can’t relieve?

    • ASK

      August 13, 2014 05:03 AM

      The conversation of whether or not the Phillies should have traded Byrd or Burnett or even Bastardo before 7/31 is a pretty futile exercise without knowing which “lottery tickets”, if any, were offered for those players. There are different types of “lottery tickets” as the metaphor is used in this way. Some lottery tickets are low level minor league players like the ones the Phillies reportedly acquired for Roberto Hernandez. Others are former top prospects who are blocked and/or have not produced in their first go-around in MLB (e.g. Nick Franklin, who was traded by Seattle for Austin Jackson). Sometimes lottery tickets turn out to be nothing more than organization filler or former top prospects who continue to under-perform for their new teams. Other times, they turn out to be Jake Arrieta, who was acquired for Scott Feldman, or Michael Brantley, who was the PTBNL in the CC Sabathia trade in which Matt LaPorta was the headliner going back to Cleveland. Again, I don’t know if Seattle offered Nick Franklin for Marlon Byrd, but if they did, I would sooner see Nick Franklin in a Phillies uniform for the next few years (and beyond) than Marlon Byrd.

      • Pencilfish

        August 13, 2014 04:44 PM

        Ask,

        Nick Franklin is primarily a SS/2B hitting .214/.291/..358 over 464 PA. Where would he play since Rollins/Utley have 10/5 rights and if does play full-time, how does his performance so far give you any confidence he can help the Phillies in a few years? His ML numbers (though 464 PA is not statistically meaningful) don’t indicate a trade of Byrd for him would be a clear win for the Phillies.

      • ASK

        August 13, 2014 06:54 PM

        I don’t think it would be a clear win. If it was so clear, Seattle would not part with him. However, Jake Arrieta was a 26 year old former top prospect with a 5.46 ERA in 358 innings before the Cubs traded Scott Feldman for him. Since then, he has a 3.06 ERA in 162 innings. That was a clear win for the Cubs and is at the high end of the lottery ticket metaphor. The point is that the best way to hit on a lottery ticket – in the baseball sense, not the real world lottery that benefits senior citizens – is to acquire as many of them as possible. The chances of either of these long shots that they acquired from the Dodgers making it big are slim. However, if they had acquired one or two guys like Franklin, one or two guys like the kid the Orioles traded to the Red Sox for Andrew Miller and the two guys from the Dodgers, they’d have a much better chance of finding some value.

  4. Jonathan

    August 13, 2014 08:53 AM

    “… 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.”

    Sorry for nitpicking…

    I don’t agree with this statement. The contracts don’t make the players less valuable, it just makes them more costly. Trading for these players is certainly less appetizing because of the contracts, but a hypothetical player’s value (i.e. how he contributes to a team) is not determined by the makeup of his contract.

      • Jonathan

        August 13, 2014 06:57 PM

        You just said:
        Price = f(Value)

        Notice that ‘Value” is the independent variable in this equation.

  5. GB

    August 13, 2014 09:39 AM

    The main purposes for signing older vets like Byrd, Burnett and Hernandez prior to a season that most likely will be a lost one are:

    1. They act as a bridge stop-gap until younger players or farm prospects are ready to contribute.

    2. They can be cheaper options and signed on short term contracts i.e. 1-2 years

    3. They can have trade value at the deadline when other teams are looking for stretch run help and can be flipped for talent.

    This strategy can be effective if executed correctly. The Phils unfortunately have only done that with Hernandez so far. They signed him to a team-positive deal that would not hamper trades, he performed decently as a stop-gap this season and they flipped him for two “prospects”.

    Both Byrd and Burnett have not been converted yet and likely will not be until the off-season. Phils may be able to deal Burnett before the August deadline, but Byrd is locked in now since we pulled him back from waivers. The problems were the type of contracts the Phils signed them to were not friendly for trades due to the clauses/options/no-trades provided and the Phils appear NOT to be committed to trading them by adding $$ to get better talent in return. In fact, it seems the Phils may keep Byrd and play him in 2015. Not the end of the world, but certainly a big risk at his advanced age.

    The other one they have failed to convert into talent is Kendrick. He is expensive for a pitcher of his quality and someone they likely were not bringing back. They needed to cash him in for what they could get this season.

  6. Adam Dembowitz

    August 13, 2014 12:41 PM

    “We came away with a couple of pretty talented young kids and we’re still in the process of choosing who they are going to be, but we’re pretty pleased with that,” Amaro said. “And when you’re talking about timelines and deadlines, we literally only had about 47 hours to make a deal and going through that process we felt like we did OK with it. We’ll see how it turns out.”

    He was claimed.

    • ASK

      August 13, 2014 06:56 PM

      Thanks for pointing that out. I had not seen that quote before. That being said, what is your premise here? Is it that there was a market for Hernandez prior to July 31, but that the Phillies were not looking to deal him?

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