The Phillies had a hard collision with reality over the weekend. Philadelphia was swept in a four-game series at home by the Braves, effectively burying whatever faint chances at contention that may have still been entertained.
Though just about everyone had already lowered the coffin into the ground weeks ago, the Phillies showed signs of life just a couple of weeks ago. A five-game winning streak — and a stretch during which the team won nine of 14 games — along with the struggles of the Braves and Nationals pushed Philadelphia to within 3.5 games of first place in the NL East and four games behind the league’s second wild-card spot.
Never mind that five clubs were ahead of the Phillies in the wild-card standings, and at 3.5 games back, they held fourth place in the division. A margin of fewer than five games meant the Phightins were in this thing, right?
Yet all you needed to know about how Philadelphia’s postseason chances were perceived throughout baseball was the reaction to Jimmy Rollins breaking Mike Schmidt’s franchise record for career hits. Sure, there was some respect paid to Rollins’ achievement and his place in Phillies history. The milestone also provided an opportunity to evaluate Rollins’ chances of being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
However, what people — especially rumor-hungry media — really wanted to know was whether or not Rollins breaking the record that was important to him and cementing his standing among the team’s all-time greats meant that he’d be more willing to waive his no-trade rights as a “10-and-5” player (10 years in the majors, five with the same club) and facilitate a deal to a playoff contender.
Rollins had previously taken a hardline stance against being traded, but acknowledged that this was probably a time of transition for the Phillies and he didn’t want to be a part of a rebuilding project. But maybe he wouldn’t have to be, because the standings said the Phils were within striking distance of a playoff spot.
Buoyed by the possibility of being a contender, Philadelphia responded by losing its next three games and eventually eight of its past 10, which brings us to now. Going into Tuesday’s game at Miami, the Phillies are 36-46 and hold last place in the NL East, 8.5 games behind Atlanta. Their place in the wild-card standings is only slightly better, eight games out with six teams ahead of them.
No more delusions, no more false hope. The Phillies are done. The coffin is not only back in the ground, but dirt is being shoveled upon it. And that dirt will continue to be shoveled on this team as it goes from Miami to play three at Pittsburgh, four at Milwaukee (which has the NL’s best record) and three against the Nationals before the All-Star break. After the midsummer hiatus, Philadelphia plays three at Atlanta and host the Giants for a four-game set.
As that stretch ends, the Phillies will be a week away from MLB’s July 31 trade deadline. By then, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. should be busy communicating with his fellow executives, selling off old parts that still have value and doing all he can to bolster the talent level and youth of his major league roster and minor league organization.
If he hasn’t already, Amaro needs to have a telethon call center set up to accommodate all of the calls his office should be making and receiving during the next 30 days. All lines are now open and operators are standing by.
To no surprise, CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury is reporting that the Phillies are ready to listen to any and all trade offers for their players. Of course, that doesn’t mean Amaro will ultimately make a deal. But he has to at least learn what possiblities exist. And as the Astros trade discussions leaked online and posted by Deadspin this week confirmed, major league front offices will field and propose all sorts of potential deals to see how players are valued on the current market.
Amaro might be handcuffed from holding a complete fire sale. But it doesn’t sound like that’s what the Phillies front office and ownership have in mind anyway. As mentioned above, Rollins can veto any trade and so can Chase Utley. But the opportunity to play out their contracts for the right team in the right city may prompt a change of mind.
What if Rollins has a chance to play shortstop for his hometown Oakland Athletics or another West Coast powerhouse, like the Los Angeles Dodgers? Plenty of fans, reporters and analysts will likely also link Rollins to the Tigers, who have been trying to find a regular shortstop all season. Utley could also be a fit in Oakland, as well as across the Bay with the Giants. The Blue Jays could use him too, though Utley surely doesn’t want to play on artificial turf for the next three years. Would he be willing to play for the Royals?
Philadelphia would surely love to trade Ryan Howard, but he’s still owed at least $60 million through 2017. And though his 14 home runs show he still has some pop, other MLB teams likely won’t be willing to take on that contract for a player batting .238 with a .722 OPS. Oh, and he strikes out about once every three plate appearances.
The Phillies’ best trade chips could be Jonathan Papelbon and A.J. Burnett. Playoff contenders are always looking for bullpen help, and though Papelbon isn’t the dominant reliever he once was, he can still be effective for any team in need of a closer or top setup man. Burnett isn’t throwing as hard as he once did, and thus not striking batters out at the same rate. But he can still provide a rotation with innings, which is very important for any team making a stretch run for the postseason.
Both players are also signed through next season for approximately the same amount as the qualifying offer a team would extend to ensure draft pick compensation if they were to leave as free agents.
Amaro has some other parts he can deal off in Marlon Byrd, Domonic Brown, Carlos Ruiz, Kyle Kendrick and Antonio Bastardo that could at the very least build organizational depth, if not bring back any sort of impact player in exchange. But is that really enough with the state of Philadelphia’s roster and talent level?
We’ll know just how serious the Phillies are about overhauling their roster and building a better product for the future by whether or not the front office pushes hard to trade its two biggest assets: Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
Lee, 35, has to show his left elbow is healthy after returning from the disabled list, however. But he’s signed through 2015 for $25 million, with a $27.5 million club option for 2016 (versus a $12.5 million buyout). Hamels is under contract through 2018 for $90 million, with a $20 million club option for 2019 (versus a $6 million buyout).
At 30 years old, with four to five years under team control, Hamels would surely yield the larger return of young talent. If Amaro wants to get the sort of haul he had to give up in trades for Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay and Hunter Pence, that would be the way to go. How good would Jarred Cosart, Jon Singleton or Domingo Santana look in the Phillies organization right now? What about Jonathan Villar or Travis d’Arnaud? Here’s a chance to get those sorts of prospects back in the minor league system.
But with his age and contract, Hamels is also a player the Phillies might want to build their future pitching staff around and sell as a face of the franchise (especially if Rollins and/or Utley are dealt away).
The premise of trying to maintain a fledgling contender to placate the Philadelphia fanbase and maintain attendance at Citizens Bank Park doesn’t hold up any longer. The Phillies are currently 13th among MLB teams in average attendance per game (though currently rank ninth in total attendance). That’s way down from leading the majors in 2012 and finishing eighth last season.
Philly fans aren’t buying what this team is currently selling. Blowing the roster up and putting unproven, undeveloped talent on the field for the next few seasons could be tough to pitch. But what other choice do the Phillies have at this point? Trying to fill holes with second- and third-tier free agents hasn’t worked for the past two years. Nor has hanging on to high-priced veteran talent.
It’s time — beyond time, really — to do what MLB teams just have to do every decade or so. Bite down and accept that rosters have to be rebuilt. There’s no reason to delay that process any further. To wait longer would only decrease the value of what assets Amaro has.