The Phillies aren’t on anybody’s list to contend next season. They’re currently the worst team in baseball with a 53-83 record. They’ve already “clinched” their third straight losing season, and they would have to win 20 of the final 26 games to get back to where they finished in 2013 and 2014 (73-89). Fans probably don’t even want to see that level of success down the stretch. As it stands, the Phillies are poised to make the first overall selection in the 2016 Rule 4 draft.
Despite all the dismal notes, there are reasons to feel optimistic about the future of the club – perhaps as soon as 2016. The financial problems of the past have been relaxed. Only three players are under contract beyond this season – Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, and Matt Harrison. The trio is owed $46.5MM. Cliff Lee is due a $12.5MM buyout. Domonic Brown is the only arbitration eligible player on the roster. He avoided arbitration for $2.6MM this season and appears to be a non-tender candidate. Even if he’s retained, I doubt he’ll earn more than $3.5MM.
The Phillies will eventually open their war chest. The question is – when? Here are three issues the club should address this winter…
1. Commit to a front office and managerial staff. The first order of business is to complete the transfer of power from current president Pat Gillick to presumed future president Andy MacPhail. The longtime baseball executive is serving in an advisory role, although it is clear the club plans for him to succeed Gillick.
Entering the season, it was very widely assumed that GM Ruben Amaro’s contract would be allowed to lapse at the end of the season. After all, he oversaw the plunge from five straight division titles to this ignominious season. Irresponsible contracts are often blamed for the downfall, but the root of the issue is even simpler – the championship core got old, and reinforcements never arrived.
Per FanGraphs WAR, Howard hasn’t been an above average player since 2009. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee both broke down before the end of their contracts. Others like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, and Shane Victorino suffered predictable age-related decline. Brown, once Baseball America’s number one prospect, never lived up to the hype. He was the only high ceiling prospect to crack the roster between their last contending season and 2014 when Maikel Franco briefly debuted.
It’s easy to blame irresponsible spending and poor roster construction on the GM. And perhaps that’s where we should stop when evaluating Amaro. It’s also hard to know just how much autonomy Amaro possessed. Unsubstantiated rumors suggest that part-owner John Middleton had a hand in several major moves including the acquisition of Halladay, the subsequent trade of Lee, and the extension of Howard. Without insider knowledge, it’s impossible to know what went on behind the scenes.
Amaro has clawed back some personal respectability this season by transforming the farm system via trade. After overseeing a series of bleak drafts, a few top prospects including Aaron Nola, Franco, and J.P. Crawford have emerged. Amaro also patiently turned Cole Hamels, Utley, Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon, Ben Revere, and others into about half of the team’s top 20 prospects. Is overseeing a successful fire sale enough to give Amaro a second chance?
While MacPhail decides on a GM – be it Amaro or a new candidate – he’ll also need to consider managerial choices. The Phillies do have an internal option, interim manager Pete Mackanin. This is the third time he has served as an interim manager, and he has never held the role on a permanent basis. Per Tracy Ringolsby of MLB.com, “scouts have been impressed with the energy the Phillies have shown on the field,” since Mackanin took over. The team is 27-35 under his stewardship and 24-21 over the last 45 games.
2. Find Pitching. Once the roles of club president, GM, and manager are officially staffed, it will be time to work on the roster. The conservative approach would be to organically develop cost controlled talent before making a splash on a few pricey free agents. This is roughly the approach followed by the Nationals. However, other clubs have taken a more aggressive tact. Even the Nationals inked Jayson Werth before they were truly ready to contend.
One thing is clear, the Phillies need pitching. The lineup may lack star power, but there is depth and interesting talent. The same can’t really be said of the pitching staff. Nola appears to be a viable mid-rotation workhorse. Jerad Eickhoff, acquired in the Hamels trade, has pitched well in three starts. Adam Morgan has survived 13 starts with a 4.42 ERA and an ugly 5.33 FIP. Beyond that trio, the internal candidates are all unproven prospects without big pedigrees. Jake Thompson, also part of the Hamels trade, is the only one with a top-of-the-rotation ceiling. Some scouts compare him to Jonathan Papelbon.
External additions are necessary. While the club has as many as seven future big league starters who could help next season, a couple proven innings eaters would greatly help team cohesion while lessening the strain on a shallow bullpen. Philadelphia has the money to dip into the top of the free agent market for a David Price, Zack Grienke, or Johnny Cueto. However, they would have to feel confident about a quick rebuild to make such a substantial investment on a pitcher. Their experiences with Halladay and Lee might cause them to hesitate.
The obvious approach is to find more stopgaps like Aaron Harang and Jerome Williams. Options like Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Kazmir, and Mike Leake might serve as a compromise between aggression and conservatism. And, of course, the Phillies are well-situated to add buy-low veterans on short-term deals, possibly flipping those that work out at the trade deadline. In my opinion, the team would ideally add three veteran starters. They should also be active on the trade market.
3. Resolve the Howard situation. The Phillies have done everything they can to find a taker for Howard. He’s still a decent hitter against right-handed pitching, slashing .262/.314/.499 this season (119 wRC+). In trade rumors, he’s been tied to the Orioles on multiple occasions. Camden Yards is extremely friendly to left-handed power. If Baltimore fails to re-sign Chris Davis, Howard could offer an inexpensive alternative.
Regardless of what happens, the Phillies will be on the hook for most or all of the remaining $35MM guaranteed to Howard. They’re unlikely to acquire a meaningful prospect in return for him. So why bother with a trade? It’s a matter of opportunity cost.
So long as Howard remains with the club, they aren’t evaluating new options on the major league roster. They could try to acquire a position-less, Quad-A power bat or even trade for a blocked prospect like Dan Vogelbach. Top Korean power hitter Byung-ho Park may be posted this offseason. Howard’s presence on the roster doesn’t stop the club from pursuing these alternatives, but it does reduce the urgency to make a move. And it may block the discovery of a pleasant surprise like Chris Colabello, Danny Valencia, or Justin Bour.