The Phillies were supposed to get better. The line thrown around is that in order to get a good television deal, the Phillies could not possibly rebuild. The Phillies told people that they viewed themselves in "win-now" mode, and that they were going to add pieces to bring them back up to contention.
However, the Phillies have not. This offseason so far has involved signing a minor-league reliever, signing Marlon Byrd, and trading their backup catcher and a prospect to get scuffling reliever Brad Lincoln from the Toronto Blue Jays. This is not going unnoticed, and the Phillies have been outed by many writers.
First, Jayson Stark of ESPN walked away from the 2013 Winter Meetings in Orlando, Florida, calling the Phillies clear losers as part of his "Offseason Winners And Losers" column.
What we have here is a team that can't say the word "rebuild." So the Phillies have signed three free-agent position players (Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz and Wil Nieves) who all will begin next season 34 or older. They signed a 33-year-old starter (Roberto "Don't Call Me Fausto" Hernandez) whose 5.03 ERA the past six seasons is the second-highest (behind Luke Hochevar) in baseball among pitchers with 800-plus innings. And amid all of that, they floated the names of Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee and Domonic Brown as potential trade bait, to the confusion of many.
"I just don't understand exactly what they're doing," one AL exec said. "If you're seriously trying to win, you don't do it this way. And if you're trying to get younger, you don't do it this way. At some point, they've got to pick a direction and go with it."
Reading Stark's piece, you'll see that teams in the Phillies' own division have made it into the "winners" category. That is not a positive trend.
Matt Gelb took a look at the Phillies offseason in a column today. Despite promises to the contrary, the Phillies have not delivered:
"You remember that day, the day the Phillies traded two-thirds of their outfield in the name of "payroll flexibility" and "deeper inventory." Amaro sat in the dugout at Nationals Park that day to tout the positives about trading Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. He was asked whether he possessed the resources to sign a major free agent that winter. "Maybe more than one," he said.
The most money the Phillies have spent on one player since that day was the $27 million used to re-sign Chase Utley last August."
Instead, the Phillies went into 2013 hoping that Delmon Young would be the answer instead of investing in a proven commodity. Instead, as Gelb notes, the Phillies simply want to roll the dice and hope that their older players will be productive:
Amaro is resigned to putting the onus on his aging core, with the hope that those players somehow recapture their better days. The Phillies will not spend their way out of this mess because it is irresponsible spending that landed them here.
Remember when the luxury tax was the limit that the Phillies could spend in a season? That number is up to $189 million next season. Instead of spending the full $189 million, the Phillies may spend around $165 million, MLB Trade Rumors Jeff Todd writes, citing CSN's Jim Salisbury for the number. Todd seems to have identified Amaro's plans: fill gaps with non-premiere veterans and hope for the best.
...In breaking down the Phils' offseason needs, one option was for the club simply to tick through its list of needs by adding non-premier veterans. That seems to be essentially what has taken place, with the aforementioned players occupying the gaps found at catcher, the corner outfield, and the starting rotation.
Of course, as I also argued in that piece, the Phillies have roughly 17.5 wins above replacement to make up (as against their 2013 total) to look like a playoff team. If these signings work out, and things break right elsewhere, the Phillies should have the overall talent level to make a run at the post-season. But, on those kinds of favorable assumptions, so do many other clubs.
Todd says that the Phillies could be in trouble in doing exactly what they are doing:
Last year's strategy-- adding supplemental pieces and hoping for a big year from the team's aging core -- was an evident failure. One year later, it seems even more clear that, if not an aggressive buyer or an aggressive seller (or both), Philly could be caught in the middle with an expensive, injury-prone, low-ceiling ballclub. The organization faces a non-negligible risk of something like baseball's version of stagflation: a bloated payroll, declining attendance, and eroded leverage in TV rights negotiations.
Todd's assessment of 2014 very well may end up being such a disaster.
As a now former full-season ticket holder, I can personally attest that I am not interested in spending my money on a team that plans to tread water in hopes that maybe if they are lucky enough they make the playoffs. It's not that I demand to see an annual winner, either. I would be very much on board with season tickets if I could enjoy watching younger players the Phillies got back in trades. Yet, the Phillies held on tightly to Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz, and a closer that they now cannot get rid of out of some irrational fear that trading these beloved players would chase fans away.
Now, the fans are not coming to the park , angry at General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. Every day the calendar moves forward their core is a day older. It is now too late to do what the Chicago Cubs have done: liquidate all player assets and accumulate tons of talent that will form a dominant core in the team's future. In the irrational fear that trading Chase Utley would keep the Phillies from signing at top-dollar television contract, the ratings are way down.
There is only one thing for Phillies fans to do: root for the home team. Root for Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Root for Chase Utley. Root for Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. If they don't win, it's a shame. Those players of yester-year are all the Phillies have.