Did the Phillies Learn the Wrong Lesson from Boston?

The Phillies have struggled to play .500 ball this season

From 2006 to 2011 the Philadelphia Phillies won more games each season than the season previous, raising their win total from a modest 85 to an outstanding 102. 

Their front office built a starting rotation headed by a trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels that teams and fans around the sport would drool over. The Phillies finished first in the NL East in five consecutive seasons from 2007 to 2011. 

But like a character in a sitcom who is living “the life of Riley” until the show needs a ratings boost and they draw the short straw, the Phillies began to realize that the good times would not last forever

Posting a .500 record last year and on pace to lose more games than they win for the first time since 2002 this season, reality has arrived in Philadelphia. The time to rebuild their once championship-caliber core may be at hand.

GM Ruben Amaro, however, is taking his time adjusting to the lean years. Looking at a roster that includes names like Lee, Papelbon, Hamels, Rollins, Utley, and Howard, the Phillies executive remains bullish on his club. 

Speaking with CSNPhilly.com in June, Amaro argued his team could duplicate the turnaround of the Boston Red Sox, a last place team in 2012 currently leading the AL East as the All-Star break approaches. 

Amaro expanded on this idea, saying, “There’s no blowing up. There might come a time when we make changes to improve for the future, but we don’t have reason to blow it up. Boston didn’t blow it up last year. They retooled.” 

Since then the GM has backed off his denials that the team could become a seller before the trade deadline, but his point stands: if the Red Sox could return to respectability in an offseason, why can’t the Phillies? It’s not quite that simple.

In Ben Charrington’s first year as general manager for the Boston Red Sox, the team fell on its face. 

One year after being heralded as the best team in baseball, only to miss the playoffs in embarrassing fashion, the Red Sox made a series of lesser free agent signings: Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, and Koji Uehara. 

Rather than go after Zack Greinke or Josh Hamilton, Boston moved down a tier in their acquisitions and filled in gaps with players who had some question marks. 

Napoli and Victorino were coming off down years, Gomes had succeeded mainly as a platoon player, Dempster was moving to the DH league, Ross was only a backup catcher, and Uehara had been a very good relief pitcher who, as he neared 40, was scaling back his workload. 

Yet, the Red Sox are among the best in baseball, one season after losing more than 90 games.

Ruben Amaro would seem to be correct: the Phillies were a .500 team in 2012 and are just a bit off that pace this year, why can’t they stick with a their already-signed core (Lee, Hamels, Howard, Papelbon, and now, Dominic Brown) and match the Red Sox, adding a few complimentary free agents and return to the top of the NL East? 

Phillies fans, if you are starting to get excited, don’t hold your breath.

The Red Sox didn’t just retool, a storm of signings, health, and a miniature fire sale worked in concert to make the 2013 roster possible. Starting with The Trade, we know that the Red Sox didn’t just dump spare parts onto the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

They parted ways with Adrian Gonzalez, their starting first baseman who was acquired for a package of prospects just shy of two seasons prior. The Dodgers took on nearly all of the remaining 6 years and $127 million left on his contract. Gonzalez was a player the Sox did not want to trade. He was the result of a multi-year search for a new franchise first baseman. 

But the team did so to sweeten the rest of the trade: five years of Carl Crawford’s at approximately $85 million dollars and the remainder of Josh Beckett’s deal, worth approximately $31.4 million over two years. 

While Beckett pitched well down the stretch in 2012, his 2013 was disappointing before he succumbed to season-ending surgery. Crawford, battling injury himself, is on his way to a bounce back season hitting .284/.343/.443 with five home runs and nine steals when he’s been able to take the field. 

Adrian Gonzalez too has rebounded from his disappointing 2012 hitting nearly .300 with some decent power (13 homers, 19 doubles) in the first half. The Dodgers got a lot of talent for a number of years from the Red Sox in exchange for pitching prospect Allen Webster and and young pitcher Rubby De La Rosa, who was making his return from Tommy John surgery.

The 2012 Red Sox were not in last place simply because of a trade: the team was without Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, John Lackey, and Andrew Bailey for much of the season, all of whom have returned to the field and, with the exception of Bailey, performed above expectations in 2013. 

The Phillies are missing Roy Halladay, who struggled in 2012, dropped down another peg in 2013, and is now recovering from surgery. But other than that, the Phillies have their team on the field. And it’s performing like an aging roster is expected to: not that well.

The version of the Red Sox story that Ruben Amaro is telling is one of offseason additions. Roy Halladay, even if healthy, is a free agent at the end of this season. He is not signed for the future the way John Lackey was during his lost year. This is important to remember because Lackey has been a force for Boston out of the rotation when his contribution was expected to be minimal.

For the Phillies to duplicate the revival of Boston they need to free salary, move valuable assets (Lee, Papelbon, pending free agent Chase Utley) with a bad contract like Ryan Howard’s. Hopefully they can acquire some prospects in the exchange and then use the money freed up from the veteran players to do what the Red Sox did and fill in their lineup with fresh, new, players. 

The Red Sox did all three of these things, not just the last bit about signing free agents in the offseason after a down year that Amaro is pointing to as the retooling rather than rebuilding.

There is a lesson to be learned in what the Red Sox have accomplished: big market teams working with other big market teams, can unload contracts, grab a few prospects, and trade a slice of their competitive window for a temporary step back. 

The Red Sox were still at .500 on August 6, 2012, and just six games under .500 when the trade with the Dodgers occurred. Without the trade they might have avoided last place in the AL East, but would not have had the financial or roster flexibility to do what they did in the offseason. 

There is no reason the Phillies can’t take some dead money, tie it to a few valuable players who can bring back a solid return in terms of prospects, and have plenty of room to spend in the offseason, reallocating a couple big deals into several small ones.

By: Mike Carlucci
Twitter: @MikeCarlucci

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