Monday, November 18, 2013

Team Postmortem: Philadelphia Phillies

Record:  73-89, -139 Run Differential

Summary: They say baseball is cyclical. The idea certainly has merit. Generally, when a team has had a period of sustained success, there comes a time, as the core of that team ages, that the team declines a bit as it reloads and rebuilds. This can be mitigated or held off if your team has infinite money (the Yankees) or an amazingly smart front office (the Rays). Unfortunately for Phillies fans, while the team has a lot of money, it's not infinite, and their Front Office may be the dumbest in baseball. As it stands, the Phillies are coming off of a terrible season. They are old, under-performing, and laden with ridiculously awful contracts.  We'll start, as always, by looking at the team that went on the field and then we'll tear into GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. a bit.

As a team, the Phillies sat 26th in Runs Scored with 610 and a batting line of .248/.306/.384. That's pretty awful and a far cry from the 713 runs they scored in 2011 when the team won 103 games. The biggest change for the offense? It wasn't power, because although the team's ISO in 2013 was a low 135, it was only 142 in 2011. The biggest change was in walk rate. In 2011, the Phillies BB% was 8.6% (9th in baseball). In 2013, that number plummeted to 6.9% (26th), and the team's GM commented to the effect of, "I don’t care about walks, I care about production.” Looks like those might have been tied together, Ruben. The team was lead by homegrown veteran Chase Utley. Utley finally managed to have a health(ier) season, appearing in 131 games, his most since 2009, putting up a still excellent 126 wRC+. He's still a well-above-average player, but is getting older (he'll be 35) and his body is showing signs of breaking down (games played last three seasons: 115, 103, 83). The Phils were also lucky enough to see breakout campaigns by Domonic Brown (.351 wOBA, wRC+ 123, 27 HR) and rookie Darin Ruf (11.3% BB%, 254 wOBA, wRC+ 125 in 73 games--although with very poor defense). Unfortunately, the team also let John Mayberry and his 286 OBP into 134 games and actually paid money for Delmon Young (-1.0 fWAR) for a whole 80 games. One cannot discuss the Phillies' offense without mentioning Ryan Howard. Howard performed a bit better in 2013 overall, but also set career worsts in BB% (7.3%) and ISO (.199). Fortunately, the Phillies aren't paying $25M to an rapidly declining, oft-injured, 34-year-old should-be-DH with a  0.4 fWAR this season. What? They are? Huh.

The Phillies fared only marginally better on the mound. They allowed the sixth most runs in baseball with 749. Their 3.94 FIP as a staff ranked 19th in baseball and were 23rd in xFIP with 4.00. Cliff Lee led the staff, continuing to put up the dominant numbers he's become known for, throwing 222.2 innings of 2.82 FIP/2.78 xFIP ball, along with excellent peripherals--8.97 K/9 and an amazing 1.29 BB/9.  Cole Hamels completed the excellent one-two punch atop the rotation with 220 innings of 3.26 FIP pitching. This is an excellent, if expensive (Lee made $25M and Hamels $19.5M) top of the rotation and plenty of teams would love to have that raw production. Unfortunately, the rest of the rotation was mediocre to awful. Roy Halladay saw his career fall apart before the very eyes of the fans at Citizen Bank Park. He suffered from severe shoulder problems during the season and ended up going under the knife, missing the majority of May, all of June and July, and most August. When he did pitch, the results were awful: 7.40 K/9, 5.23 BB/9, 1.74 HR/9, 6.14 FIP, and -0.8 fWAR.  To compound things, the bullpen was a disaster for the Phillies. Their FIP (4.06) and xFIP (4.29) were both 28th in baseball. The teams below them are the Astros and Cubs, who are each rebuilding and, thus, don't particularly care about a bullpen yet. Closer Jonathan Papelbon's peripherals have been declining--he just posted the worst K/9 of his career at 8.32--and so has his fastball velocity. Papelbon averaged 92 mph in 2013, while as recently as 2011, that was 95 mph. He is signed through 2015 at $13M a year, with an easily attainable $13M vesting option for 2016. He is a reliever. Amaro is an idiot.

The Phillies are terrible right now. Their front office is well-known for being extremely resistant to analytics and stuck in the past. Ruben Amaro, Jr. appears to have a complete inability to read the market, handing out long-term, exorbitantly priced contracts like they were candy over the last few years. Now the Phillies have an aging, incredibly expensive roster and absolutely no financial flexibility to supplement it. Forget 2014, the Phils already have over $80M committed to the 2015 club and over $60M to the 2016 one. The Ryan Howard contract has been the subject of internet mockery since day one, and has looked even worse than people imagined. Last off-season, at a time when the Phils should have been blowing it up after a .500 finish and the signs and portents well on display, they instead committed $144M through 2018 (with a vesting option for 2019) to Cole Hamels. Hamels is still a good pitcher right now, but for a franchise full of albatross contracts, adding another one--particularly to a pitcher who'll be 36 when the contract expires--seems like a bad idea. To make matters worse, Ruben Amaro, Jr. still seems to think his team is a contender. He, for the most part, refused to entertain any trades during the season (it took him until past the deadline to agree to move Michael Young, who was a pending free agent and awful). When he did consider a trade, such as for Cliff Lee, he revealed that either he really had no intention of moving anyone (because he believed the team could contend in 2014) or had absolutely no idea how to read the  market, since he expected any team to not only give up multiple blue chip prospects, but take on the entire contract ($25M/yr through 2016) as well, which is madness. It may be now that their window to rebuild has passed and now they will be stuck desperately clinging to hope of mediocrity until the massive contracts start to expire.

Team MVP: Cliff Lee, 5.1 fWAR

Team LVP: Delmon Young, -1.0 fWAR

Down On The Farm: After finishing strong for multiple seasons (thus low draft picks), signing plentiful Free Agents, and making aggressive trades for veterans, it is actually impressive that the Phillies' farm system is only mediocre, rather than abjectly horrible. Going into the season, Baseball America ranked them 24th in Baseball; more recently, Bleacher Report felt they've done a good enough job in the draft and with the few trades they did make to rank them 17th post-trade deadline. That's still not helpful, given their situation, but it's better than nothing.

Maikel Franco is a 21-year-old 1B/3B prospect who had the big breakout campaign in 2013. He split the season between A+ and AA, showing impressive power in both levels with a combined 31 home runs and 936 OPS.  He still needs to would on his eye at the plate with only 6.9% walk rate at A+ and 3.4% at AA. Still, the power potential is certainly there. The problem is where he plays. 23-year-old  Cody Asche is likely to open the season at third base for the Phillies, and, while his bat is weaker than Franco's, his defense looks to be league average. Most of the reports that I've read peg Franco as possessing poor range and foot speed, which is likely to regress further as he ages, forcing him to move across the diamond, where his bat could still play. The problem with that is Ryan Howard and his immovable contract.

Jesse Biddle, 21, is a big left-hander who possesses a four-pitch arsenal consisting of a fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup. He had a mixed season in AA in 2013. He started out strong with an ERA under 2.00 through April, but then suffered from illness and a foot injury that sidetracked his season; he had a 4.12 ERA the rest of the way. Still he possesses good  durability (he's surpassed 130 IP in each of his last three seasons), and excellent swing and miss stuff with a 10.02 K/9 in 2013. However, his command needs a lot of work with a 5.33 BB/9. There's still a lot of potential there and he has the upside of a #2 or #3 pitcher who can eat a lot of innings.

If APOD Was GM: The Phillies aren't going to be contenders in 2014, despite what Ruben Amaro would have you think. Not in 2015 either. Probably not in 2016 either. If the Phils spend money extremely well, get very lucky, stay healthy, and hit all their most optimistic performance projections, they might, might, end up over .500 next season. Maybe the Nationals will have an even more unlucky season than they did in 2013 and  maybe the Pirates and Reds will fall apart. Then maybe the Phils will be a long shot for the Wild Card in 2014. After that, things will get even worse; the Mets could be pretty awesome by 2015 and other rebuilding teams like the Cubs could be potentially young and awesome by then. The Phillies will be older and worse. The Braves aren't going anywhere. Nor are the Nationals.

The point of all this is that the Phils' outlook is horrible in the near term. The clubs in their division are all younger with brighter futures, and there could be a number of other good, young clubs entering contention for Wild Card slots. It's time to blow it up and rebuild a younger, leaner, better team. Unfortunately, the prime opportunity to rebuild was last off-season, when the club could have traded Lee (eating some money), Utley, and Hamels (rather than signing him to a ridiculous contract), and gotten a heckuva prospect haul. Now, the Phillies are locked into a ton of near-immovable contracts and a mediocre farm system and the Dodgers wont be picking up the phone this time. Hamels and Lee could bring back some excellent prospects, but only if the Phillies ate a ton of money--so much so that I doubt the ownership group would go for it, despite it being the best chance for a success going forward--so I'll assume that's not an option. The only choice, then, is to hang on and pray to get lucky. Or build a time machine.

1 comment:

  1. tl;dr
    Phillies are going all the way in '14.
    end of story.