Wait 'Til Next Year: Aging, expensive roster dooms Phillies again
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it's only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait 'Til Next Year series.
Current Record: 70-82 (.461, fifth in the NL East)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 17
What went right in 2014: Graybeards Marlon Byrd (playing his age-36 season), Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley (all playing their age-35 seasons) may not have shown peak form, but all four have delivered value relative to their salaries. Each has posted an OPS+ of 100 or better and enough positive defensive value to be worth between 3.2 and 3.9 Wins Above Replacement so far. Of the quartet, Ruiz's 26-day disabled list stint for a concussion was the only significant absence. Thirty-one-year-old Grady Sizemore hit a respectable .270/.321/.419 after being picked up off the scrapheap, and Ben Revere made a nation rejoice when he connected for the first and second home runs of his five-season major league career; he also stole 46 bases in 53 attempts.
On the pitching side, Cole Hamels has come back from a spring bout of shoulder tendinitis to deliver a career-best 2.47 ERA with a 3.06 FIP, one point off his best mark. His 5.9 WAR is the second-highest of his career, and he played a major role in the team's most memorable moment of the season, a combined no-hitter against the Braves on Sept. 1. Roberto "Fausto" Hernandez was solid enough through 121 innings to net two prospects in a trade with the Dodgers. Rookie David Buchanan, a 2010 draft pick, wasn't on anybody's prospect radar, but he's delivered 18 starts with a 3.75 ERA (98 ERA+). The only slightly more heralded Ken Giles, a 2011 pick, came up in mid-June and has whiffed an eye-opening 13.1 per nine accompanied by a minuscule 1.27 ERA. Jonathan Papelbon had delivered his best season as a Phillie before being suspended seven games for his crotch-grabbing and umpire-bumping — and he took Joe West out for a one-game suspension as well, producing schadenfreude-colored rainbows across the land.
What went wrong in 2014: En route to their second straight losing season and their first last-place finish since 2000, most of the Phillies' problems were easily foreseen by anyone not named Ruben Amaro Jr.; unfortunately for the team, a fellow with that very name serves as their general manager. Continuing to ignore the glaring need to rebuild, Amaro not only held onto his aging veterans, but also added another in 37-year-old A.J. Burnett, whom he signed to a two-year deal in mid-February, one that guarantees him at least $22.5 million. Despite having little realistic hope of contending, the Phillies entered the season with a $177.8 million payroll, the majors' third-highest — not to mention the NL's oldest lineup.
Alas, the team's two highest-paid players have been disasters. Ryan Howard has hit just .222/.311/.374 en route to -1.2 WAR; he's still owed a minimum of $60 million for his age-35 and 36 seasons and a steep ($10 million) buyout of his option. Cliff Lee, who should have been traded long ago, wound up making just 13 starts with a 3.65 ERA and just 0.8 WAR due to a flexor pronator strain; the 36-year-old southpaw is owed a minimum of $37.5 million via a $25 million salary for next year and an even steeper $12.5 million buyout for 2016.
On that note, with their poison pill buyouts, attainable vesting options and limited no-trade clauses, is there any team that writes more self-damaging contracts? Speaking of which, Burnett has pitched through an inguinal hernia — discovered back in mid-April — to the tune of a 4.40 ERA and 0.4 WAR, but by making 32 starts, his player option for 2015 is now up to $12.75 million, that on top of $16.75 million earned for this year via base salary, signing bonus and incentive clauses.
The younger players haven't given the Phillies much, either. Twenty-six-year-old Domonic Brown (.234/.286/.353, -1.5 WAR) bellyflopped completely on the heels of a breakout season. The 26-year-old Revere (.306/.324/.366) offset his shiny batting average and stolen base prowess with terrible defense in centerfield (-16 Defensive Runs Saved). Cody Asche (.249/.308/.389) was underwhelming in his first full season. Kyle Kendrick, young by this team’s standards at 29, made 30 starts but pitched poorly (4.72 ERA, 1.2 HR/9). Tony Gwynn Jr., no spring chicken at 31, was somehow given 126 plate appearances to hit .152/.264/.190 under admittedly trying circumstances.
In a farm system that was ranked 25th by Baseball Prospectus at the outset of the season, top prospects Maikel Franco and Jesse Biddle raised more questions than they answered. The former hit .257/.299/.428 at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, an admittedly aggressive assignment for a 21-year-old, but still a rough showing for a player whose future is likely at first base, not third. Biddle, a 22-year-old lefty, was knocked around at Double-A Reading to the point of needing a midseason mental break.
Update: It's been brought to my attention that Biddle's issues stemmed from an off-field concussion — sustained in a hailstorm! — an aspect of his season that was underreported, but one that sheds more light on his struggles.
Meanwhile, in his first full year at the helm, Ryne Sandberg has struggled both with in-game management and communication with his veterans, notably locking horns with Rollins and Howard to the point of being put on the hot seat. Amaro has looked even more overmatched, failing to unload a single one of his high-priced veterans before the July 31 deadline while famously complaining, "Frankly, I don't think the clubs were aggressive enough for the kind of talent we have on our club." August deals that sent out Hernandez and John Mayberry Jr. won't salvage that inactivity, but don't worry — interim president/CEO Pat Gillick, filling in for David Montgomery due to illness, has assured the public that both Amaro and Sandberg will return for 2015.
Overall outlook: Is there a more directionless club or one less set up to succeed in the future than the Phillies? At least the Mets have a passel of young arms, the Twins are rich with top-tier prospects even after this year's setbacks, the Rockies have Troy Tulowitzki to build around or deal, and likewise for the Diamondbacks and Paul Goldschmidt. It's going to take years before the Phillies next contend, but without a mandate from above to rebuild, the waiting will only be prolonged.