Last-place Phillies: Buyers or sellers?
I don’t care what Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says — I’ll believe his team is a seller when I see it.
But know this:
According to major league sources, at least one club — the Toronto Blue Jays — already has engaged in dialogue with the Phils about their top potential free agents, left-hander Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino.
Now hold your tweeting fingers and continue reading. No trade is close. No trade is even likely. And context is important:
Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos routinely inquires on star players, just as he did last offseason when he talked to the Seattle Mariners about right-handers Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda.
The Phillies are not going to quit on the season easily, not when they already have sold more than 3 million tickets and assembled a $175 million payroll, second only to the New York Yankees.
The Phillies can’t give up on the season easily, not until they get a better sense of how second baseman Chase Utley (knee) and first baseman Ryan Howard (Achilles) will contribute when healthy.
But Amaro, while not specifically addressing the Blue Jays as a potential trade partner, told FOXSports.com on Thursday night that he is not ruling out any possibilities.
“My job is to keep all lines of communication open, for the good of the club today and tomorrow,” Amaro said. “I can’t shut any doors down. You try to be creative. And there are a lot of creative GMs out there who have different goals.”
Amaro first mentioned the possibility of the Phillies as sellers to CSNPhilly’s Jim Salisbury earlier Thursday. It sounded as if he was speaking out of frustration or trying to send a message to his players. But Amaro said he was only being realistic.
“If we continue to play like this and keep dropping out of the race, it’s going to be tough to be buyers,” he said. “The one way we can be buyers is by keeping our heads above water — if we’re five games out, seven games out, within striking distance, then yeah.
“But if a couple of teams pull away, run away with this thing and we’re not up to the task, then you never know. Sometimes you can be buyers and sellers at the same time. That situation might present itself, too.
“I don’t expect us to be in a seller’s mode. But I also have to be realistic. If the team decides it doesn’t want to play the way we expect to play or play the caliber of baseball necessary to win, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone.”
True, but the Phillies still boast three of the best pitchers in the game — Hamels, right-hander Roy Halladay and lefty Cliff Lee. And the team, for all its troubles, is just 5 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East and just 4 1/2 games out of the second wild card.
I know that the Phillies, after winning five straight division titles, are not accustomed to such relative mediocrity. I know they’ve depleted their farm system in recent years by trading for Halladay, Lee and outfielder Hunter Pence. But my advice to Amaro would be to take a deep breath — several deep breaths, actually.
Of course, now that Amaro has uttered the “S” word, the mere idea of the Phillies trading Hamels and Victorino is certain to spark the imaginations not just of media members and fans, but also the GMs who actually make deals.
The Jays, for one, would be downright formidable with Hamels, left-hander Ricky Romero and righty Brandon Morrow fronting their rotation — and/or with Victorino replacing the yawn-inducing Colby Rasmus in center field.
Other teams, though, would harbor similar notions if the Phillies actually got serious about selling.
The Los Angeles Dodgers could get an early jump on the Hamels sweepstakes by acquiring him at midseason. The Yankees surely would slobber over the prized lefty. The Detroit Tigers could pair him with righty Justin Verlander.
Then there are the Texas Rangers, who were No. 1 in Baseball America’s most recent organizational talent rankings and are deep enough in prospects to make practically any move they want.
How about Victorino, a switch-hitting center fielder who would enable them to move Josh Hamilton to left for the rest of the season?
We could play this game forever, but regardless of what the Phillies do, the Blue Jays are in a fascinating spot.
The changing dynamics of the AL East — specifically, the struggles of the Yankees and Boston Red Sox — could create a rare opening for the Jays, who have not made the postseason since 1993.
The Jays, at their best, might not be good enough to claim even the second wild card — their rotation features three young starters, their bullpen without injured closer Sergio Santos is a mess and Anthopoulos was concerned enough about his offense Thursday to sign free agent Vladimir Guerrero to a minor-league contract.
On the other hand, the Jays can reasonably expect to improve. Santos, recovering from a shoulder issue, has resumed throwing. Right fielder Jose Bautista is far better than his current slash line of .182/.316/.345. And the team, No. 5 in Baseball America’s talent rankings, is well-positioned to trade for the right veteran, or two.
In fact, Anthopoulos told FOXSports.com’s Jon Paul Morosi last November that he would be more comfortable making major moves once he had a chance to assess his team and its postseason chances.
“In season, when you know who’s healthy, when you know who’s having a good year, when you know what your competition is doing, that’s when you potentially look to go big,” Anthopoulos said. “You have a much better understanding of the current landscape.”
Actually, the landscape has changed since Anthopoulos made those comments — the new collective-bargaining agreement not only created the second wild card, but also changed the rules for draft-pick compensation.
Anthopoulos no longer can apply his strategy of acquiring potential free agents and collecting draft picks after they depart; only players who remain with their teams for the entire season are eligible for compensation.
The second wild card, intended to boost pennant-race drama, also might inhibit some teams from buying. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane famously called the playoffs a crapshoot. He might need to invent a new phrase for the one-game wild-card round.
Seriously, how motivated will a team such as the Jays be to sacrifice long-term goals if the short-term prize is an elimination game against a pitcher such as the Angels’ Jered Weaver?
All of these questions will be addressed in the weeks and months ahead — it’s not even mid-May, and the non-waiver deadline is July 31. But already we’ve got one potentially surprising seller and one potentially surprising buyer.
Let the twists and turns begin.