Phillies face tough deadline choices
Every time Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., proclaims, “We’re not sellers!” he creates the perception that his franchise is in denial, that the Phils simply will not accept the inevitable transition that lies ahead.
David Montgomery, the Phillies’ CEO, disputes that perception. He disputes the idea that the team should concede in late June. And he disputes that the Phils must go through some kind of organizational purge and trade virtually every asset before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
“I guess that’s where I see it a little bit differently than the way I often hear people describe it,” Montgomery said. “I don’t believe there is a cliff you get to and say, ‘Now it’s time to jump. We’re going from one mode of operation to another.’ ”
Are the Phillies a serious threat to contend? Not at the moment — they’re 37-41, eight games back in the NL East through Tuesday. Will they end up trading veterans? It’s a reasonable assumption. But the deadline is more than a month away. The Phils don’t need to decide anything yet, much less announce their intentions.
Indeed, for all of Amaro’s bravado, his actions ultimately will speak louder than his words. The Phillies certainly were sellers a year ago, trading outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence before the deadline and right-hander Joe Blanton during the August waiver period.
The club’s trade candidates this season are more prominent — left-hander Cliff Lee, closer Jonathan Papelbon, third baseman Michael Young, second baseman Chase Utley, catcher Carlos Ruiz. Whether the Phillies sell none of them, some of them or all of them will be determined in the weeks ahead.
Montgomery, echoing Amaro, sounds as if he is inclined to keep Lee and move forward with Lee and lefty Cole Hamels as the cornerstones of future Phillies’ rotations. And Montgomey, again echoing Amaro, says the Phillies, like most teams, will listen to anything.
“We have time. We absolutely do,” Montgomery said. “In the meantime, I think we have a lot to observe. Just in the last week, on the positive front, we had the offensive club that we envisioned we would have with the returns of both Utley and Ruiz. On the flip side, we’ve lost a bit of the bullpen. The loss of (Mike) Adams is a tough one.”
Adams, a right-handed setup man who signed a two-year, $12 million free-agent contract during the offseason, told reporters Tuesday that it was “highly unlikely” he would pitch again in ’13 due to a shoulder injury. Not good, considering that the Phillies’ bullpen ranks last in the National League in ERA by nearly a half-run per nine innings.
The team lacks proven internal replacements, and the trade market, for now, offers little promise. Still, the Phillies are mindful of their schedule, which includes a plethora of home games in the final two months. Starting July 30, they will be play 34 of 50 games at Citizen Banks Park before ending their season with a seven-game trip to Miami and Atlanta.
“If we’re still in the hunt, there will be a distinct opportunity,” Montgomery said. “In our eyes, it’s way too early to in any way send a signal in the clubhouse, to our fans or even to ourselves that we can’t accomplish something in 2013.”
The more interesting question, though, is whether the Phillies will accept who they are — an older club with significant holes, plus a number of potential free agents (Utley, Ruiz, Young, right-hander Roy Halladay) who are past their primes.
I asked Montgomery about the perception that the Phillies will resist further transition by declining to trade players such as Lee. The Phils made five straight playoff appearances from 2007 to ’11, won the World Series in ’08 and became appointment viewing both at the ballpark and on television. They may be understandably reluctant to break with their recent past.
“I think we’re already in a transition,” Montgomery said. “We’re trying to transition. We had a group of players that obviously gave us a great run, a lot of success. With the exception of a couple of players in that core, they’re almost the same age. They’re now all between 33 and 35.
“We obviously believe that time is marching on. We’re constantly looking at ways we can bring some more youth to the club. The Ben Revere deal is an example of that.”
Revere, 25, arrived last offseason from the Twins for right-handers Vance Worley, 25, and Trevor May, 23. The trade, to this point, has not worked out as the Phils intended; Revere entered Wednesday with a .619 OPS, 10th lowest in the NL, and has been below-average in center field according to some advanced metrics.
Yet, this isn’t just about baseball.
The other night on MLB Network, I mentioned that the Phillies are concerned with public relations; many clubs that draw well are hesitant to trade popular players and alienate ticket buyers. While Montgomery did not disagree with my premise, he chose to frame it in different language.
“You used the term PR. I would phrase it a little bit differently,” Montgomery said. “We have tremendous fan identification with members of this group. Utley, (Jimmy) Rollins, (Ryan) Howard, Hamels, Lee, Halladay — all would be good examples — Ruiz, I could keep going.
“When you have that strong identification, when you’ve enjoyed the fan support that has resulted from that affinity, do you factor that in? Yeah. Hopefully, we’re savvy enough to factor a lot of things in. But I don’t think it makes us blind: ‘OK, we’re going to hang on to this group forever and ever.’"
Montgomery pointed out that the Phillies parted with Victorino last July and lost outfielder Jayson Werth as a free agent after the 2010 season. Both were fan favorites.
“Our fans like the players not just as players but as people,” Montgomery said. “These guys have been great being part of the community. That becomes an element. There is no question.
“Do we factor the fan support that we’ve gotten into this? Yeah. Do we believe fan identification trumps winning? No. We understand that a lot of fan identification and support we got was because of the on-field success we’ve had.”
Still, such thinking occasionally leads the Phillies into questionable decisions, such as the re-signing of shortstop Jimmy Rollins to a three-year, $33 million free-agent contract entering his age 33 season. Will the Phillies make similar calls on Utley and Ruiz, both 34, in the name of “fan identification?”
What about the fact that the Phillies’ regional TV deal with Comcast expires after the 2015 season? Former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, now with the Cubs, said in former Sox manager Terry Francona’s recent book that Boston ownership wanted the team to acquire “sexy guys” after the 2010 season to combat sagging TV ratings on its regional network.
Montgomery said the Phillies will not take the same approach.
“What hopefully appeals to somebody that carries us is the strength of our support over the last 15 years,” Montgomery said. “We’ve been blessed with ratings — they’re not as high today as they were four years ago, understandably so, but they’re still strong ratings. Our attendance is still strong. We’re viewed to be a passionate sports market. If you have the opportunity to carry a major sports team in a passionate sports market, I think that’s attractive.
“That would be a stretch, to think that we’re making decisions on the field tied to future TV.”
Fair enough, but major decisions are coming, and those decisions will be telling.
The clock is ticking on the Phillies, in more ways than one.