The selling point of a major overhaul/rebuild in baseball, at least the way you bill it to fans, is that for a few years of abject play and unadorned summers you will be rewarded with years and years of contention and a spin at the playoff wheel that might land on “World Series Champion” every season for the better part of a decade. In reality, the rebuild model is a great way for owners to spend nothing on their teams for years, still collect their TV and BAMtech or related money, and then even when the team is good all the players you collected during your fallow period will still be cheaper than a contending team’s. But even that can be spun as allowing for financial flexibility to add to your cheap core to make your team even better. And to be fair to the Philadelphia Phillies, that last part is what they have done. It just hasn’t resulted in anything. Nor is it likely to. What happens when your rebuild never actually gets to the fireworks factory?
The Phillies aren’t the first, nor will they be the last, to blow up anentire Major League team only to realize when it’s rebuilt that they’ve only constructed a monument to the middle. The Pirates spent decades in the wilderness, finally put together one of the more exciting, young rosters anywhere and all it got them was a narrow division series loss to the Cardinals and having Jake Arrieta and Madison Bumgarner stick them in a barrel and roll them down a hill in two wild-card games. After that, the Cubs had taken control of the division and the Pirates gave up either by not paying that core or by not letting Gerrit Cole throw a four-seam fastball ever.
The Yankees went down to the bottom for a bit, and still haven’t appeared in a World Series since 2009. Though with the youth of their roster and the depth of their resources, there’s still plenty of time. The Diamondbacks barely stuck their heads out of the ground before deciding it wasn’t worth it and are back stripping everything to the studs again. It doesn’t always work.
But the Phils are probably the leading example of just not getting there. The D-Backs, Yankees, and Pirates at least have playoff appearances to point to. The Fightin’s don’t even have a +.500 record to sheepishly highlight and then look at their shoes while everyone else in the room wonders if that’s indeed the pitch.
Ruben Amaro Jr. got the axe five years ago for holding onto the last great Phillies team too long. But if any team should have been allowed to punch itself out and have the ref call it, it was the Ryan Howard-Chase Utley-Jimmy Rollins-Cole Hamels crew. The Phillies crashed to the bottom in 2015, when they won 63 games and Hamels and Utley were sent out of town midseason. Howard was moved off first by Tommy Joseph the next year, just one of the litany of names that was going to lead the South Philly Revolution that ended up getting lost in an alley.
Hamels was moved to Texas for a haul of players, and absolutely none of them have made a difference for the Phillies. NIck Williams looked like he might be a thing once, and then last year he put up a 14(!) wRC+ (Runs created plus, 100 is average), didn’t make this year’s team, and was claimed off waivers by Cincinnati in August. Chase Utley was moved for guys to basically fill out a poker game somewhere. Rollins was the only one moved for anything the Phillies have been able to use, and that’s Zach Eflin. Howard was driven out on the interstate, let out of the car while the driver sped off.
But it’s been a host of players that were going to key the turnaround for the Phillies that ended up bench players on other teams or worse. It was going to be Aaron Altherr, Cody Asche, Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, J.P Crawford, Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff. Nick Pivetta was netted after the Phils had to get rid of Jonathan Papelbon for fear of his teammates painting the clubhouse with his innards, and then Pivetta couldn’t find the plate and when he could his patches were met with violent responses.
That would be bad enough, but having a bathtub of prospects that eventually got sifted down to only one or two pieces of gold would be OK if they were met with smart spending. The Phillies were sure before the 2018 season that the base of Aaron Nola, Velasquez, Eflin, and Pivetta in the rotation along with Rhys Hoskins, Herrera, WIlliams, Franco, and Scott Kingery in the field were ready to make the leap. But it was obvious to anyone paying attention that Arrieta started declining during the 2016 season after his 80-plus innings jump in 2015 (postseason included). The Phils got a mid-rotation starter’s year out of him in 2018 and then watched him be a pyrotechnic accident the next two. Carlos Santana was brought in from Cleveland to add plate discipline to a lineup that needed it. But all he did was show discipline, i.e. took his walks and actually swung the bat maybe three times a week. All the young players, save Nola, essentially flattened out.
No matter, 80 wins for a young and rising team is still progress, even if hopes were higher. Hoskins was still around, Franco wasn’t worth abandoning yet, and Nola, Eflin, Pivetta, Velasquez still in the rotation. If you’re going to miss, miss long, right?
The Phillies swung big again. They signed Bryce Harper. And he’s been good. Not MVP-level, tear a hole in the Earth good, as he’s always been billed, because he’s not really that player, but he’s good. But they needed more than good when the rotation completely deflated outside of Nola and the position players, save Hoskins, continued to make whoopi cushion noises. They signed Andrew McCutchen, who then promptly blew out his knee. They traded for J.T. Realmuto, who has been everything they could ask for, except he’s poised for free agency and it cost them Sixto Sanchez, who looks to be a future ace if he isn’t one already in Miami. Not having Sanchez around caused them to back up the Brinks truck for Zack Wheeler last offseason.
All of this has gotten them...nothing. Even in an expanded field for the playoffs, the Phillies missed out again. The past three seasons see them six games under .500 combined. That’s the very definition of purgatory.
And now where they go is dicey. Realmuto looks to be taking a walk out of town, though that may depend on what free agency looks like mid-pandemic. The pen was an absolute disaster this year and needs a complete reworking. Philly will hope Alec Bohm’s brief audition at third this year portends to a brighter future in a spot that has killed many who came before him (booing Mike Schmidt comes with a curse, people). Wheeler, Nola, and Eflin are the only certainties for the rotation. They already have $155M committed for next year with Hoskins entering arbitration. There isn’t much help on the way in the system.
The Braves passed them. The Marlins passed them this season and look like they could make that a habit over the next few years. The Mets will have new ownership and a returning Noah Syndergaard next year, though they will always have a terminal case of “being the Mets.” The Nationals still sport possibly the best young player in the game in Juan Soto and that gold-decorated pitching staff at least for another season or two. The Phillies might have just built a shack in the swamp.
As Primus told you years and years ago. “They can’t all be zingers.”