|Phillies President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail|
Andy MacPhail has just begun his third off-season as President of Baseball Operations with the Philadelphia Phillies organization.
First hired by the Phillies as an assistant to Pat Gillick in June 2015, MacPhail has been an inside observer to the workings of the team as it finished with 63, 71, and 66 wins over the last three seasons.
Going back even further, the Phillies and their fans have now suffered through five consecutive losing campaigns. Not just barely losing, where your team is competitive. The Phillies best finish in that stretch was 16 games below the .500 mark.
It has been a long, dark period made even less palatable by the fact that it followed the greatest decade in franchise history. From 2001-11, the Phillies fielded just one loser, and that 2002 team finished just a game below the .500 mark.
Most fans, though frustrated, understood the circumstances that led to this current losing stretch. Our heroes of the previous decade pretty much all aged out together. Injuries cut short a few careers. A few poor decisions exacerbated matters.
The reality was that the Phillies needed to rebuild their farm system, developing a group of players who could form the next core of a winning ball club. That was going to take a few years.
Well, a few years have passed. The Phillies have indeed rebuilt that farm system. In the opinions of most respected evaluators, they have indeed developed a core group capable of special things in the coming years.
Despite the final standings, a number of those young players stepped up big in the 2017 season. The club played 23-19 ball over the last month and a half of the season as more of the kids were moved into prominent roles.
So when MacPhail sat down in front of the press in early October to discuss the Phillies off-season strategy, hope was in the air. It appears that “rebuilding” is over, or nearing completion.
Many fans and scribes believe that with just a couple of key additions, especially in the pitching rotation, the Phillies might even be able to push for a 2018 Wildcard playoff berth. Was the hierarchy of the team on board, ready to make a real push to start winning again?
“My philosophy hasn’t changed,” MacPhail said per Ryan Lawrence of The Philly Voice. “There are times when you’re going to have to dive into that pool and just take a risk. But it’s not my favorite place to be. We get inundated with stories across the game about how everybody is looking for starting pitching. Just get two quality starters, and we’ll be all set. Well, you might as well look for a unicorn at the same time. It’s tough. You don’t want to be paying for past performance.”
The cumulative message in MacPhail’s presser was that the Phillies are going to be spending money this off-season, just not on immediate improvements to the roster. Instead, there will be improvements to the ballpark and to the behind-the-scenes organization, such as the analytics staff.
Lawrence also reported in his piece, however, that according to MacPhail, principal owner John Middleton is not necessarily on board.
When asked how Middleton and the ownership group responded to the idea of not spending on roster improvements, MacPhail stated: “They did not react extraordinarily well in the beginning. Ultimately, they’re OK with it with one proviso: that if an opportunity presents itself, we do not exclude it. They understand the program.”
Since the press conference, MacPhail’s statements and position have met with a mostly negative reaction from that frustrated fan base. It has also prompted some criticism from those in the press.
Jack McCaffery of the Delaware County Daily Times was perhaps the most direct. McCaffery called the team president’s message “nonsense”, and characterized as “unacceptable” his position to spend on the park but not on the players. McCaffery opened his piece as follows:
“With the chance to use the Phillies’ slight, late-season, youth-driven improvement to inspire renewed fan excitement, Andy MacPhail instead made a recent retreat to the organization’s most humiliating modern-era moment.
Though the team president didn’t reprise the classic Bill Giles lament that he is running a small-market operation, MacPhail projected an identical message.”
While I may not be at the ballpark on a daily basis, I don’t need to be in order to have an educated, informed opinion on the Phillies roster and their organizational decision-making process.
As a Phillies fan for 47 seasons now, I have seen many ups and downs. There have been two glorious World Series titles, five National League pennants, 11 NL East crowns on the good side of the ledger.
More than half (24) have been losing seasons on the other side. This year’s team was the 12th Phillies ball club that I watched through a season in which they finished at least 20 games below that .500 mark.
As well as anyone, I understand the frustration. However, I don’t join in what I see now as a somewhat misguided rush to win in the short term. I want to win for the long term. I want another decade run, at least.
MacPhail was specifically alluding to the current off-season crop of available free agents when he spoke of keeping Middleton’s wallet closed for now.
That current crop includes a pair of arms that would be categorized by many as “aces”, #1 starter-level arms. Those would be Yu Darvish and Jake Arreita.
Beyond that, there are a number of interesting arms of various levels, all proven big league starter types. These include C.C. Sabathia, John Lackey, Francisco Liriano, Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, and former Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson.
Luring one of the two aces here by overpaying them, something that would most certainly need to happen in order to get them to choose the last-place Phillies over a contender, and adding one or two of the second-tier arms would absolutely improve the odds of a 2018 postseason run.
However, you aren’t getting either of those aces on a one-year contract. You aren’t even likely to get them on a three-year deal. You’re probably talking about a five year contract, minimum. Arrieta made $16.5 million and Darvish made $11 million this year. You can bet on them seeking, and likely getting, a five-year deal worth a total of $100 million or more.
Both pitchers are now 31 years old. Arrieta will turn 32 before the 2018 season opens. That is far from old in the real world. But you are committing big chunks of your budget to either arm through the 2022 campaign. MacPhail is not willing to do that, and I believe that he is right.
Spending $100 million or more on baseball players already in their 30’s is a fool’s contract in the modern game. It might work out once in awhile. But the vast majority of the time, you will be lucky to get a couple of good years before being saddled with three or more years of a contract albatross hanging around your club’s neck.
In a revealing piece on this topic back in 2013, Jonah Keri for Grantland told us to “beware the $100 million MLB man.”
“…if you want to avoid making a $240 million mistake you’ll regret for a decade, the answer’s simple: Assemble a bottomless well of homegrown talent and hire a GM with enough clout to talk his billionaire boss out of doing anything rash.“
If the Phillies were already a proven contender, and they had plenty of budget room, maybe things are different. But that is not the case. This young group still has to prove that they are for real over the length of a full season.
MacPhail believes, and I am not sure that he is wrong, that the Phillies will not repeat the recent losing campaigns in 2018, even without a big outlay of cash to free agents.
If the youngsters are as good as we all believe them to be, if those last six or seven winning weeks were not an aberration, then 2018 will indeed be much more exciting.
And if that does indeed turn out to be the case, if the Phillies are hanging around the .500 mark at mid-season, there is nothing to preclude them going after a big ticket arm and/or bat as next year’s trade deadline approaches.
There is one interesting case that appears could meet the Middleton proviso of being able to pursue an opportunity. That would be the case of Japanese phenom Shohei Otani.
Otani is just 23 years old. He has been compared to Babe Ruth, and called “the world’s best player who isn’t in the majors.” It has been said that Otani has “the kind of extraordinary talent that could change the sport” due to his outstanding performances as both a pitcher and hitter.
The Phillies would be joined by at least a dozen other clubs in Major League Baseball in bidding on the young wunderkind. But the fact is that based on age and position, he perfectly fits what the club should be looking for at this time. He is that “opportunity presenting itself” of which Middleton speaks.
Short of a successful Otani bid, I am on board with the Phillies heading into the 2018 season with their current crop of youngsters. I believe they will be much better next year, that it will prove to be the real beginning of a step forward.
I also believe that the Phillies are on the verge of spending big. Not now. Not this off-season. But perhaps at that 2018 trade deadline. Certainly no later than next off-season.
I do not believe that MacPhail is dooming Phillies fans to a repeat of 2013-17 any longer. The kids are here, and they are good. MacPhail and I, and you as well if you are honest, believe they are ready to shine. If they do, then they will get help. It’s almost time. Almost.