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The End of an Era

The Philadelphia Phillies are on pace to finish 3rd or 4th in the NL East for consecutive years, a decline that was set in motion at the 2011 trade deadline. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

[Editor’s Note: We welcome other voices from time to time. Since I ignored the blog all summer baseball insight was severely lacking. It seemed appropriate to let someone bring some baseball knowledge to the site. Without further ado, here’s Erik Schmolk.]

“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

-‘Once in a Lifetime’ – Talking Heads

The date was July 29, 2011.  The Phillies sat at 65-39, 5 games up in the NL East.  The team had been rumored for days to be negotiating with the Houston Astros for All-Star right fielder Hunter Pence.  He was the missing piece to a championship caliber club.  Pence would provide the right handed pop needed to protect Ryan Howard in a stacked lineup with an other worldly pitching staff that featured Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.  The manager publically lobbied for the deal and added to the furor of the moment.  The general manager had a track record of making huge splashes:  Lee at the deadline in 2009; Halladay in December 2009; Oswalt at the deadline in 2010; Lee again in December 2010.  The deal would catapult the Phillies back to the World Series they just missed out on in 2010.  It was the Golden Age of the Philadelphia Phillies.  They were the class of the National League and acquiring Pence meant the glory days of the team were extended.  The team would be stacked, with a former or current All-Star at 8 out of 9 positions.  The Phillies were being proclaimed in the press as the presumptive World Series champs.  However, the team was writing an obituary.

Once the Phillies broke the Philadelphia championship drought in 2008, more was needed to feed the fandom beast.  GM Ruben Amaro Jr. went out and acquired elite talent to make sure the Phillies were the best team in the league.  And they were.  In 2009, the team won the pennant.  In 2010, the team won home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  In 2011, the team set a franchise record for wins with 102.  The pinnacle of success was reached for a franchise that is ridiculed because it was the first professional team in US history to reach 10,000 losses.

It is important for a franchise to develop players because those players could turn into a championship core or they could be flipped to another franchise for existing talent.  At the beginning of the 2011 season, the Phillies had 4 prospects ranked in the Top 100 by Baseball America: Domonic Brown, Jonathan Singleton, Brody Colvin and Jarred Cosart.  The farm system was strong and would help the Phillies eventually replace the talent on the field.  They were a model franchise in this regard.  Strong Major League team being supplemented by strong talent in the pipeline.   The team had dealt 4 prospects for Lee, 3 for Halladay and 3 for Oswalt and somehow had continued their strong ranking by outside evaluators.  Baseball America wrote “One veteran scouting director said it’s possible that the Phillies could go on a Braves-like run of division titles (Matt Forman December 13, 2010).”

The 2011 season was a dominant show of baseball talent from start to finish.  The Phillies won on Opening Day and never lost first place all season.  Yet, for some reason, there was a clamor in the sports media and from manager Charlie Manuel that something was missing.  The previous offseason the Phillies had let right fielder Jayson Werth test free agency and he signed a massive 7 year $126 million contract with the Nationals.  Losing Werth didn’t seem like a huge deal because the Phillies had Domonic Brown to replace him in right field.  However, Brown broke the hamate bone in his right hand during Spring Training and the injury sapped his power for the season.  He never filled the large shoes that Werth left behind and was considered a bust by a large portion of the fan base hungry for star power.  The early struggles of Brown led the Phillies brass to look elsewhere for a bat to help what they deemed to be a struggling offense.  The offense struggled early on in the season but the pitching more than made up for the mediocre offense.  The Phillies FO pushed the panic button and started looking for an impact bat.  This led them to Hunter Pence.

Hunter Pence’s 2011 season was great.  For the season his triple slash line was .314/.370/.502 but for the Phillies, he batted .324 with an on-base percentage of .394 and a slugging percentage of .560.  You couldn’t have asked for more out of a mid-season acquisition.  He also seemed to relish the role he was given by the Phillies and the fan base as the “missing piece.”  His awkward batting style and gangly defense endeared him to the fan base as a star in the making.  Pence was a perfectly good complimentary member for a team that went on to win 102 games.  But the cost of his production that year was the prospects the Phillies gave up to acquire him.

The four prospects the Phillies gave up were Singleton, Cosart, Domingo Santana and Josh Zeid.  Rumors at the time were that the Astros wanted Brown but were repeatedly rebuffed by the Phillies.  Instead of giving up their number one prospects, the Phillies gave up 3 of their 10 ten prospects.  Whether or not those players will be impact players in the majors is still to be determined.  The Phillies used one of their strengths (their Farm System) to marginally improve the Major League club.  Looking back, the trade is nothing short of a disaster.  Not only did the Phillies not win the World Series in 2011, but 2 out of the 4 prospects traded have already reached the bigs.  Cosart had a fine debut for the Astros this year going 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA while Josh Zeid appeared in 21 games.  Singleton had a below average year in Triple A but he is only 21 years old on the cusp of being in the majors.  Santana slugged 25 home runs in AA and figures on moving up to AAA next season.  All of these players will make an impact for a rebuilding Astros club.

The trade was an all-in move from a baseball perspective.  At the time, the general (wrong) consensus was that Pence was worth the price the Phillies paid.  But the question must be asked – why did the Phillies pay so much for him?  Was Pence that essential to the Phillies’ 2011 postseason hopes?  Absolutely not.  Amaro was the chip leader at the table and decided to throw all those chips into one hand instead of throwing his weight around and making the other players play into his strength.   The narrow sight portrayed by the Phillies front office of World Series or bust doomed the franchise for the past two years.  With those prospects in the fold, the Phillies could have acquired an elite bat (like Justin Upton) after the 2011 or 2012 season.  Or they could’ve held onto them and let them develop further.  Although I ultimately think Cosart will end up in the bullpen, he would’ve been a welcome sight to a rotation that ranks at the bottom of the NL.  Singleton would be pushing for a role while Howard still recovers from the multiple injuries that have sidelined him since the Achilles tear.  Santana would be a Top 5 prospect and would be penciled in as having a legit shot to be the Phillies left fielder within the next 2 years.

We all know what happened after the Phillies clinched the NL East in 2011 – they were beaten by the Cardinals in the NLDS; Howard blew out his Achilles; Utley’s knees worsened and he missed almost half of 2012; Roy Halladay began a precipitous decline that saw him go from the best pitcher in the league to a below average starter; various injuries to starters had players like Michael Martinez playing significant roles for the 2012 and 2013 Phillies; Shane Victorino was dealt to the Dodgers at the trade deadline in 2012; Pence was traded to the SF Giants and won a World Series; and as of this writing, the Phillies clinched their first losing season since 2002.  It is unfortunate that at their absolute pinnacle, the Phillies squandered their success and began a swift decline.

The Phillies could have ridden out the 2011 season with the pitching staff they had and the mediocre offense.  Worse offensive teams have won the Commissioner’s trophy.  The lack of foresight by the Phillies front office hurt the team’s chances in 2011, 2012 and now 2013.  The farm system has never recovered from the hit it took in 2011.  It is now making strides, but the lack of talent in the upper minors has helped the Phillies fall from perennial winner to a 3rd place team.  Hopefully the Phillies front office has learned from their massive mistake during the 2011 season. All-in moves are not the answer to sustaining a successful franchise.

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