Phillies business model part two: the curse of the core
by Scott Butler 7/3/13

In part one of our five-part series, we focused on the importance of a business model for the Phillies. We examine in this article how the Phillies allowed their core players become a curse.

Amaro’s decision to take advantage of a small window of opportunity with his tremendous core of players is not a faulty one. But there is a big distinction between aggressive and greedy. His individual decisions to land Lee, Halladay, Oswalt, and Pence were aggressive and mostly successful, but his decision to target all of them was greedy and showed the lack of a focused plan. Taken individually, many of his trades helped the ballclub. But viewed through a longer lens, he focused completely on short term success and ignored the long-term safety of the franchise.

Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay became crucial pieces to winning three of the Phillies five division titles and created a buzz around town along with an amazing sellout streak. Those accomplishments cannot be ignored and deserve top billing on his resume, but a smudge reveals a darker truth. Through his four major trades, he surrendered 14 prospects and returned just 4, for a net loss of 10 prospects in three years. Again, short-term at the expense of long-term.

His disregard for future organizational success was most evident with the Hunter Pence trade. When the Phillies acquired Pence they had the best record in baseball (66-39), were already on a pace for 102 wins, and had a 5-game lead over the Atlanta Braves. The pitching staff he assembled (of which he deserves a lot of credit) had by far the best ERA in baseball and though his offense was not nearly as potent as in the past, they still  ranked seventh in the league. The talent was significantly better than the 2008 team he inherited and the Phils were in a great position to easily win the division and possibly win another World Series. Yet unsatisfied, Amaro dipped into his farm system and removed the few prospects remaining at his disposal in the trade for Hunter Pence. To further injure the weakest part of the franchise was an irresponsible decision which cost the team dearly a year later.

The core that produced the greatest success in Phillies history inevitably and predictably began to break down. Amaro watched as Utley, Howard, Halladay, Polanco, and Ruiz succumbed to injuries and aged right in front of him. Less than two years after winning 102 games, the Phillies were forced to take chances on old and/or injury riddled players like Michael Young, Delmon Young, Chad Durbin, and Mike Adams. He is now stuck with an old, unhealthy team with a poorly rated farm system and a payroll without the flexibility to add the same players he once coveted.

This brings us back to the importance of a business plan. Their plan should have included numerous clauses to prevent their current plight. Their bylaws should have stated that no trade can be made, even if that player is Babe Ruth, if it compromises the farm system. Similar to how the human body creates redundancies to protect itself (like two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, two kidneys, etc.), the Phillies business plan would prevent overly aggressive moves to protect the integrity of the franchise. Even if a single trade results in the best team in baseball, the future takes precedence. Anything to avoid falling off the proverbial cliff like the Miami Marlins.
Also contained in their business plan must be five and ten year plans, but as Amaro recently said, “I don’t do five-year plans.” Seeing that this is his fifth year as GM, he seems to be telling the truth.

Such long range plans would have also dealt with how to handle the Phillies core players. Much of the Phillies success was due to a remarkable string of draft selection wins. The 2008 Phillies had ten starters who came up through their system in a seven year span. Seven were drafted by the Phillies (Rollins, Utley, Howard, Hamels, Burrell, Myers, Madson), two entered via Rule 5 (Victorino and Werth), and one signed as an amateur free agent (Ruiz).

It was a perfect storm. The core offensive group of Ruiz, Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino, and Werth were all within two years of each other at an average age of 28 years/8 months to begin the season. They made a combined $27 million at an average of $4.5 million per player. Six current or future all-stars for close to the price of what a single superstar makes. They were the Yankees without Yankees salaries.

This blessing became a curse five years later. Players who were young, cheap, and under team control in 2008 are now old, expensive, and less productive. That same group that averaged 28 years/8 months in age, made $27 million total, and had an OPS of .861 in 2008 is now 33 years/8 months, making a total of $80 million, with an OPS of .741.

While there is no way to combat the aging process, there is one way to avoid its inevitable outcome: trade one of your superstars.

In the next article, I will show how trading Howard, Utley, or Rollins could have saved this franchise.

Previous article: Phillies must develop an organizational business model

Next article: Phillies business model part three: trade Howard, Utley, or Rollins

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