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Phillies ownership change may indeed be coming
by Scott Butler 8/31/14

David Montgomery was asked prior to the 2009 trade deadline whether he endorsed going "all-in" to win a second straight World Series in favor of a more conservative approach. His response, and I'm paraphrasing since I cannot find the direct quote, was that he would prefer to contend each season and not win a title if the alternative is winning one World Series and falling off a cliff.

Since those comments, the Phillies traded for Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Hunter Pence; surprised everyone by signing Cliff Lee; and handed Jonathan Papelbon the richest contract ever for a closer. They also re-signed nearly every core player, creating an historically old roster. Then, after an 89-loss season which cost the winningest manager in Phillies history his job, the Phillies refused to rebuild. Instead, they added 36-year-old Marlon Byrd and 37-year-old AJ Burnett, bringing their payroll to record levels with the same level of failure.

Ruben Amaro did not make these moves in isolation. He needed ownership approval for all deals and it is quite possible the decisions to retain Rollins, Utley, Howard, and Ruiz were in fact initiated by the owners. Amaro may have been the man pulling the trigger, but it was the ownership loading the shotgun. Such an unprecedented level of incompetence from top to bottom is almost inconceivable.

That is why it seems so clear now that the Phillies are preparing for the sale of the franchise.

The Phillies current ownership has always been careful with their spending, trying to closely mirror payroll with attendance. Bill Giles infuriated the fan base when he referred to the Phillies in 1994 as a "small-market team", but he was correct in the fact that they drew fans like a small market team. They upped their payroll in 2003 and 2004 with the new ballpark, but still followed the same attendance formula.

That was until Cliff Lee. The Phillies broke the bank for the first time in 2009 when they signed Lee as a free agent, increasing their record payroll by $31 million. Following a poor 2013 campaign and lagging attendance, the Phils extended their payroll by another $15 million by acquiring Byrd and Burnett. Why would an ownership with a fairly strict adherence to a particular business spending formula over the course of nearly thirty years all of a sudden change their profile knowing that their attendance revenue was at its peak?

The answer, which seems so obvious now, is that they were preparing for the impending television contract. The Phillies are a much more attractive product with $100 million in TV revenue guaranteed each season. With the contract in place, now is the time to sell.

Another key factor in the timing of the sale is the age of the ownership group. Prior to this season, three owners have passed away since 2008 (Alexander "Whip" Buck in 2010 at age 80, J. Mahlon Buck, Jr. in 2011 at 86, and Claire Betz this past offseason at 93). Then came the news last week that Sally Buck, wife of the late Whip Buck, died at the age of 83 on August 23. And, finally, the news five days later that David Montgomery was taking a leave of absence as he recovered from cancer surgery.

Of the owners remaining, Bill Giles is 80, William Buck is 83, Montgomery is 68, and John Middleton is 59.

Todd Zolecki mentioned in a radio interview with WIP on Friday that he has not heard any rumblings of a sale, which is not surprising considering the Phillies owners have been incredibly adept at hiding from media attention. But Zolecki also indicated that John Middleton, one of the current owners who recently sold his cigar company for $2.9 billion, is the best candidate to acquire full ownership.

"If anything, you might see a guy like John Middleton become more assertive, although he is already assertive kind of in the back rooms with the Phillies," Zolecki said. "He definitely is involved and that's a guy that I think isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Obviously, if other people want to sell, he's gonna get first crack at buying those shares."

The Phillies, especially under Montgomery's leadership, have historically shown an affinity for promoting from within, making Middleton the perfect choice to take over control.

Whether or not this is conspiracy theory on my part, with all the circumstantial evidence, it is hard to deny that there is a compelling argument for the sale of the franchise:

--The Phillies overextended their payroll in 2011 for the first time as an ownership and did so again in 2014.

--They emptied their farm system through four blockbuster trades.

--They maintained the same core, creating a roster which is on pace to set a major league record with four 34-or-older players to accumulate 600 plate appearances.

--Five owners have died in the past four years, two of the remaining owners are in their eighties, and the general partner took a leave of absence for health reasons.

--They signed a $2.5 billion TV contract over the offseason.

--The team will soon be forced to into a several year rebuilding process.

The pieces are in place for an ownership change, which should come as incredibly positive news. A sale indicates a clear plan and explains many of the perplexing moves coming from the front office.

If they don't sell, we are talking about serious Freddy Krueger stuff.

The alternative is that the Phillies are just as incompetent as they seem, proving that their five-year reign of NL East dominance was more a product of luck and good timing than shrewd decisions and the culmination of an effective organizational strategy. The absence of a sale paints the portrait of a franchise that knowingly and irresponsibly depleted their farm system, foolishly retained aging players in certain decline, willingly overpaid for free agents, and deluded themselves into believing AJ Burnett and Marlon Byrd were enough to create a winning 2014 product.

One broad announcement could change the perception of an entire $975 million franchise.

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