Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | January 30, 2010

If I Were A Phillies Fan……

……It would be World championship or bust, for me.   And nothing in between.   I’m not normally the type of person who thinks of things in such black and white terms, especially when it comes to baseball.   I also understand quite well that the nature of Major League Baseball is such that it generally is not even a reasonable frame of mind for a fan of any team.   The best team rarely wins the championship (it has happened only three times in the last twenty-five seasons and twice in the Wild Card era) and the difference between the best teams and the worst teams is closer than any other sport by far, much less the difference between the best team and the eighth or ninth best team.

However, what the Phillies have done by failing to keep Cliff Lee is the sort of high heresy that can only be excused by a championship.  Initially, the rationale for trading Lee was that they could not afford his 2010 salary ($9 million) and that they felt the need to replenish their farm system after trading a slew of their top 10 prospects in order to acquire Lee and Roy Halladay.   In an analysis of the trade that pre-dated this blog, I was both skeptical and critical of this decision but I understood it.  Teams operate on a budget, and sometimes there’s just not enough money for everyone.  I get it.

However, the manner in which this off-season has unfolded is such that there really is little excuse for failing to keep Lee.   They’ve signed Joe Blanton to a long-term deal that guaranteed him $24m over three years.  Granted this long term deal was constructed in a such a way that actually saves the Phillies money for 2010 (he was due a raise in arbitration and submitted a $10.25m claim, while the Phillies submitted at $7.5m.  The three year agreement assures that he will be paid $7m in this season), but it is large commitment of guaranteed dollars spread out over time.   They guaranteed $18m to Placido Polanco over three years that includes $5m this upcoming season.   They gave Victorino an extension that guarantees him $22m over three years.  He’ll get paid more ($5m) this year than he would have if the Phillies had beaten him in arbitration, though he’ll make less than if he’d have won the case.   They gave Danys Baez two guaranteed years at $5.25m which will pay $2.5m this year.   They signed Chad Durbin (as opposed to non-tendering him) for $2.125m for the upcoming season.   They gave Carlos Ruiz a three year extension that guarantees him $8.85m and will pay him $1.9m this season (similarly to Victorino, he’d have been paid less if the Phillies won their arbitration case and more if he’d have won).   They gave Jose Contreras $1.5m for this year.   They gave Brian Schneider a two-year guaranteed contract for a total of $2.75m that will pay him a million dollars this season.   They gave Ross Gload a two-year guaranteed contract for a total of $2.6m that will pay him a million dollars this year.  They gave Juan Castro $750,000 for this year.

Got all that?  It totals $87,825,000 guaranteed dollars over twenty-four combined years for ten players.   Of course, that’s just a large figure thrown out there for hyperbole.  For the purposes of this piece, consider it totals $29,775,000 just for the 2010 season for those ten players.   Ten players is a significant chunk of the roster and that isn’t to be ignored.  It’s 40% of the active roster and a quarter of the 40-man.   However if you look at some of those names and their expected roles on the ‘10 Phillies, and you don’t think you could find an extra $9m of fat to trim away in order to keep Lee?   Immediately without looking too deeply I could see Lee as being a more valuable commodity to have than Schneider+Gload+Castro+Durbin+Baez+Contreras.  Those six players will make $8.875m this year (almost as much as Lee) and all will fill roles that could likely be as adequately filled by younger and cheaper players.   Particularly Durbin, Castro, and Gload.   Was the extra two million dollars that would be the difference between keeping Lee and replacing that cast of veterans that all individually have use and utility but combined don’t seem to justify jettisoning a front-line starter just too much for Phillies Owner Bill Giles to stomach?

The combined WAR of those six players for 2009 was 2.6, while Lee added 6.6 wins to Philadelphia and Cleveland.   Even that paints somewhat of an unclear picture, since almost the entirety of that “2.6” figure was Contreras’ 2.5, which almost certainly will be reduced in 2010 by moving from the rotation to the relief role that he’s currently slated to fill in Philadelphia.

CHONE projections for 2010 show Lee being worth 4.3 wins to Seattle while those six players are projected at 1.1, which is still a significant difference.  Unlike many in the community of advanced statistics I’m disinclined to go to the well of “WAR” frequently because I think that a single catch-all number makes it difficult to maneuver for context.  And indeed a straight WAR comparison ignores the context that those players and their 2.6 WAR for last year and 1.1 projected WAR for this year still fill six roster spots that the Phillies would otherwise have to fill if they were to have not signed these players instead of Lee.   However, I think the dramatic difference in the numbers and the fact that all of these players (except maybe Contreras) could be replaced by players who are cheaper and either equal to, better than, or only marginally worse than those acquired while keeping a legitimate front-line starter justifies their use here.

And this is what Philadelphia has decided.  That they’d rather fill their roster up with “decent backups” than with a star Starting pitcher who will be playing for a big money contract.  This is a team that has won consecutive National League pennants and three consecutive NL East titles.  They’ve won 274 regular season games in the last 3 years.  Their core players are getting into their 30s and many of their veteran role players like Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez are already there.  That championship window will not stay open indefinitely as their stars begin to age and in some cases require renewed contracts that will likely command even more money that they may not be able to afford.   Championships are not easy to acquire and can be rare.  The Phillies franchise should be more keenly aware of this phenomenon than any, having only won one championship from 1901 through 2007.   It is my contention that you HAVE to strike while the iron is hot, and fashioning a rotation of Lee, Halladay, Cole Hamels, Blanton, and any of a number of guys that might include J.A. Happ would have made them a tremendously formidable opponent both during the regular season and in a short series.  I’ve already shown that it would not have cost them significantly more in dollars to do so.  Why didn’t they do it?

The other side of the coin is the prospect argument.  And its an argument that I can respect.  As a Tigers fan I watched the organization allow the 1984 championship team to age and watched them fail to replace those guys.  Continued poor scouting and development led to a generation of horrible baseball in Detroit.   As a fan and observer of the Tigers, I can respect the “stock the farm system” philosophy as much as anyone.   However, this is CLIFF LEE and you’re a championship-caliber team.  You just can’t pass up on him for prospects, especially when you consider:

a) The prospects that the Phillies received for Lee — Phillippe Aumont, J.C. Ramirez, and Tyson Gillies — Are all intriguing prospects and could well all make the majors in fairly significant roles, but none currently project to be a star in the league.  Meaning that ultimately it isn’t a *huge* deal to have them, unless one of them plays above their current projection.

b)  Lee is a free agent after the season and would certainly have been a type A free agent, meaning that the Phillies could’ve offered him arbitration and received one first round draft pick and another first round sandwich pick.

c)  Even after all of these trades, the Phillies have been able to hold on to their #1 prospect, Dominic Brown.

Given those three points, it seems totally wasteful to have given up on him simply to “replenish the farm system”.  If you trust your scouts — And the Phillies scouting department has had a good recent track record — Then you ought to be able to trust that those scouts can use the two draft picks you would net from Lee’s departure to acquire two high upside players early in the draft.  Players that might be better than the three you received from Seattle for Lee.

It just seems that there were too many reasons to keep him and so few to trade him, yet the Phillies elected to trade him anyway, and thereby fail to give their team the best chance to win IN 2010, even if their chance to win is still very good anyway.   As such, the only way in my mind to validate the decision to trade Lee is to win a championship and show that they didn’t need Lee in order to win the 2010 title.   Anything short of that, and if I’m a Phillies fan, I’m wondering what could’ve been if only management would’ve made a few decisions differently to allow them to keep Cliff Lee.

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