July 07, 2021
After watching (read: hearing about, because that's where I am with this team at the moment) the Phillies blow save after save over the last few weeks, and still struggling to comprehend how it's even possible to be that bad in the bullpen again this season, it feels almost nonsensical to write this, but here it goes...
Maybe the Phillies should be buyers at the deadline.
And before you accuse me of overreacting to a few wins against the Padres and the free-falling Cubs, take a breath. That's not what this is. Sure, they've moved up from fourth to second in the National League East, but they're still four games back of the Mets, just a slight improvement from where they were last week.
No, this is about properly playing the market and taking advantage of what might be a rare buyers' market at the trade deadline.
In Buster Olney's most recent column for ESPN, the veteran baseball scribe took a look at the current playoff landscape and came away with the belief that, due to there being such a distinction between MLB's haves and have-nots, there will be fewer middling teams motivated to buy, thus creating a potential opportunity should one of those teams decide to fill that void. In the NL West, the top three teams (the Dodgers, Giants and Padres) all have at least an 83% chance of making the postseason, according to FanGraphs, with the Dodgers above 99%. Then in the NL Central, the Brewers have an 85.7% chance of getting to the playoffs, while the Mets are the lowest of any division leader, but still have a healthy 79.4% chance.
That leaves the rest of the teams — the ones on the outside looking in who need to quickly decide whether they want to be buyers, sellers or neither — with much longer odds than you typically see this time of year.
• Reds: 19.0%
• Braves: 13.8%
• Phillies: 11.5%
• Cubs: 6.3%
• Nationals: 5.6%
• Cardinals: 2.3%
Meanwhile, the oddsmakers at FanDuel have the Phillies as a longshot to win the World Series at +6000, tied for 16th in MLB, according to Pickswise.
So, why should the Phillies, with just an 11.5% chance of making the postseason and far longer odds to win it all, be looking to add pieces at the deadline? Well, for starters, winning the World Series isn't the only reason to buy. The Phillies need to start by making the postseason again, something they've failed to do for a decade now. Moreover, they could potentially take advantage of a lack of buyers, and could get something for cheaper than they might be able to in previous years.
The problem there, as Bryce Harper himself admitted a few weeks back, is that the Phillies don't have much of anything to offer up in terms of prospects that would entice other teams to deal. But maybe Dave Dombrowski, who has a history of making moves at the deadline (although typically only when his team is in first place), can figure something out between now and July 31.
The Phillies currently have the starting pitching to make a postseason run, even with Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin having less-than-stellar seasons. Zack Wheeler has been pitching like a Cy Young winner. Their lineup is finally getting healthy at the same time and starting to perform. And while their bullpen is in need of the most help, they're still managing to win some games in spite of them.
But most importantly, there could be a lot of teams, even teams with slightly higher postseason odds than the Phillies, looking to sell. Here's more from Olney, who mentions the Phillies as possible sellers but in the same breath says they seem unlikely to move their best trade chip.
The Chicago Cubs could move Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Joc Pederson and, of course, closer Craig Kimbrel, who may turn out to be the most popular target. The Washington Nationals have attractive veterans if they decide to unload, from Max Scherzer to Kyle Schwarber (who is currently on the IL). The Atlanta Braves have Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly on one-year contracts, if they fall out of touch with the Mets. Other execs look at the Cincinnati Reds roster and see possible matches, particularly if Cincinnati makes an effort to move salary. If the Cardinals continue to languish, it would make sense for the St. Louis front office to ask Adam Wainwright about what his preference for the rest of this year might be -- stay with the Cards, or head off to a team with better chances for reaching the postseason.
You'd assume that some team would ask the Philadelphia Phillies if they are interested in talking about Zack Wheeler -- and Philadelphia would be crazy not to explore the possibilities of what the return for Wheeler would be, with the right-hander dominating, and how the resulting payroll flexibility might work for them in 2022. For the record: Phillies owner John Middleton declared during the winter he would not trade Wheeler for Babe Ruth. [espn.com]
So if the Phillies aren't going to deal their best asset (I don't blame them for not wanting to move their ace), then maybe they'd be better trying to load up for a run, rather than packing it in and hoping for better results next year, or worse, beginning yet another rebuild after a decade of playoff-less baseball in Philadelphia.
If you still think it's crazy for the Phillies to try to go for it, consider the Phoenix Suns, who took a 1-0 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals on Tuesday night. Sure, it's a different sport, but what they did this season could serve as a blueprint for the Phillies. Here's more from Defector's Albert Burneko, which includes some NSFW language.
Most front offices, in most circumstances, are much more eagerly looking for excuses to pull their own plug—to hollow out their rosters and go in the tank for a few years—than to bolt for a ring. It’s good for profits, it’s good for executive job security, it puts downward pressure on coach and player salaries across the league, and, thanks to credible media clowns happy to lap up Silicon Valley aphorism and Process bullshit if it facilitates their managerial fantasizing, it comes with virtually no accountability attached. If the Suns’ executive honchos had responded to last season’s fifth-straight sub-.500 finish by selling off their team’s young players and rebooting the club’s interminable rebuild for the umpteenth time, I probably do not even have to tell you exactly which basketbloggers would have hailed their gimlet-eyed seriousness of purpose in reward. Instead, the Suns traded four players and a protected first-round draft pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder (an organization blatantly swan-diving into the tank, in the immediate aftermath of a surprise playoff appearance) in exchange for a then-35-year-old Chris Paul, a move that makes absolutely no sense except as an attempt to improve a crummy team as much as possible right away. That’s fucking cool. [defector.com]
The Phillies are in a similar position to the Suns. And in a weird year where anything can happen, maybe taking a chance isn't the worst idea. At the very least, the fact that the Phillies are just four games back despite blown save after blown save and a lineup that has struggled and is only starting to come together right now should give them some hope. And adding a piece or two could not only show some faith in, but could jumpstart, a team that is looking to make the postseason for the first time since 2011.
For that reason alone, it's worth going for it (and by it, we mean a playoff berth not a World Series title, which seems just a bit out of their reach at the moment).
Now, Dombrowski and Co. have to figure out what exactly they have on the farm that other teams might want. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done for the Phillies.