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July 25, 2017

The Phillies hoped to follow the Astros' (and Cubs') rebuilding blueprint. How's that going?

Maybe it was fitting that a homestand that coincides with the arrival of Major League Baseball’s trade deadline brought the Houston Astros to South Philly.

Both during their rise toward contention and while they were among the best teams in baseball, the Phillies often called on the Houston Astros for roster upgrades.

In back-to-back summers (in 2010 and 2011) the Phils acquired Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence from Houston to upgrade their rotation and lineup, respectively. In the fall of 2007, the Phillies added a critical piece to their soon-to-be championship roster by acquiring Brad Lidge from the Astros … a trade that came four years and four days after acquiring another fireballing closer from Houston, left-hander Billy Wagner.

A year and a half ago, the script was finally flipped: the Phillies sent up-and-coming closer Ken Giles to Houston in exchange for four pitchers, including the guy who took the mound against his old team on Monday night, Vince Velasquez.

The Astros, coming off their first winning season in seven years and a playoff berth to boot, were contenders and willing to ship off young players and prospects for veteran upgrades. 

After being on the other end of deals as a perennial cellar dweller (they lost 100 or more games in three straight seasons), Houston had turned the corner in a bit in 2014 ... when they lost 92 games, a 19-win improvement from their previous season.

But more importantly, their long and painful rebuild had churned out just enough promise to move the franchise in the right direction. In that aforementioned 2014 season, 24-year-old second baseman Jose Altuve led the league in hitting in his third full season, 26-year-old left-hander Dallas Keuchel had a 2.93 ERA in 200 innings, former first-round pick George Springer hit 20 home runs in his first 78 major league games, and teenage shortstop Carlos Correa was showing enough promise in A-ball to be firmly placed on the fast track to the big leagues.

A half dozen years after selling off Pence to the Phillies, five years after selecting Correa with the first overall pick in the MLB Draft, and four years since their third straight 100-loss season, the Houston Astros arrived to Citizens Bank Park with the best record in the American League and the second best record in all of baseball, behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It wasn’t too long ago we were using (Velasquez) in our rotation, a couple of seasons ago,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said prior to Monday’s game with the Phillies, a team he played for briefly in September of 2004. “(The Phillies are) very similar to how things were going for the Astros a couple of years ago in terms of the new players trying to establish themselves, trying to make a name for themselves. (They’re) teaching the game a lot at this level. Winning some games, losing some games.”

The Phillies, despite their plucky play (5-4) since the All-Star break, are losing a lot more game than they’re winning, of course, which is represented in their MLB-worst 34-62 record after the season’s first 96 games. The Phils will finish with a losing record for a fifth straight season and would have to go 38-27 the rest of the way to avoid their third straight season of 90 or more losses.

It's a matter of time. It's not going to go on like this forever. When that point is I can't say, but I know one thing – it'll get done at some point.

Eventually, like the Astros, they will turn the corner. There are some promising prospects at every level, but the Phils’ greatest strength is that winning-obsessed John Middleton has too much money to spend for any other result.

Still, you have to wonder: when is that corner coming?

Unlike that 2014 Astros’ team, the one that broke the 100-straight losses streak but still lost 92 games (one more than the Phils lost last year), these Phillies don’t have one of the league’s best hitters (like Altuve) toward the top of their lineup, or a kid who looks like a future league MVP (like Correa) in A-ball … perhaps they do have the up-and-coming pitcher part (Keuchel) in Aaron Nola.

“Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it doesn’t,” manager Pete Mackanin said of assembling a young core to build around. “We've got decisions to make but that's certainly the plan, to try to figure all that out. Make the right trades, make the right moves, sign the right people, trade the right people, and get something back for it. And develop the people here.

“It's a matter of time. It's not going to go on like this forever. When that point is I can't say, but I know one thing – it'll get done at some point.”

This Saturday marks the second-year anniversary of the biggest transactions of the Phillies’ rebuild when they sent Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers for a handful of prospects.

It probably won’t be fair to grade that trade for another two years, after Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Jerad Eickhoff, and Jake Thompson have all had significant time in the big leagues. It’s also still unfair to grade the Giles’ trade, because even if former No.1 overall pick Mark Appel doesn’t ever appear in a Phillies uniform, Tom Eshelman is having a stellar season at Triple-A and Velasquez’s floor as a big leaguer could very well be what Giles is now: a reliable, sometimes unhittable big league closer.

Still, the Phillies’ rebuild would have to be ranked behind a couple of the blueprints they’ve followed because of the work-in-progress core, particularly of position players.

To wit…

The Chicago Cubs had a National League-best 97 wins in 2008 but then began a run of five straight losing seasons from 2010-2014. They lost 101, 96, and 89 games in ’12, ’13, and ’14.

But in 2014 the Cubs had a 24-year-old first baseman named Anthony Rizzo slash .286/.386/.527 with 32 home runs in 140 games. They drafted Kyle Schwarber in that summer, too, and dealt Jeff Samardzija to Oakland in a deal that brought Addison Russell to Chicago. A year earlier, in the span of one month from early June to early July, they drafted Kris Bryant with the second overall pick and took a chance on struggling right-hander Jake Arrieta in a deal that sent veterans Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to Baltimore.

Just like their Astros’ counterparts, the Cubs front office was bullish coming off the 2014 season (when they lost 89 games), so they kept on adding, signing Jon Lester and Jason Hammel in December and trading for Dexter Fowler in January, stabilizing an already-promising nucleus that would pay off with a World Series championship less than two years later.

Jed Hoyer and Cubs team president Theo Epstein arrived in Chicago in the fall of 2011, five years before that historic championship but in the early stages of shaping the franchise’ rebuild. Jeff Luhnow became Houston’s general manager a couple of months later, less than six months after the Astros had sent Pence to the Phillies.

Matt Klentak joined the Phils on a similar timeframe as Luhnow: less than a half year after a prospect-rich trade (Hamels, in Klentak’s case) and after three straight years of losing records (in the Phils case, it was four straight non-winning years, since they were 81-81 in 2012).

After years of losing and selling off their best veteran parts, the tide began to turn for the Astros in 2014 when they added a few veteran pieces in the winter (including Evan Gattis and Pat Neshek) and made their first significant addition as a buyer before the deadline in years when they traded for left-hander Scott Kazmir.

The Phillies’ brass, insistent on sticking to their program but, like anyone else, weary of the losing, can only hope to be in a similar spot this time next year.

But as the incessant rain fell onto the tarp at Citizens Bank Park, delaying Monday night’s game, it was difficult to look from one dugout to the other and feel bullish that the Phils were replicating the near-perfect path of the team they used to pillage this time of year.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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