There is a compelling argument for the Phillies to be aggressive at the trade deadline, but it isn't the one that most people are putting forward. Despite how competitive the Phillies have been this season, the notion that they are one or two shrewd moves away from legitimate playoff contention is a dangerous one. At least, it is in theory, if we're operating on the premise that Matt Klentak and Andy MacPhail might be swayed by the clamoring from those of us down here in the gallery. There isn't much evidence that is the case, given the degree of restraint the front office has displayed since inheriting the rebuild a few years ago.
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But it's also true that public opinion always ends up mattering to some degree, if not in the immediate present, then often down the road when we start adjudicating long-term success or failure. If we start with the notion that Klentak and ownership owe it to their fan base and their clubhouse to do whatever it takes to give them the best possible odds at emerging from the stretch run with a playoff spot, then the grades we eventually assign to their job performance will be flawed. Because the criteria will be flawed. Because doing whatever it takes is what got the Phillies stuck in this five-year quagmire in the first place.
The best way to avoid doing something you will come to regret in baseball's labor markets is by accurately appraising the reality of your team. The Phillies have successfully done this in each of Klentak's first three offseasons as general manager, including this last one, when they resisted the temptation to stomp on the accelerator in their roster construction. This restraint has been portrayed by some in the media and fan base as failure, given the obvious holes that have hampered them on the field over the last month or so. But those holes are not by themselves indicative of failure, because they are also a near-inevitable byproduct of the approach that the Phillies ended up taking.
The signing of Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million deal necessitated the move of Rhys Hoskins from first base to left field, both diminishing their outfield defense and, arguably, forcing the rising star outside of his comfort zone. But any critique of that move ignores the fact that things are playing out in a manner that is more or less ideal. Aaron Altherr got the first crack at establishing himself as a viable first-division regular, starting 40 of the Phillies' first 60 games. He ended up hitting .188 with a .661 OPS while striking out in 57 of 154 at-bats during that stretch. Now, it is increasingly looking like Nick Williams' turn. After spending two months playing about as good of a soldier as he could reasonably be expected to play, the left-handed hitting outfielder entered Tuesday hitting .286/.375/.543 while starting the last 10 games before Tuesday. Since April, he has an .819 OPS.
Meanwhile, over in left field, Hoskins is hitting .252/.373/.470 with 11 home runs in 234 at-bats, incredible numbers when you consider that they include a 24-game stretch in which he hit .144/.243/.267. At first base, Santana is hitting almost exactly as he has throughout his career, with 13 home runs and a .224/.359/.437 slash line. Together, the Phillies have combined for a 1.625 OPS at left field and first base, a higher figure than all but eight teams in the majors. Last year, that number was 1.551, or almost exactly league average. The simple truth is that the Phillies are better offensive team than they would have been with Hoskins at first base and both Altherr and Williams playing every day.
It's a slightly different story with the bullpen, where Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek have offered little return on investment thus far on the multiyear deals they signed this offseason. If you want to ding the front office for signing the wrong guys, that's fair. But signing any more of them, right or wrong, might have meant missing out on the revelations that Seranthony Dominguez, Victor Arano, and Edubray Ramos have been thus far.
Point is, the Phillies have managed to make further strides in the development of their young talent while also managing to win games at a clip slightly above .500. That's success, and it would be foolish to suddenly veer off course and and decide that 2018 is the time to make a run.
If the Phillies can get better by taking on short-term salary without sacrificing significant long-term prospects, they should do it. A package of Cole Hamels and Adrian Beltre? Sure, sign me up, as long as it doesn't require parting with anybody who the organization feels has starting upside and a better-than-average chance to realize it. Otherwise, the likelihood that such a move improves the Phillies to the point of NLCS contention is not high enough to warrant the trade-off in potential future value.
The one potentially legitimate argument for taking such a risk is the one that says the Phillies would enhance their chances at attracting marquee free agents this offseason with the visibility that they would obtain by making a bold move that keeps themselves in the national conversation for the duration of the season. Even then, such an argument ignores a long history that suggests that the dollar is king in baseball's marketplace. For the Phillies, the operating policy should continue to be restrained opportunism.
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