July 31st was a day that seemed to symbolize more than just the end of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence’s tenures with the Philadelphia Phillies. Within an hour of each other, both were traded. Victorino was traded first, sent to the Dodgers in exchange for reliever Josh Lindblom and prospect Ethan Martin (P). Pence was then shipped to San Francisco in exchange for outfielder Nate Schierholtz and minor leaguers Tommy Joseph (C/1B) and Seth Rosin (P). The Victorino trade made a lot of sense on the surface: he was a free agent at the end of the season, and the Phillies weren’t going to meet his contract demands in free agency. They got what they could for him: a young, cheap, controllable reliever in Lindblom to help shore up the bullpen for the future and a pitching prospect with upside in Martin, who was the Dodgers’ 7th-best prospect.
The Pence trade was a little tougher to swallow, since he was under team control for next season. It was clear that the trade was simply about money. He was set to get a raise in arbitration to somewhere in the $13-$15M range and with the recent Cole Hamels extension, combined with the high salaries tied up in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jonathan Papelbon, the Phillies felt they simply didn’t have the payroll flexibility to keep Pence. Schierholtz is a lefty-hitting outfielder who is under team control for the next few years at a cheap price. He’s excellent defensively, and has one of the best arms in the MLB. While he’s struggled to hit left-handed pitching in his career, he has been good against right-handers and could form half of a platoon with John Mayberry Jr. in RF next year. However, the centerpiece of the deal is Joseph. He was the Giants 2nd-best hitting prospect and is a power-hitting righty who can catch and play 1st base. He’s only 21, and hit 22 HRs in A ball last year. So far in AA this year, he’s got 8 HRs and 39 RBIs. He provides the Phillies with a backup plan in case Sebastian Valle, the heir apparent to Carlos Ruiz, continues to struggle, and he could also take over for Ryan Howard when the Big Piece’s contract expires down the road. He could also be used as a potential trade chip. Rosin is simply a depth arm, as he’s 23 and still in A ball.
It’s not so much the actual trades themselves that are eliciting a negative reaction from the fans as it is what the trades symbolize. Key players have come and gone since the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, but there has been a replacement for each and every one of them until now. Pat Burrell left after the 2008 season, but the Phillies signed Raul Ibanez to play LF. Pedro Feliz left after the 2009 season, but they signed Placido Polanco. They traded Cliff Lee in the 2009 offseason, but traded for Roy Halladay and then acquired Roy Oswalt at the trade deadline. When Jayson Werth left after the 2010 season, they brought back Cliff Lee in free agency to try to make up for his lost offense. When Dom Brown didn’t work out in RF, they traded for Hunter Pence at the deadline to fill Werth’s spot in the lineup. Brad Lidge’s struggles and injuries left the closer role vacated, but Ryan Madson stepped in admirably. Then, the Phillies replaced Madson with Jonathan Papelbon in the offseason this year. When Oswalt left in free agency this past offseason, they had an in-house replacement in Vance Worley. But now, 2/3 of the Phillies’ starting outfield is gone, with no clear plan to replace them. Sure, Domonic Brown will get playing time now and newly-acquired Nate Schierholtz should figure into the outfield equation, but neither of those players is anywhere near Victorino or Pence’s caliber.
The Phillies’ reign atop the NL East lasted from 2007-2011. In that time, they contended for a World Series title each and every year. But this year, things came crashing down amid injuries and lackluster performances, and Ruben Amaro Jr. made the tough decision to blow up an aging, expensive team in an effort to contend in 2013 and beyond. While I can’t argue with the decision, it was still sobering to be a seller at the deadline for the first time since 2006, and it didn’t feel right seeing Shane Victorino in a Dodgers uniform on Wednesday. Shane is the first major contributor to this team’s run who has left without a replacement. With the newly-found payroll flexibility, the Phillies could look to acquire a new CF in free agency this year. Former Phillie Michael Bourn is a free agent, as is Tampa Bay Rays CF BJ Upton. And Texas Rangers’ OF Josh Hamilton is available if RAJ wants to make a splash (and something tells me he will). It’s going to be difficult to completely judge these trades until we see how the money saved from Pence and Victorino’s contracts and the prospects acquired are used. If the Phillies use it to patch the holes in the bullpen, sign an impact OF, and maybe trade for an upgrade at 3B (Chase Headley!), this team could have a quick turnaround to contention next season. A potential lineup of Rollins (SS)-Headley (3B)-Utley (2B)-Howard (1B)-Ruiz (C)-Upton (CF)-Brown (LF)-Mayberry/Schierholtz (RF), a pitching staff of Halladay-Lee-Hamels-Worley-Kendrick, and a bullpen led by Papelbon, Bastardo, Lindblom, and a few new additions, with a solid bench (Wigginton, Galvis, etc.) could easily contend for the NL East title and make the postseason. While the baseball is probably going to be dull and uninteresting for the rest of the regular season, big things are coming this offseason with the additional payroll flexibility. If there’s one thing Ruben Amaro, Jr. has proven, it’s that he isn’t scared to make a big move, whether it’s through free agency or a trade. Now that he’s got money to burn and added prospect depth, expect the Phillies to look dramatically different and clearly improved by Opening Day 2013.