How Far Away Are the Phillies? by Jeff Sullivan January 22, 2015 The situation in Philadelphia is bleak. I don’t think that statement is going to cause a stir. The Phillies, right now, are projected by Steamer to be the worst team in baseball in the season ahead, even worse than the rival Braves. Even if you might personally find Steamer to be a waste of everyone’s time, the Phillies still look like they’re going to be bad. To make matters worse, the best pitchers are both in their 30s. The best position players are both in their 30s. The 2015 Phillies are going to have some thousands of season ticket holders, and those same season ticket holders are going to experience their own sort of adversity. One clue as to how bad things are: the team’s own executives are saying, publicly, that the organization is years away from contention. No attempt is being made to sugarcoat the state of things. Another clue as to how bad things are: that’s what a lot of fans want to hear. They’ve longed for this acknowledgment of the need to rebuild. Fans knew some time ago the Phillies needed to change course. Now the Phillies are doing so, willingly stripping down so as to make for a better future. But, how about that future, anyway? Might we be able to figure out how long it will be until the Phillies are decent again? The on-field product is bad. The farm system has strength at the top, but not a lot of depth. The Phillies, of course, have one thing strongly in their favor: they’ve got money. The problem lately has been spending too much of it on the wrong players, but the cash flow is there. This is a big-budget operation, and a big-budget operation should in theory be able to hasten a return to relevance. Given what we know, let’s do a little study, trying to find some comparable teams from the past. Let’s go back as far as 1997, so I can use this handy opening-day payroll resource. The first filter: I looked for teams who won no more than 75 games in consecutive seasons. Then, out of those teams, I selected those that had a top-ten payroll in at least the second year. From there, it was just a matter of tracking future success, and I looked for the next year in which the team finished with a winning record. I think in this age with the additional wild cards, a winning record is sufficient to equal relevance and at least borderline contention. There’s not a big group of comparable teams. Maybe you could’ve guessed as much. But at least that allows us to run through them one by one. …and we can start by eliminating the 1999-2000 Devil Rays. Though Tampa Bay, in 2000, went on a little bit of a spending spree, that wasn’t really indicative of the resources they had available long-term. The Devil Rays were and still remain a small-budget organization, so they don’t work as a Phillies comp. All right! We move on to the 2000-2001 Rangers. It was the 2001 Rangers, of course, who added Alex Rodriguez. Immediately, that weakens the comp — the Phillies don’t have arguably the best player in baseball — but Texas kept spending for a few years, and just couldn’t build a winner around their shortstop. The next year, they won 72 games. The year after that, 71. But! Then they won 89. In 2004, the Rangers were competitive. Granted, they wouldn’t then finish with another winning record until 2009, but this might be a bit hopeful. This would suggest the Phillies could be good in 2017. Next up, the 2002-2003 Mets. Those Mets mirror the Phillies fairly well: high peak, deep playoff runs, sharp decline. The Mets, in 2003, had baseball’s second-highest opening-day payroll, and they lost 95 games. The next year, they won 71 times. The next year, they won 83 times! In 2005, the Mets finished above .500. In 2006, they lost in Game 7 of the NLCS. This would put the Phillies in line to be decent again in 2016. Working in the favor of the 2005 Mets: they had a 22-year-old Jose Reyes, and a 22-year-old David Wright. That team also paid for free agents Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. But, that’s money for you. The Phillies have it. Moving on, we hit the 2004-2005 Mariners. This is another pretty good comp, as the Mariners were a real good team that got old fast. And wouldn’t you know it, but the Mariners subsequently won 78 games, and then 88 games. So within two years, the Mariners challenged for the playoffs. That would, again, line the Phillies up for a decent 2016. But it’s worth remembering that, by their statistics, the 2007 Mariners weren’t actually good. They were helped by a lot of luck. The Mariners didn’t become an actual good team until just last year. But, thanks to luck, the Mariners won more often than they lost in both 2007 and 2009. And the Phillies have more money than the Mariners did. That takes us to the 2006-2007 Orioles. The Orioles are a fringe candidate; they only just barely made the payroll cutoff in 2007. They used to be a bigger-budget operation than they’ve been within the past decade. In 1998, they were first in payroll. In 1999, fifth. In 2000, fourth. Maybe that’s a better comp, since those were definitely bad Orioles teams. Here’s the important thing: no matter which Orioles team you think is the better comp, the Orioles only reached a winning record in 2012. They’ve been good since, but that path would put the Phillies several years away. This would be a real bad path. And now we find the 2010-2011 Cubs. The Cubs were third in payroll in 2010. In 2011, they were sixth. They won a combined 146 games, just like the Phillies have. Now, the Cubs haven’t actually gotten back to a winning record yet. It looks like they’ll get there this coming season. If not this year, then probably next year. The point being, the Cubs seem relevant, now. That would line the Phillies up for a competitive 2018, after some years of developing excitement over the farm system. The Cubs, as you know, went through an organizational overhaul, in an effort to get smarter. The Phillies might take heed. The remaining comps aren’t great comps. The 2011-2012 Marlins showed up, thanks to Jeffrey Loria’s spending spree, but that lasted exactly no time at all. The Marlins have gone right back to spending just about nothing. And then there are the 2012-2013 Blue Jays. The Jays immediately finished with a winning record in 2014, but they weren’t going through the same sort of process; they kept the core together, and were trying to win, with a little better performance and injury luck. They’re in pretty good shape, for the time being. We have a very small pool, here. But we’ve gotten this far, so we might as well analyze it. The Phillies are a bad team, with money. The season ahead is almost certain to be lousy. Based on the Mariners and the Mets, the Phillies might be able to be decent again as soon as 2016. It would be 2017, based on the Rangers. Also, perhaps, based on the future money the Phillies already have on the books. The Cubs path would see the Phillies take a step forward in 2018. And the disaster scenario is represented by the Orioles. The Orioles are what happens when young players don’t develop and money continues to be spent poorly. It’s important that the Phillies don’t get stuck in too extended a period of failure, because then revenues drop, and dropping revenues makes it only more difficult to get good and stay good. Pat Gillick has the idea, basically: Pat Gillick offered fans some much-needed candor in the fall when he said the Phillies would not contend again until 2017 or ’18. Gillick has not shortened his timetable. “Yeah, maybe further out,” Gillick said on Tuesday night before the Phillies’ winter banquet at the Reading Crowne Plaza Hotel. “Maybe ’18. You need about two or three years.” The timeline would be sped up if the Phillies could strike gold with their top prospects. If, say, Maikel Franco and J.P. Crawford could become the Phillies’ version of Wright and Reyes, well, there’s your next core, along with Aaron Nola. Maybe Domonic Brown becomes something. Maybe Cody Asche becomes something. There’s observable talent in the bullpen. Maybe good talent comes back for Cole Hamels, and maybe, who knows, the Phillies make an international splash or two. With money come advantages. The Phillies have squandered it lately, but that doesn’t guarantee it’ll repeat in the future. The chance is there. This doesn’t have to be several consecutive years of lousy baseball. But, most teams don’t strike gold with all their top prospects. And as far as the Cubs are concerned, this new era has come about thanks to a whole new front office. The Phillies know there’s a way out of this. They just can’t know yet if they’re on it.