The Philadelphia Phillies have given the sabermetric community a lot of ammunition over the last few years. The Ryan Howard contract! $52 million for Jonathan Papelbon! Delmon Young! Even off the field, the Phillies GM gives us comments like “I don’t care about walks, I care about production.” Picking on the Phillies recently has been pretty easy, and writers from this side of the baseball spectrum have been warning of the Phillies coming demise for several years.
Now that it’s here, the Phillies were even more roundly ridiculed for not acknowledging their place on baseball’s win curve, holding on to valuable trade chips at the deadline even as they get passed by the Marlins in run differential. Rather than turn Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, and Michael Young into younger, cheaper talent, the Phillies are soldiering on with an aging, expensive club that is nearly 20 games behind the Braves in the standings. And with last night’s news of an impending Chase Utley contract extension, they seem to be digging in their heels even more.
Chase Utley will be 35 next season. The last three years, he’s played 115, 103, and 83 games, and he’ll probably end up in the low 100s again this year, unless he gets hurt before the season ends and falls short of even that mark. The team with the 29th best run differential in the majors just signed up an injury prone second baseman for his age-35/36 seasons, but unlike most of the Phillies moves over the last few years, I actually like this move for Philadelphia, and commend Ruben Amaro for getting the deal done.
The reported terms of the deal guarantee Utley $27 million over the next two seasons, and then Ken Rosenthal notes that the deal has multiple vesting options for additional years beyond the next two, so Utley will need to play regularly in order to activate those extra years. The base of the deal, 2/27, puts this contract squarely in the realm of what decent older players have been getting in free agency lately. Last winter, Torii Hunter signed for $26 million over two years, for instance, while Ryan Dempster signed for $26.5 million over the same time period. The year before, Carlos Beltran signed for $26 million over two years.
This is basically the going market rate for players who have been productive but come with age and health concerns. Only there’s one primary difference between Hunter, Dempster, Beltran, and Utley; the Phillies second baseman is a lot better than any of the other three.
Here are the totals for the prior three seasons for each of those players prior to signing their free agent contracts:
Beltran, 2009-2011: 1,210 PA, 140 wRC+, -14 UZR, +7.9 WAR
Hunter, 2010-2012: 1,879 PA, 123 wRC+, +8 UZR, +10.8 WAR
Dempster, 2010-2012: 591 IP, 3.87 FIP, 3.74 xFIP, +8.5 WAR
And here’s what Utley has done over the last three calendar years.
Utley, 2011-2013: 1,355 PA, 118 wRC+, +25 UZR, +11.8 WAR
It’s easy to talk about the fact that Utley misses a lot of games, but even with over 500 fewer plate appearances than Hunter over the three year period leading up to their contracts, Utley was still the more valuable player overall. And, of course, he blew Beltran and Dempster out of the water.
Chase Utley is so good that he’s more valuable in 100 games than many players are in 150, and he’s actually trending upwards. Over the last 365 days, Utley has played in 136 games and posted +4.9 WAR, #22 among major league hitters, just behind Jacoby Ellsbury and in front of Hanley Ramirez. This isn’t a case where the three year total obscures a recent decline. As I wrote about in July, there’s no real evidence that Utley has actually declined much at all, or that the conventional wisdom about second baseman and their aging curves should actually apply to players of Utley’s caliber.
$13.5 million per year might sound like a large investment, but it’s basically the same AAV the Nationals gave Dan Haren last year on the hopes that he would rebound, and less than what Washington gave Rafael Soriano to pitch one inning every few days. A few years ago, $13 million per year meant a player had to produce at a premium level to justify his paycheck; now, it just means that he needs to be a little above average.
Utley easily clears that bar, and even if he spends a month or two on the DL each of the next two years, he’s got a good shot at providing value over and above what he’s being paid. He doesn’t have to be an ironman who plays everyday to make this a worthy investment. If Utley produced at his current levels and was capable of playing 150 games per year, he’d be worth close to $27 million per year, not $27 million over two years.
In a vacuum, this deal is a serious bargain for the Phillies, and represents a pretty significant home town discount, as Utley was likely motivated to finish his career where it started and retire as a career Phillie. But this deal doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and we can’t discuss the wisdom of an aging non-contender re-signing an aging player without looking at the bigger picture.
One could make a pretty good case that the Phillies should be trying to blow up their roster and start over. They’re 51-62, and their roster is full of expensive players on the downside of their career. Next year, they’re on the hook for a combined $104 million in salary between Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins, and Mike Adams. Toss in Utley at somewhere in the $13 million range, and you’re looking at nearly $120 million for seven players, leaving roughly $40 million for the rest of the roster if we assume the Phillies are going to run a payroll somewhere close to what it was this year.
And that group is simply not a championship core without a lot of help, which the Phillies won’t really be able to buy in free agency considering how much money they have already committed to their players already under contract. The odds of the Phillies contending next year aren’t particularly great, and in the long term, they probably would have been better off if they had used Lee and Utley as bait to try and get as much cheap young talent and salary flexibility as they could at the deadline.
However, there’s also an argument to be made that the Phillies have already crossed the Rubicon. Even if they had moved Lee and Utley, they were going to be stuck with Howard’s contract, and given the way Cole Hamels has struggled this year, they weren’t going to be able to get out from under that deal either. Papelbon and Adams are basically dead money, and the Phillies are stuck with both. No one is taking Jimmy Rollins at this point. It’s one thing to talk about blowing up the roster and starting over, but it’s another thing entirely to actually do it when most of the roster is full of contracts no one wants.
In an ideal world, the Phillies should probably rebuild. In the real world, that’s easier said than done. They could have traded Lee and Utley, but given Lee’s salary, they weren’t getting premium talent back, and Utley was going to be a rental, so his trade value would have been somewhat limited as well. Moving both players wouldn’t have brought the Phillies a grand haul of future stars to build around. It would have brought them salary relief, but it’s not clear that they could have spent $38 million this winter and gotten more value than Lee and Utley will provide, and you don’t generally find free agents with long term value worth building around either.
Trading Lee and Utley would have pushed the Phillies towards a rebuild, but there wasn’t an obvious phase two of that plan, besides sit around and wait for all the toxic contracts to expire. The thing, is, though, you can wait for the toxic contracts to expire without losing 100 games in the process. If you’re stuck with Howard, Hamels, Papelbon, and the rest anyway, it might be better to try and sneak your way into a playoff spot than simply be terrible for the sake of landing a high draft choice.
This gets back to something I wrote last year, titled Why I’m Not a Fan of Losing on Purpose. There are some instances where franchises need to totally reboot and start over, as the Astros have done this year, but that’s the best plan when you have a 70 win team going nowhere, not a team with enough pieces to make .500 a realistic projection for next year. And while the Phillies are certainly not very good this year, projecting them as a .500ish club for 2014 isn’t out of the question.
Right now, our rest-of-season forecast has the Phillies as a .473 team, and that’s while dedicating a lot of playing time to replacement level scrubs as they finish out the year. With some decent off-season pickups, a nice low-risk re-signing of Roy Halladay, and some better performances out of guys like Hamels and Rollins next year, and it wouldn’t be crazy to think the Phillies could make a wild card run. I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility now that they have Utley back.
So, yes, the Phillies could get bad on purpose, but they’d be throwing away a non-zero chance at salvaging one more playoff run out of this roster, and getting the team back on the winning path very well have more of a positive impact on the future of the franchise than netting some marginal prospects and lowering payroll by getting rid of the team’s two best players. Winning with this core group next year is a bit of a longshot, but so is actually rebuilding while being tied to a bunch of overpaid players no one else wants.
The Phillies are stuck between a rock and a hard place, as their constant spending during the boom years has left them carrying the cost of those decisions now. But instead of going halfway towards a rebuild that probably wouldn’t work either, the Phillies may very well be better off pushing forward and trying to squeeze the very last bit of blood from this particular turnip.
In poker, this situation is being called pot-committed, where you think you’re likely going to lose but the cost of continuing on is relatively low compared to the payoff if the unlikely happens and you actually pull off a miracle. The Phillies roster is basically at that point now. There just isn’t a huge cost to keeping Utley and Lee and trying to win again in 2014, even if it’s unlikely, and the payoff if it actually works is much higher than the payoff from landing a top 10 draft pick and driving your attendance even further into the ground.
This isn’t a strategy I’d advise for every team, but the Phillies are not in the same position as every other team. I wouldn’t suggest that Philadelphia go throw a lot of money at expensive free agents on long term deals to try and keep this thing afloat, but keeping a star like Utley at a good price is not the same thing as throwing good money after bad. Even mediocre teams should be looking to spend their money wisely, and giving Utley $27 million over two years is a good use of funds, even for an aging team that won’t be anyone’s pre-season World Series pick next year.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.