Every now and then, a helpful thing to do is to take a step back and ask yourself three simple questions.
Who am I?
Why am I doing what I am doing?
What is my endgame?
These questions are as applicable to organizations as they are to individuals. For the Phillies, they’ve never been more applicable than they will be over the next seven days. It’s rarely a good thing to lose three straight games to a team that enters a series 20-plus games under .500. But we may have just witnessed an exception. If this weekend’s figurative and literal meltdown in a steamy midsummer series against the cellar-dwelling Cubs causes Dave Dombrowski to take a fresh look at his conception of his roster, the Phillies may actually wind up better off swept.
Buyers, sellers, whatever. … The right strategy at Major League Baseball’s trade line rarely is to view your team through a binary prism. The shoe fits for a small handful of teams, but only those that can summarize their present-day condition in six words or less:
There’s no time like the present
The present matters not
The Phillies do not fit into either of these categories. They are not “sellers.” At least, not in the traditional sense. Even if they arrive at the Aug. 2 trade deadline at four games under .500, they will not be at a point where it makes sense to strip themselves down for parts. That’s mostly because they do not have much in the way of parts.
The Phillies have six players on their roster who will hit free agency after this season. Of those, relievers Brad Hand and Corey Knebel are the only ones contending teams might look at with an eye toward the postseason. But neither comes anywhere close to possessing the kind of impact arm that might prompt a worthwhile offer. Kyle Gibson, Odúbel Herrera, Zach Eflin, Jeurys Famlia — none of the four are likely to be an upgrade over their corollaries on any roster that considers itself playoff-worthy. In short, all are worth more to the Phillies’ attempt to salvage hope than they are on the trade market.
The same is true at the other end of the spectrum, where teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, Mets, and Braves should all be operating with the assumption that their World Series odds are as promising as they ever will be. For teams like that, it makes sense to err on the side of marginal upgrades in the here and now. But that is not the team the Phillies are.
Which brings us back to the original question.
Who am I?
Or, rather, who are we?
This is the question that Dombrowski needs to answer. Before the Phillies figure out what they need, they need to figure out what they have. Since their nine-game winning streak in early June, they are 19-17, a pace that would see them finish the season with 84 wins. That sounds about right, within a game or two about where any objective analysis would have pegged their most likely outcome at the start of the season.
Certainly, there were potential worlds in which we’d currently be talking about the potential of 95 wins, but these were worlds in which Ranger Suárez was the same pitcher he was last season, and Bryson Stott was a Rookie of the Year candidate, and Familia was a legitimate high-leverage option, and Nick Castellanos and J.T. Realmuto were swinging their bats at levels commensurate with their salaries. The world in which we are living is the one the simulations said was most likely: an above-average middle of the order and an excellent top of the rotation followed by a series of question marks.
Now, the only question that matters is the big one. In a world in which the Phillies are a legitimate World Series contender, what does the roster look like? Judging by this weekend — and plenty of weekends prior — it is a world in which Gibson and Bailey Falter are not starting two of three games. The Phillies need another starter, one capable of starting Game 3 of a playoff series. They need a bullpen that can give Zack Wheeler a fighting chance in a game he leaves with a 1-1 tie. Those needs are much bigger than can be rectified in a single trade deadline. That’s the key.
The three-year plan is where the focus must lie. The goal is to win a World Series — not necessarily to win one this season. Like all teams, the Phillies must operate in a way that maximizes their aggregate odds. Any moves they make in the next week cannot come at the expense of reducing their odds in the next couple of seasons.
The Phillies’ calculus requires an accurate accounting of the pieces they have, of the pieces they need, and of the optimal way to mix the former with the latter. What they have is a surplus of bats compared to the positions they fit. The best of those bats is eligible for free agency after next season. In other sports, Rhys Hoskins would have long ago signed a contract extension that would keep him in Philadelphia until the end of his prime. In baseball, though, he is the epitome of the sport’s backwards compensation structure, needing to sign a contract that makes up for the fact that he will enter his walk year at 30 years old and with less than $15 million in career earnings. The Phillies have already overpaid for a couple of designated hitters masquerading as corner outfielders. Will it really make sense for them to overpay for one at first base?
That depends on the market — and on their evaluation of the rest of their options. In Alec Bohm and Darick Hall, they have the potential to form a platoon that costs less than $2 million next season and has combined to hit .303/.345/.563 with seven home runs in 158 at-bats against their respective platoon opponents (Bohm vs. lefties, Hall vs. righties). Hall and Bohm also are the sort of trade chips that might be swapped for a reliever (witness the Mets’ trade of 26-year-old righty Colin Holderman for Pirates first baseman/DH Daniel Vogelbach). Any deal involving Hoskins is the sort that typically happens in the offseason.
Point is, if done right, the three-year plan is inseparable from the one Dombrowski has for the stretch run. Three games above .500 is no place for patchwork. The Phillies must decide on their vision, and that means deciding which of their current pieces will be a part of accomplishing that goal.