Bob Ford: Phillies' philosophy in Oswalt deal is a little late

Posted: July 30, 2010

Never mind. All that talk about restocking the farm system and balancing the need to win today with the need to put a team on the field in the future? Well, that was then.

This is now, and now the Phillies have decided they want to do whatever it takes to make the 2010 postseason. If that had been the philosophy last December, yesterday's deal for Roy Oswalt would not have been necessary. If that had been the philosophy when it should have been, the Phils would not be in the precarious situation of staring up at the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.

But weighing the demands of present and future is what forced the Phillies to trade Cliff Lee in December because they just had to rebuild their depleted list of prospects with players named Tyson Gillies, Phillippe Aumont, and J.C. Ramirez. At least, that's what the general manager said at the time.

None of those three helped land Oswalt yesterday and, frankly, none of them seem likely to ever dent a major-league roster. The mere thought of being able to get them, however, was the reason Lee had to be traded. Not the money? No, of course not the money.

Ruben Amaro Jr. has a convenient loophole he keeps jumping through, however. Lee was going to be a free agent after this season and the team didn't want to risk losing him. So they gave Joe Blanton a three-year contract extension instead, got Roy Halladay in exchange for three very credible prospects, and shipped out Lee for not very much in return.

The knot in the loophole is that Lee wanted to stay, and for the money they invested in Blanton, plus the money they will spend on Oswalt, they weren't far from the long-term deal that would have kept Lee in town.

And if all that had taken place, the Phillies wouldn't have lost J.A. Happ, which might well turn out to be the biggest mistake they have made in a dizzying year of player transactions. Happ was 12-4 last season, with a 2.93 earned run average. He is 27 years old, healthy again, and was the absolute key to this trade.

Right now, the Phillies could have had a rotation of Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels, Happ, and Kyle Kendrick. Instead, they have Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels, Blanton, and Kendrick. Which would you prefer?

Even saying this doesn't mean the Phillies necessarily did the wrong thing - although losing Happ could eventually change that. It just indicates they weren't totally truthful about the process. If they were taking into account the luxury tax assessed to teams with high payrolls, just say so. Everyone understands this is a business.

If going with Blanton instead of Lee also meant they were taking the optimistic view that Jamie Moyer would hold up and that Blanton would be something other than average, just own up to that calculated risk. As it is, Moyer is probably gone for the season and Blanton has an ERA of nearly 6. When he allowed two earned runs in his last start, it was the first time he had given up fewer than three earned runs in 16 starts.

So, here we are, 100 games into a season in which the starting pitching hasn't been consistent, and events have forced Amaro to again play for the present. In the process, they lost Happ, a so-so outfielder in Anthony Gose, and 19-year-old shortstop Jonathan Villar, a prolific base-stealer who was projected somewhat recently as Jimmy Rollins' replacement down the road.

Maybe the organization's opinion of Villar has changed and he was expendable, in the same way that former hot prospects Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, and Travis d'Arnaud were expendable in the trades that brought in Lee and Halladay. Anyway you look at it, though, that's a big drain on the farm system, particularly for a team that publicly fretted about such a thing last December.

Amaro is correct that having Oswalt locked up for next season is a key, but if the financial figures being reported are accurate, it's not necessarily a bargain, or any significant savings over the cost of keeping Lee, who is a year younger. Figuring in what Houston will pick up of Oswalt's salary, the Phils will still spend somewhere around $13 million for approximately 45 regular-season starts through 2011. And should they pick up his option for 2012, they would pay another $16 million. That's assuming Oswalt stays healthy and, in the latter scenario, effective.

The trade wasn't made just for the regular season, though. It was made to build a three-man rotation that could slice through the playoffs, and Amaro has done that nicely. Of course, he could have done so in December as well, and then just making the playoffs wouldn't have become so difficult.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read

his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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