Breaking up and rebuilding the Phillies will not be easy

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says his team has "some pretty good players." Some of those players also have option years on their contracts that could make the players less attractive to other teams.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says his team has "some pretty good players." Some of those players also have option years on their contracts that could make the players less attractive to other teams. (Associated Press)
Posted: June 16, 2014

First in a four-part series.

When the Boston Red Sox jettisoned $270 million of salary in disgruntled veteran players on Aug. 25, 2012, it forever established the bar for baseball fire sales. The trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers was negotiated under unprecedented circumstances. The Red Sox, armed with a strong farm system, reinvested the money and won the World Series in 2013.

There is no such magic pill for the Phillies and Ruben Amaro Jr. Despite a recent spasm of success against the woeful Cubs and Padres, the Phillies will need to start over if they want to be title contenders again, but the process appears daunting.

As teams begin to form their strategies for the July 31 trade deadline, they will monitor the Phillies, who could seek to trade whatever useful parts are coveted by others.

The same scenario unfolded last summer. Amaro had an opportunity to trade Cliff Lee and Chase Utley. The Phillies, instead, dealt only Michael Young and John McDonald. They doubled down on an expensive roster, and many of the same potential trade pieces are still Phillies.

Amaro expects a strong market for his players. Teams, the general manager said, like the Phillies' veterans.

"Ah yes. Wouldn't you?" he said Friday. "We have some pretty good players."

Amaro, though, does not appear to have much leverage. That is, in part, because of the contracts he negotiated. With six weeks until the July 31 deadline, the situation can change.

Jimmy Rollins is 156 plate appearances shy of triggering an $11 million option for 2015. Marlon Byrd, signed to a two-year deal at age 36, can earn a third guaranteed year by accruing 550 plate appearances in 2015. (Byrd surpassed that level in 2013 and is on pace for well above 600 plate appearances in 2014.)

If Lee pitches 200 innings in 2015, he will activate a $27.5 million option for 2016. (Lee has accumulated at least 200 innings in eight of his last nine seasons, though it looks doubtful he'll get there this year.) Jonathan Papelbon can clinch another $13 million for 2016 if he finishes 55 games in 2015. (That is a mark he reached in three of eight full seasons as a closer.)

Utley has three vesting options - each for $15 million - from 2016 to '18 that trigger if he reaches 500 plate appearances in the previous season. Mike Adams needed 60 innings this season to guarantee a $6 million option for 2015, although that looks unreachable given shoulder injuries that delayed the start of his season and put him on the disabled list last week.

Both Ryan Howard, who is owed $50 million over the next two seasons, and A.J. Burnett have team options for their age 37 and 38 seasons, respectively. Rollins and Utley have full no-trade rights. Lee, Papelbon, Howard, and Burnett have various levels of no-trade clauses.

Amaro, in the past, has justified option years on contracts because there is low risk to the organization. If the player is healthy and productive enough to reach the stipulations for a vesting option, Amaro said, then the team will be interested in retaining that player's services.

That, however, was under the assumption the Phillies would maintain competitiveness through the duration of those contracts. Their details are not as appealing now or to possible trade partners.

It is possible that Byrd breaks down with age. Lee's left-elbow strain could linger and morph into a more significant injury that renders his vesting option meaningless. Papelbon's opportunities to finish games have dwindled on a mediocre team. Utley's knee problems could return.

Those also are reasons for teams to seek other trade options. The Phillies' best assets are Utley and Lee. But Utley and the team agreed to his extension last summer, and it is unlikely that ownership would support a divorce with the team's most popular player. Lee's injury, which could sideline him into July, complicates his value.

Amaro does not believe the contracts will prohibit teams from taking interest in his roster.

"Not that much," Amaro said, "because we have taken money back on deals before and will do it again if we have to."

The Phillies will get more than $2.5 billion over 25 years beginning in 2016, when terms of their TV rights contract with Comcast commence.

A steep decline in attendance - the Phillies averaged 8,357 fewer fans per game than last season through their first 34 home dates - will affect the bottom line. A fire sale to shed money, though, would not be as productive as one that replenishes a weak farm system. Few teams are able to rebuild through free agency.

That is why the Phillies must hope one or two or three of their possible trade chips demonstrate ability and health over the next six weeks. Amaro's priority could be any trade, however small, that moves toward a rebuild.


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

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