Back in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021, the Phillies were hamstrung by a big money problem- despite being a top ten payroll team, they were cash poor when it came to baseball’s trade deadline. You see, they had an atrocious minor league system with no talent to trade for really good players. They also were unwilling to go over the luxury tax threshold to buy the players they wanted and needed to compete for the playoffs. In just about every year they fell somewhere between “falling short” and “falling apart” over the final two months. This was true across managers, seasons, and front office regimes.
Are the 2022 Phillies really much different? I don’t think so. They’ve had a couple of demonstrably better drafts of late to replenish the system, and they aren’t capped on money. Wait, the second part is big- since the Phillies were already over the luxury tax, they weren’t as concerned about taking on more money to get better players. The result is they got the best reliever on the market. The result is that they traded a good prospect to get a 24 year old starting center fielder they can control for more than a half decade. The result is they got a third or fourth starter with post-season experience and the opportunity to continue getting better as he pitches deeper into the season after some major injuries. The result is an elite defensive infielder that they can control for years to come, that dramatically improves their team defense. The Phillies didn’t go crazy like the Padres at the deadline, adding every piece they could ever want, but they also didn’t behave like a poverty team that doesn’t believe they can make the playoffs, let alone compete in them. In short, once the money wasn’t an issue, and the minor league system actually had some nice players, they Phillies acted like they were real buyers.
The results of this deadline are already pretty clear. The Phillies opened up space for younger players to audition for future roles. They traded for good players, and didn’t give away premium talent to do so, because they were willing to absorb more money from the other team to get the deal done. Where they needed to trade a prospect for the player they wanted, they had one. The Phillies finally had a deadline where they traded from a position of strength, and didn’t lose out on the targets they wanted because they were out of money or talent to trade. The result looks like they could break an 11 year playoff drought. Or at least we can actually hope to be a little more than lucky this October.
Nothing in sports gets more unnecessary ink than NFL practices.The amount of attention people put into practice- yes, we’re talking about practice- is silly. I’ve read more Philadelphia sports media takes about the team being great based on practice field success than I’d care to remember. It’s almost always garbage. The only important news out of camp is who gets hurt, otherwise I’m not really interested.
MLB’s trade deadline is actually in a similar boat. Obviously if someone snags Juan Soto today, that is significant news that you should care about. Many times though, the big moves are not really the big moves, and the most significant stuff that happens are margin moves that improve a serious weakness, more than the moves that land stars. This is true the other 364 days a year too, but those days receive less hype. Lots of attention will be put into some of the bigger names moving today. History tells us that’s not the right way to view deadline moves.
In 2008 the Phillies got figuratively mugged by the fans and the writers for getting outbid on Rich Harden and other name starting pitchers, and instead getting back-end of the rotation Joe Blanton for their playoff run. Those Phillies chased down the Mets, won a second straight division, and the franchise’s second World Series title. It is often the little moves- like picking up Jamie Moyer from Seattle’s 2006 scrapheap, or a J.C. Romero or Scott Eyre off a waiver wire, that end up paying off the biggest for a franchise. The 2009 Phillies cruised to the NL East title and picked up Cliff Lee and an unemployed Pedro Martinez, far bigger names than anyone they grabbed in 2008, but only nabbed an NL Pennant for that effort. Trade deadline moves, both back in the era of the August waiver period and now, can be a tricky thing. Does one player, even a Roy Oswalt or Hunter Pence type, dramatically change your odds of winning a World Series? The answer is probably not, even if they’re a great player. On the other hand, picking up a marginal upgrade at a particular point of weakness can dramatically improve a ball club. In other words, if your fifth starter is terrible, or you’re trotting out a negative WAR position starter every day, and today you pick up someone who is even league average at that spot, the odds that your team is going to get hot and get on a run down the stretch into the post-season goes way up. In other words, Juan Soto or Frankie Montas are really good players, but it’s hard to tell today if they would make a Dodgers or Yankees that much more likely to win.
There’s the other side of this, and it’s that the teams dealing may not be setting up their futures that well by selling today. I almost feel for the Washington Nationals (but I can’t) because I cannot imagine exactly what kind of haul for Soto would make me feel any better about trading a 23 year old that was second in last year’s MVP vote and isn’t even near his prime yet. They got their championship, but have watched a steady stream of Hall-of-Famers and All-Stars they amassed in their “Natitude” era run that began in 2012 walk away. Max Scherzer and Trea Turner got sent to LA at last year’s deadline and now Scherzer is up the Acela route in Queens. Bryce Harper got that second MVP up I-95 in Philly. Anthony Rendon fled to Southern California. Ryan Zimmerman retired. Now Soto could be gone, and you can’t possibly get a return that equals the player he is now, let alone what he’ll be in five years. Trust me, we’ve been there. When the Phillies traded Cole Hamels, they got a package of top 100 prospects, all of whom are gone now, and only Alfaro fetched them anything in return (he was part of the Realmuto package). The only piece from the Ken Giles trade still hanging around Philly is Mark Appel, now a 31 year old reliever that actually left baseball for a few years and came back to find his success. The Papelbon deal landed Nick Pivetta, and we know how that went in Philly. In short, you’re lucky if any of the guys you get in these big trades ever even make it in the Majors, and even then, the odds they perform at a high level like Soto are almost nil. Sure, maybe you get Randy Johnson for Mark Langston. It’s more likely you get close to nothing. I despise the Nationals, but I feel for their fans who are feeling like this is a funeral for their franchise today.
None of this is to say you don’t go out and try to nail the blockbuster today. If I were the Padres, for example, I’d move mountains with my prospect haul to try and get Soto and even Josh Bell, and check in to see if I could even get the Nationals to take Eric Hosmer’s contract off my hands in the process. And if I were the Nationals? Yeah, I’d probably do it all. At least they’ll have a mountain of prospects in exchange for Soto. They could be the Angels, deciding that holding onto Ohtani right now to sell tickets, but continuing to put an uncompetitive, awful product on the field is acceptable. With Mike Trout’s back condition being a long-term storm cloud over a franchise that’s not even remotely competing for a Wild Card spot, I just don’t get what they think is going to happen for them. Standing pat and being terrible is the epitome of hell in sports, and at least for the Nationals they won’t be doing that (whether they trade Soto today or in the Winter). No one wants to watch that. No one wants to watch their contender team sit on their hands today either, and to the credit of the biggest contender of all, the New York Yankees, they didn’t. They filled virtually all of their holes at this deadline. Fans just want to see a good faith effort to try and win. Some teams clearly do that better than others.
As for my Phillies today, my two most pressing needs are a centerfielder I can actually put out there every day and a starting pitcher that at least improves one spot in my rotation. Honestly though, a couple of reliable relievers may do the most impactful good of anything on the market for them. I like the move for Edmundo Sosa from the Cardinals on Saturday, as team defense is still a glaring hole that needs improving, even if it hasn’t killed them yet. I would be fine with Noah Syndergaard or Tyler Mahle as a starting pitcher, although both probably cost more than I really wanted them to give up at this deadline. Neither is a top of the rotation option in 2022, but both are probably better than hoping for Zach Eflin’s health to improve. Rumors about Brett Phillips are fine, but he’s not an offensive upgrade on either centerfielder they have right now, and while he’s much better defensively, neither of them are bad defensively. It’s always about improving your weakest points, and hopefully the Phillies can do that today.