Saturday, July 20, 2013

Philadelphia Phillies Should Be Selling at the Deadline

We’re drawing closer and closer to the July 31st Trade Deadline, and teams are starting to feel out their places in the buyer-seller dynamic. One surprising possible buyer, though, is the Philadelphia Phillies.

As we leave the All-Star Break, the Phillies stand at exactly .500, 48-48. They’re only 6.5 games behind the division-leading Braves and 5 behind the second wild card Reds. All in all, that seems like solid reasoning, right? Maybe the record isn’t encouraging, but only 5 games behind a playoff spot is good.

Except that everything below the surface of the Phillies season screams “July Seller”. First of all, that “5 games out” is misleadingly optimistic. Yes, they may only 5 games behind the Reds. However, they’re also half a game behind the Nationals and Dodgers as well. Basically, they’ll have to outplay two to three teams to make the postseason, either the Braves and Nationals, or all three of the Reds, Nationals, and Dodgers.Are they more talented than either of those combinations? I’m a little skeptical.

Part of my doubt is tied to their run differential, which is another reason to be suspicious of their chance at a run. Despite an even record, the Phillies have allowed 416 runs while only scoring 371 (stats as of Friday afternoon). That works out to 3.9 runs scored per game and 4.3 allowed (I mention this because I’ll be working on a rate basis for comparisons sake-also, note that, due to rounding weirdness, this is actually a -0.5 differential). Based on those numbers, their expected won-loss record is only 43-53. That figure would drop them behind the Rockies as well; for further reference, the lowly Cubs actually have a better expected record, but have wasted most of that run differential advantage by giving close games to Carlos Marmol.

Now, that’s not to say the Cubs will finish with a better record. These 90-odd games are in the books and no one can take away that cushion the Phillies have. But how reasonable is it to expect the Phillies to suddenly get significantly better at scoring or limiting runs in the second half? They don’t have much in the way of prospects to offer for trades, so their roster will stay more or less as it is.

Maybe the Phillies don’t need improve at scoring or allowing runs. After all, while a better run differential usually spells a better record, there have been exceptions in the past, where fortuitous distributions have gotten teams to the playoffs. Could that happen?

To answer that, I went back and looked at the NL playoff teams since 2008 (also the would-have-been second wild card for years prior to 2012) to see if there was a noticeable history of teams making the playoffs while not scoring much more than their opponents. Listed are the teams, their differentials, and where that rate ranked in the NL that season.

2012: Nationals 0.8 (1st)
Cardinals 0.7 (2nd)
Braves 0.6 (3rd)
Reds 0.5 (4th)
Giants 0.4 (5th)

2011: Phillies 1.1 (1st)
Brewers 0.5 (2nd)
Diamondbacks 0.4 (t-3rd)
Cardinals 0.4 (t-3rd)
Braves 0.2 (t-5th)

2010: Phillies 0.8 (1st)
Giants 0.7 (t-2nd)
Braves 0.7 (t-2nd)
Reds 0.6 (t-4th)
Padres 0.5 (6th)

2009: Dodgers 1.0 (1st)
Phillies 0.7 (2nd)
Cardinals 0.6 (t-3rd)
Rockies 0.5 (5th)
Giants 0.3 (6th)

2008: Cubs 1.1 (1st)
Phillies 0.7 (2nd)
Mets 0.5 (3rd)
Brewers 0.4 (4th)
Dodgers 0.3 (t-5th)

Going back those five years, 22 of the 25 playoff teams have finished in the top five in run differential, and all of them were in the NL top six. The Phillies are currently a distant twelfth in run differential, a full half a run behind sixth-place Colorado (0.0).

Going back even further to 2003, only four playoff teams (out of 50) have had run differentials below 0.3. One of those was the 2011 Braves, who still had the fifth best run differential of the National League that year. Two of the other three were the 2006 Cardinals (0.1) and the 2005 Padres (-0.3), but those teams made the playoffs with 83 and 82 wins, respectively. Would you want to bet on not only the below-average scoring Phillies continuing to win at a .500 rate (to win around 83 games), but the Braves, who have the best NL differential behind the Cardinals, playing about 13 games below .500 the rest of the way to get down to .500 as well? Because that’s what it would probably take for a mediocre run differential team to squeak in. And even then, the Phillies' -0.5 mark is still well behind even those mediocre 2005 Padres. They would essentially blazing a new trail.

We can debate whether Philly should go for a full rebuild or just try and “retool”, as the Red Sox have done. But even then, they have plenty of players who will be free agents after this year and who may be in high demand. Even if they don't move long-term pieces like Cliff Lee, it’s hard to argue for keeping Michael Young, Chase Utley, and Carlos Ruiz when none is signed through next year. Even if you do trade them, you can still go for them as free agents if you really want. Why not get something for them now since they won’t help you get to the playoffs this year?

Really, that’s the main idea, I suppose. The Phillies are playing well over their heads to the extent that they probably shouldn’t be trying to compete for this year; teams that score runs like the 2013 Phillies generally just don’t make the playoffs, and they have plenty of players who aren’t guaranteed to be around next year and make excellent trade fodder. If that’s not a recipe to sell, I don’t know what is.

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