The Phillies are frozen by fear, and that should terrify fans

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There’s been an implied (and occasionally leaked) feeling to the decisions of too many MLB teams in the past couple of years regarding the wild card. Why try by making trades or going big in the offseason in a division with a clear leader in order to maybe enter into a one-game playoff, in which your season could end in mere hours? Playing the odds that severely isn’t the right attitude, but it’s at least an understandable one that should make MLB consider that maybe Baseball Thunderdome, despite its exciting setup, is not enticing to the teams that need to be trying to make it there and beyond.

The Phillies have decided to take things one depressing step further: they’re not afraid of making it to the Wild Card Game so much as they are afraid of winning it. Ken Rosenthal reported as much last week:

Yet, once the Phillies began to slump, their front office’s thinking was, “We don’t want to go all-out for the chance to play in the wild-card game and then face the Dodgers in the Division Series.” An honest assessment, perhaps. But also defeatist, sending the wrong message to players and fans.

Now, there are a few things here worth considering. Yes, the Phillies had injuries keep them from being all they could be this year, and will likely miss the postseason because of that. They sit 4.5 games back of the second wild card, and while they’re still over .500 on the year, they’ve also been outscored by their opponents (-7 run differential). Does this mean they shouldn’t have tried harder at the deadline? It does not!

The Phillies were half-a-game out of a wild card spot on July 31. A week before that, they were also half-a-game out, and had won three straight. They had been outscored on the season at this point, too, but they still had 56 wins in the bank on the last possible day to make trades, and could have attempted to fill some of the holes that were causing them to be outscored. Instead, the Phillies added Corey Dickerson, which wasn’t a bad move by any means, but it shouldn’t have been their most significant summer get.

Rosenthal goes into detail on this, but it bears repeating: the Phillies needed starting pitching help — this played a significant part in their being outscored — and instead of throwing money they absolutely had at free agent Dallas Keuchel this past offseason, or this spring, or before the division rival Braves could offer him a paltry $13 million right after this year’s MLB Draft, the Phillies let their pitching rot. Keuchel has now thrown nearly 100 innings for the Braves, and looks like the dominant version of himself in the process, too, posting a 3.35 ERA in a year in which offense has once again skyrocketed. It turns out groundball-centric pitchers are valuable during home run spikes, who knew?

The Phillies didn’t want to deal anymore prospects than they already had in order to acquire catcher J.T. Realmuto, but Keuchel wasn’t going to cost them prospects. Before the draft, he would have cost a draft pick, sure, thanks to receiving the qualifying offer, but that draft pick would have turned into a player the Phillies would have seen post- this competitive window, given how lengthy the minor-league development process is. Keuchel was someone who obviously could have helped the team now (as well as later with a multi-year agreement), and the Phils didn’t even make overtures to him, to the point Keuchel is out here making fun of them for that now after making their hitters look silly.

The Phillies don’t believe 2019 was their year, and sure, luck certainly was not with them when it came to injuries. They could have signed Keuchel, though, at any number of points in the calendar year, and he might even be their best starter at this point. More importantly, though, innings Keuchel would have thrown are ones other pitchers would not have thrown for Philly, and when you see what the non-Aaron Nola starters have been doing with their summer, well, you can see where even a disappointing version of Keuchel would have helped, never mind the one the Braves got. And if Keuchel helped the rotation’s issues, then the gap between the Phillies and a credible postseason team would have seemed even less, and there could have been other moves to address other concerns, and then we wouldn’t be having this conversation in mid-September.

Why didn’t the Phillies try to bother improving? As mentioned, per Rosenthal, it was fear of losing to the Dodgers in the NLDS. The Phils can argue that they’ll be in a better position to take on the Dodgers next summer, but is that true? What if 2020 is also injury riddled? Hell, what if it’s not, but the Dodgers are even better or just as good next summer? We are talking about a team that is putting the finishing touches on its seventh consecutive division title, and has represented the National League in the World Series the last two Octobers. They’re going to win 100 games again, as they did in 2017, and they have the young talent, the prospect pipeline, and the eye for reclamation projects to fill in the blanks that has kept them relevant throughout nearly an entire decade, not to mention their vast financial riches that keeps all of this afloat.

The Dodgers aren’t going anywhere. The Phillies, a team that also has incredibly deep pockets, could attempt to hasten the Dodgers’ demise by pushing them in the standings, in the postseason, putting a dent into what has been the Dodgers’ NL hegemony, or at least forcing them to defend it by maybe giving up a prospect or money they wouldn’t normally when they aren’t feeling threatened. Instead, the Phillies have a “wait til next year” attitude about the whole thing, even though their farm system is garbage when put up against that of the Dodgers, when their young MLB talent isn’t as good as what’s in Los Angeles, when they aren’t quite as rich, or as crafty, or as capable. The Phillies seem to want to wait until the Dodgers aren’t dominant, but Bryce Harper might be on the downside of his career by then, with the way the Dodgers are built to keep on winning and plugging their holes with new talent.

This is a long way of saying there was no reason for the Phillies to not give 2019 a shot, even as they slumped due to injuries. They could have plugged holes even as they failed to make preemptive moves, like signing Keuchel. They could have kept trading prospects to fill holes, realizing they’re never going to win that particular prospect pipeline game in the way the Dodgers are setup to. Or, they can just sit back and let you imagine they’re going to sign Gerrit Cole this offseason, and then all will be well. There are other teams that will try to sign Cole, of course, so this plan requires you forget that, or that Philly whiffed on bringing in Patrick Corbin last winter — he instead went to the division-rival Nationals — and had to choose between trading for James Paxton or J.T. Realmuto because of the prospects involved.

Implying that you’ll be in a better position to act later is difficult to swallow for a fan base that has already been waiting for years, since the Phillies decided to blow the whole thing up and rebuild. Now, we’re seeing that they’re still not good enough, not yet, and that they’re afraid of trying and failing because the big bad Dodgers exist. That’s how this works now: the teams are all supposed to be trying as much as they can to win, to be competitive, but the league is so far away from that line of thinking that we’re now seeing stories leaking about teams that are afraid to win the Wild Card Game because the Division Series that follows isn’t a guaranteed victory.

We still lack proof that the Phillies are going to actually use all of this financial flexibility that rebuilding was supposed to give them: their 2019 Opening Day payroll was just $140 million, which puts them $68 million under the first of two luxury tax thresholds. Jake Arrieta and Andrew McCutchen aren’t getting younger or less expensive. Not all of the young talent is panning out as planned, and some of it is on the wrong side of 25 to hope for better things than what’s been seen.

Given all that, why didn’t Philly spend some of that money on additional free agent talent to shore up the team, given they seem to be built for now more than for later, and options were available in areas of need? Never mind the Dodgers and a hypothetical NLDS, we haven’t even gotten into the fact that this roster isn’t going to topple the division-leading Braves and all of their talent without spending more money, money they have. While teams should fear the Dodgers (and the Braves), they shouldn’t shrink from them, so we’re left to believe one of two things. Either the Phillies’ front office is leaking this Dodgers’ info because they truly believe it’s not worth trying when someone as good as Los Angeles is in the way, or they just want you to believe they think that because, in their view, it’ll be accepted as shrewd wisdom and business sense, and therefore be placating to fans. I’m not sure which of those choices is worse, but neither is reassuring when it comes to Philly’s future.

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