Learning From Your Enemies, Part 2: What Was Their Plan?

in Part 1 of this trilogy, we established the similarities between the 2010 Mets and the 2005 Phillies, upsetting as it might have been. The short of it was that both teams featured some young stars on the infield and outfield, some reasonably exciting pieces in the rotation, and veterans filling in the pieces - not to mention new ballparks, coaches and general managers.

Now it's time to figure out how those Phillies turned from almost-there into the team that has won the division four straight years. Let's start with the hiring of GM Pat Gillick in November of 2005, since that dovetails nicely with the future hiring of the next Mets general manager, and end with the beginning of the 2007 season, which saw them win the division thanks to the Mets. Sigh.

Instead of going into the minutia of every single move that Pat Gillick made when he took over, let's look at the major moves. Check out his big splash:

11/25/05     Acquired CF Aaron Rowand, LHP Daniel Haigwood and LHP Gio Gonzalez for 1B Jim Thome and cash.

The Phillies had long had Ryan Howard knocking on the door at first base, and when he performed well late in the 2005 season while Jim Thome was hurt - 2.3 WAR, 22 HR, .288/.356/.667 in 348 PA - it became obvious what had to be done. Gillick got a decent return despite the fact that it was obvious that Thome was both superfluous and already a DH.

Don't look at the current version of Rowand when scoffing at this notion - in his younger days, Rowand was useful. In 2004, he went .310/.361/.544 and accrued 5.4 WAR by playing an excellent center field, and in 2005, despite a bit of regression (.270/.329/.407, 3.8 WAR) he was still a nice piece. The best part was that the Phillies needed a center fielder, as Kenny Lofton was 38 and didn't seem like a long-term piece at the position. Yes, he turned in a decent season (.335/.392/.420, 3.8 WAR), but it was his second-straight season limited by injury and there was little reason to expect that to change at his age.

Gio Gonzalez was also a nice young left-handed piece to get back in that trade, and he factors in later in the Phils' future, even if it wasn't at the major league level.

Lesson Learned: Deal from surplus to fill needs. Any fantasy owner could tell you the same.

12/3/05     Signed free agent RHP Tom Gordon to a three-year contract.
1/27/06     Acquired LHP Arthur Rhodes from Cleveland for OF Jason Michaels.

This is a key part of the equation, as it pertains mostly to mid- to large-market teams working under the assumption that they have to field a strong team every year. Gordon signed for three years and $15 million to replace Billy Wagner, and was a relative value considering that Braden Looper signed a three year deal for a million-and-a-half less to set up in St. Louis. Even with his injuries, Gordon was the better value and the better bet going into the season. Of course, Looper converted to a starter and ended up being worth more, but Gordon was the better pitcher and was a closer, so paying a million more is not unwarranted. I mean, Billy Wagner signed for four years and $42 million - how did that work out? Rhodes suffered through poor luck in one of his worst seasons in the bigs, but he was also a flyball pitcher going to a poor park for his skills, and his 3.72 FIP wasn't terrible.

What you can learn from these transactions is that Gillick wanted to build a strong bullpen, but he didn't want to pay a lot of money for it. Omar Minaya, are you listening?

Lesson Learned: Don't spend a ton of resources on the bullpen, but do spend some attention on it.

3/27/06     Reassigned LHP Cole Hamels to Minor League camp.

Hamels had made it as far as Double-A in 2005 and had excelled at every stop. He was an exciting young pitcher, and the fans were clamoring for him. He was re-assigned to the minor leagues because he'd only had 19 innings at Double-A, ended up getting hurt, hitting the DL, returning, excelling, and performing decently in the major leagues once he proved Double-A wasn't a problem.

Lesson Learned: Don't muck around with your exciting young starters (like Jenrry Mejia).

7/30/06     Acquired SS C.J. Henry, LHP Matt Smith, C Jesus Sanchez and RHP Carlos Monastrios from the Yankees for OF Bobby Abreu and RHP Cory Lidle.
8/19/06     Acquired LHP Jamie Moyer from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for Minor League RHPs Andrew Baldwin and Andrew Barb.
8/27/06     Acquired OF Jeff Conine and cash from the Orioles in exchange for a player to be named.

This may be the most controversial part of the discussion. On July 30th, the team was under .500 and struggling - and Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle were free agents at year's end, so they were easy targets for other teams. Credit Gillick for trading them away when he knew he wasn't going to re-sign them - even in his first season with the Phillies. Less strong-minded GMs may not have wanted to 'waive the white flag' so soon in their inaugural season. Even if the prospects he got back didn't end up doing much, there was some hope for Monastrios at the time, and at least all four played premium positions and had the chance to become backups on good teams.

But then the team rallied and got back into the wild card race. Just about three weeks later, Gillick must have felt differently about the team and acquired an old left-hander getting to the end of his contract in Seattle. He added an outfielder for the stretch run too. It's a little confusing, and would seemingly be rash, but if you look closely, he didn't give up much for Moyer, so there's something common to both of these moves. Short-term assets can be moved around fairly easily depending on the current state of the team. Out of it? Jettison the free agents as long as you can do better than the picks you'd get for them. Back in it? Throw a couple fungible arms at a weakness on the team.

A sub-plot here is Michael Bourn. Ostensibly, Gillick traded Abreu because he felt that Bourn, who had just put up a .283/.368/.428 season at Triple-A, could replace him in the outfield with better defense. With the team out of it seemingly, he gave Bourn some run. As the team climbed back in, he demoted Bourn and replaced him with Conine. In 2007, Bourn was a full-time outfielder and still part of the team's plans.

Lesson Learned: Keep the long-term plan in mind, cut bait on short-term assets relatively quickly, and don't overpay when acquiring short-term assets. AND: Give young guys a shot if they seem ready and the team is struggling (a corollary to keeping the long-term plan in mind).

10/23/06     Signed LHP Jamie Moyer to a two-year contract extension.
11/30/06     Signed RHP Adam Eaton to a three-year contract.

Well, you can't win them all - certainly the Eaton move was a bad one, as he gave the Phils 268 innings of replacement-level pitching for three years and $24.5 million. Ouch. On the other hand, Jamie Moyer gave them 4.2 WAR over two years for $12+ million, so that one worked out. A positive lesson can be taken from both of these contracts - back of the rotation starters are fungible, so just keep the dollar signs low and sign multiple guys, knowing that your best Triple-A starter can come in if things don't work out (see: Eaton, who was released after 2008). Had the Mets signed Oliver Perez to three years and $24.5 million, they'd probably be even more likely to release him this offeseason and they'd be $5.5 million richer overall.

Lesson Learned: Back-of-the-rotation starters are fungible - keep the years and dollar signs as low as possible and move on once things don't work out.

12/21/06     Traded OF Jeff Conine to Cincinnati in exchange for Minor League OF Javon Moran and Minor League 3B Brad Key; Signed C Rod Barajas to a one-year contract with a club option for the 2008 season.
12/19/06      Signed OF Jayson Werth to a one-year contract.

Conine performed decently with the Phillies at the end of 2006, but his .280/.327/.390 line showed that his power was almost all gone. With a year left on his contract, Gillick went back to his old lesson - short-term assets can be jettisoned in order to keep the long term plan going - and traded Conine away.

You might be tempted to say that the Werth signing was luck, since the outfielder had just spent a year in Los Angeles whiffing at everything (33.8% K rate) and putting up an atrocious line (.238/.334/.374), but that's not probable. Werth had shown great ISOs before (.208 in Toronto, .224 in his first year in Los Angeles) and was as strong fielder. He had a bad platoon split, but he was at least half of a pretty good fielder, and the fact that his ISO disappeared for 395 plate appearances in Los Angeles is not something that should sink a career.

(Also: backup catchers should be signed to one-year contracts for cheap... but Minaya figured that one out.)

Lesson Learned: Buy low on players that have shown promise even if they are somewhat flawed.

12/6/06     Acquired RHP Freddy Garcia from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for RHP Gavin Floyd and a player to be named later.

Well, crap happens. It seems that the Phillies gave up too soon on Floyd, who had walked over five batters per nine in about 100 innings over three years. He only had one year in the minors with really poor control (2005, 4.3 walks per nine, 3.4 BB/9 minor league career), so perhaps they should have seen past the initial struggles. Then again, he only struck out 7.1 per nine in the minor leagues, so perhaps they thought his upside was limited. Few players strike out so few in the minor leagues and then go on to successful careers, but Floyd has improved his control and his ability to get groundballs while in the majors and has become a better pitcher. Kudos to him.

Lesson Learned: Some guys will get away. It's okay. Keep dealing.

1/21/07     Signed 2B Chase Utley to a seven-year contract extension.
2/1/07      Agreed to terms with RHP Brett Myers on a three-year contract.

Well, New York knows this lesson at least. Sign your cornerstones before they hit the free market. We can thank Omar Minaya for the last three player-seasons left at below-market rates for David Wright and Jose Reyes at the very least.

Lesson Learned: Sign your cornerstones before they hit the free market.

And there you have it. The major moves the Phillies made between 2006 and 2007 that took them from second to first in the division. Doesn't seem so hard, does it? Next up: How the Mets can follow this plan.

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