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How not to tank: Lessons from the Philadephia Phillies

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Entering a rebuild is hard, but where the 2014 Phillies didn’t commit, the Rays took the right initiative before things got too terrible

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an interesting offseason for the Rays, as they’ve successively traded away almost every long term asset not signed to a team friendly deal. Words like “tank” have been used to describe what the Rays are up to, but that’s not fair to the current roster. The Rays are rebuilding, they’ve committed to their highest Opening Day payroll in team history, and they’ve brought in several veterans to try and avoid a “tank” situation.

I would argue they haven’t done enough to stay competitive, but they’ve at least tried to build a team that can win something close to 80 games, which is within the margin of error for playoff baseball. It’s not much different from last year, but that’s ok when the goal is a rebuild.

The odds of finding success by taking this rebuilding path, though, are low; just ask the 2013-2014 Phillies, who chose to rebuild instead of tanking, by signing late-career bargains like Michael Young, A.J. Burnett or Aaron Harang. The Phillies did not enter a full tank until the 2015 season when they finally fell off the balance beam.

In considering a rebuild, Tampa Bay had some lessons to learn from those Phillies teams if they wanted to avoid a similar mess, and I think we’ve seen that bear out in this off-season.

Lessons from the Philadephia Phillies

Coming off an 81-81 season, the 2013 Phillies put together a competent roster with three ace starters and a decent hitting offense. The Opening Day payroll that season was $159 million and they shockingly fell apart, despite their expectations, ending the year with 73 wins. So what did they do?

The following season, the Phillies Opening Day payroll increased to $177 million in 2014, and the best hitting player on the Phillies turned out to be Marlon Byrd. Philadelphia puttered along to another 73-win season, infamously carrying the dead weight of Ryan Howard to a last place finish in the NL East.

One clear lesson from the Phillies, it seems then, is to cut bait with broken, incumbent veterans and go find the useful pieces to fill the roster as soon as possible.

For the Phillies, that meant moving on from Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee, who both significantly hurt the Phillies chances that season. These would have been big names to set aside, regardless of whether the downturn was predictable. The big names stayed and the 2014 team suffered.

There’s a chance the Rays — after going for it at the trade deadline and falling short — were showing the lesson of heading into a rebuild was learned when they moved on from their best hitters from 2017.

The other lesson of the Phillies, though, is that they did not do enough to prepare for the rebuild. Philadelphia was not ready for the disappearances of Chase Utley or Dominic Brown in 2014, and did not have enough major league experience to fill the gap.

Tampa Bay followed Philadelphia’s rebuilding suit by filling a need in right field with a smart veteran — Carlos Gomez can easily be Tampa Bay’s Marlon Byrd — at a time of roster transition, and will roll with internal options like Matt Duffy at third base like the Phillies did with Cody Asche, but they didn’t stop there.

Big names like Duda and Morrison and Cobb departed in free agency, All-Star Dickerson and Team MVP Souza were traded, and Gold Glove winner Evan Longoria was sent packing in hopes that they’d moved on from the big name before he went belly up.

It was a serviceable major league team in Philadelphia in 2014, and could have done better if the front office had moved on from known entities when it needed to.

Philadelphia waited until 2015 to be the year they finally traded Cole Hamels and Chase Utley because it took a new president, new general manager, and a manager’s departure to allow those necessary moves to happen. Instead of taking the plunge, they made some attempts to stay afloat in signings like Byrd, Roberto Hernandez, and Kyle Kendrick.

By contrast, Tampa Bay pulled the trigger early on their trades, feeling pressure to make moves now (and clear a path for the rookies to come) before the organization was faced with the same dilemma that lead to the front office turmoil in Philadelphia.

Words like “disgrace” have been thrown around to describe the Rays, and I still think that’s a bit unfair. Ownership apparently gave the Rays brass the political power to start dealing now before it was as much of a mess in the front office as it would be on the field.

But the lessons are simpler than that.

Shedding future payroll commitments and signing major league veterans is exactly what a bad baseball team should be doing if they want to avoid the dishonor associated with full tanks like the present day Marlins or pre-World Series-winning Astros chose.

Entering a rebuild is hard no matter what decisions get made, but where the 2014 Phillies didn’t commit, the Rays took the right initiative before things got too terrible, and that’s to be commended.

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Thanks to my colleague Liz Roscher for her dialogue on this subject.