Today, I find myself to be the bearer of bad news. Earlier this week, as I flipped through Baseball Prospectus' Phillies chapter, I found myself making an odd connection: They are at the point where the Astros were just a few years ago. This is a declining Phillies team with no real sense of future direction, much like Houston was with Ed Wade at the helm. Digging deeper, the similarities were striking.
Today, the Astros have too many prospects for a set number of positions throughout the minor leagues. Let that sink in. Now, in order to begin our comparison, let's take a quick trip down memory lane, where we come to the 2009 Astros. Merely three years removed from a National League pennant, the Astros would finish 74-88, their worst record since 2000. The following winter, their farm system was ranked dead last in the Major Leagues by Baseball America. They would finish 76-86 in 2010 before tumbling into a three-year period of 100+ losses.
Enter the 2013 Philadelphia Phillies. Three years removed from a National League pennant, the team finished 73-89, their worst record since 2000. Their farm system was ranked 23rd this winter. PECOTA projections have them winning... you guessed it: 76 games.
2010 Houston Astros Lineup
2014 Philadelphia Phillies Lineup
It seems fair to say that the Phillies are on nearly the exact same place on what Jonah Keri deemed the "Success Cycle" over a decade ago as the Astros were following the 2009 season. However, there is a caveat. The Houston Astros broke the success cycle. Better put, they took what Derek Zumsteg later found to be the average success cycle, and broke it into a million pieces. The Astros enter the 2014 season averaging 108 losses per season over 2011-13. Chances are, they are not out of the cellar yet.
For sake of argument, we are going to pitch everything Zumsteg found about the average success cycle out the window (also because Keri himself disbanded the theory), and follow the downtrodden path of the atypical Astros in hopes of forecasting the Phillies next few seasons. Realizing the disastrous path they were headed down with former GM Ed Wade at the helm, new owner Jim Crane instead chose a revolutionary path for the Astros. In December of 2011, Crane hired Jeff Luhnow to lead the rebuilding project. The well-documented project has included cashing in nearly every player of value for prospect currency. Three days prior to the 2013 trade deadline, the Astros were left with three players making upwards of $1.5 million dollars. By the time August 1stcame, they had traded two and released the other. This is to say that the Astros have taken a wildly radical approach at rebuilding.
However, their approach seems to be working. Their farm system, widely regarded as the deepest in all of baseball, was ranked 5th by Baseball America headed into this year. For the third consecutive draft, they will pick first. They have reached a point in the rebuilding process in which their front office feels it is appropriate to begin locking players in for the long haul. It is obvious that they feel they are close to beginning to crawl out of the cellar.
Short of a digression, we now come back to the Phillies. This offseason, they gave the 36-year old Marlon Byrd a two-year deal worth $16 million, and the 37-year old A.J Burnett a two-year deal worth $22 million. They clearly outbid the field to bring back incumbent catcher and 35-year old Carlos Ruiz on a three-year deal worth $26 million. Either the Phillies are ignorant of the fact that they are headed down a calamitous path, or there are ulterior motives concurrent to moral hazard involved.
As Bryan Robinson noted, they are projected to have the most inefficient payroll in baseball this year, paying about $5.72 million per win. Dave Cameron found that they pay $130 million in marginal payroll (money over the hypothetical $42.5 million floor) despite having 0.2% odds to win the World Series. In summary, Cameron concludes that their marginal payroll comes nowhere close to justifying their awfully low odds of winning the World Series.
Yet the 2014 Phillies are not alone in their irresponsible payroll usage. The 2010 Astros added middle reliever Brandon Lyons on a three-year deal worth $15 million. Their irresponsibility does not jive with the Phillies current path. The Astros payroll was over $102 million in 2009 and $92 million in 2010.
So far, the Phillies are a mirror image of the Astros just four years later. They are still spending recklessly with naïve hopes of winning. The Astros made the right call. They diverged from rash path in favor of rebuilding. They dismissed most everyone from the front office that got them in that mess, hiring some of the brightest analytical and scouting minds to conduct their rebuild.
Projecting the Phillies in 2014, PECOTA likely nails their win range in the mid 70s. The Phillies are aging quickly while the front office continues to spend. At this point, it seems similar to spending millions of dollars to try and keep a rickety house from collapsing. It would be better to bite the bullet, knock the house down and start from scratch. After the 2010 season, the Astros realized that anyone getting paid any large sum of money was a sunk cost. They ate money on contracts like Carlos Lee's and Wandy Rodriguez's in efforts to accelerate the process. The Phillies have over $124 million committed to their 2015 payroll. To alleviate some of the burden, they will likely end up needing to eat contracts.
As of right now, the future is dreary for the Phillies. However, in 2010, the same could have been said for the Astros. It got bad, and then it got worse. However, the future is beginning to gleam in Houston. Their farm system is brimming with impact talent, and they look only a few short years away from competing. For that to be said of the Phillies, it is going to take a similar process that the Astros have gone through. Now for the worst news: It will likely take the Astros just short of a decade to return to being perennial competitors. Unless there is significant turnover, color me unsurprised if it takes longer in Philly.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs. All contractual information courtesy of Cots MLB Contracts.
Daniel Schoenfeld is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. He can be found on Twitter at @DanielSchoe.