The Philadelphia Phillies and their value at the margins rut

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 24: Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer (10) and Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison (5) celebrate following the Major League Baseball Interleague game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians on July 24, 2018, at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. Pittsburgh defeated Cleveland 9-4. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 24: Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer (10) and Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison (5) celebrate following the Major League Baseball Interleague game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians on July 24, 2018, at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. Pittsburgh defeated Cleveland 9-4. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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This offseason, the Philadelphia Phillies finally found their value at the margins.

Almost two years ago new Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler brought a bunch of t-shirts to his clubhouse bearing the strikingly lame motto “Be Bold.” Most Philadelphia baseball fans likely recall that. What they may not recall so well is that the sleeves of those shirts bore the acronym VAM.

This stood for the phrase “value at the margins,” which meant the team should be looking for an extra win here and there by doing the little things right – making the proper turn around second base on the way to third and the like – and in general bearing down in a focused, intense way that would also add another win or two here and there.

This kind of thinking and the communication thereof to the players was thought to be a “powerful” attribute of the new manager.

It didn’t work. Inside a year, Kapler was exposed as one of those guys who really talked a good game, made people sort of like him, but who, by autumn, seemed very much like one of those guys who bores the tears out of people being made to sit through day-long meetings designed for “sales team building” or “improved customer service.” The Phillies went 80-82 in 2018, totally wasting a Cy Young-level performance by Aaron Nola.

So, the next year the team brought in two former MVPs, the best catcher in baseball, a guy who had hit .300 or better for the past three years, and a very expensive relief pitcher. Then, one of the former MVPs tore his ACL, the reliever was also lost to injury, and Nola’s effectiveness slid downhill a bit. Oh, and another starter was also lost to the IL late in the season.

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Hunting for value at the margins for a second year in a row, in the face of injuries, only moved the team to 81-81.

So, the Phillies fired Kapler, his pitching and hitting coaches, and hired Joe Girardi as manager. They also added a couple more fairly big names to the squad, Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius. Then, they found themselves bumping up against the competitive balance tax and put the brakes on.

A Different Kind of Value at the Margins

And thus, the Phillies found themselves once again hunting for – yep – value at the margins. Indeed, about five weeks ago, when the Phillies really stopped shopping for very expensive players (Gregorius somewhat notwithstanding), Ken Rosenthal almost used the exact phrase, saying that the team would remain “active in the margins.”

Indeed, after Gregorius’s signing Dec. 29, the Fightin’s have seemed to be determined to find the most possible roster value in the margins ever in an MLB off-season. Beginning in late November, but acting largely after Wheeler’s signing, the Phillies have signed Josh Harrison, Phil Gosselin, Matt Szczur, Mikie Mahtook, Christian Bethancourt, Ronald Torreyes, Drew Storen, Bud Norris, Neil Walker, and Francisco Liriano to minor-league contracts with invitations to Spring Training. Similarly, T.J. Rivera is signed to a minor league contract and may be invited to Spring Training.

Nothing says a talented team needs to win now like signing 10 MLB veterans to minor league contracts and inviting all of them to the major league spring camp.

So, working at the value in the margins for the Philadelphia Phillies is different now than it was two years ago. Consider who is going to Clearwater to apparently battle it out for a couple of bench positions: In the total group of 11 above, every player but one (Rivera) has more than two years of MLB experience.

Most are over 30, many arguably on the downhill sides of their careers, and some played little last year, or not at all, or in the minors. But this is not a chopped liver list of invitees.

The group includes an All-Star (Liriano) who had a 3.47 ERA in 69 games last season, a two-time All-Star (Harrison), a winner of his position’s Silver Slugger award (Walker), as well as players with seven years’ experience and a .263 career average, 10 years’ experience and 355 games pitched, a .259 batting average for the World Series champion Cubs in 107 games in 2016, a .292 BA in 108 games for the Yankees in 2017, and 43 saves in one year and 29 in another.

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A few of these players will likely be released, and some will surely play at the Triple-A level, but what the Philadelphia Phillies current value at the margins project says is this: You guys in the starting nine – you need to produce because we have some experienced players in this organization who would be happy to take your job.