By Adam Berry
Better late than never, the Phillies have finally acknowledged it's time to rebuild. This now gives them a much-needed sense of direction.
The Phillies' recent moves -- trading franchise icon Jimmy Rollins and lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo for a trio of talented Minor League pitchers -- were small steps. But they're still weighed down by old players with unwieldy contracts, all mistakes of their own doing. They're trying to acquire top prospects at a time when teams are particularly stubborn about holding on to them.
Only one of their veterans, left-handed ace Cole Hamels, is a legitimately intriguing trade piece. Right fielder Marlon Byrd, signed to a less cumbersome contract, should fetch a decent return as well.
Beyond that, the Phillies have some young talent in the bullpen and a couple decent prospects down in the Minors.
So how can they continue to push aside the past and build toward the future? It won't be pretty, and it almost certainly won't be fun to watch on the field next year, but here are a few suggestions.
Problem: What should be done with Cole Hamels?
Solution: The short answer is trade him, and trade him now. But there are two things standing in the way: his contract and questions about when the Phillies will be contenders again.
Let's start with the contract. He's owed $96 million over the next four years, and that would jump to five years and $110 million if his 2019 club option automatically vests. It's not an outrageous figure -- consider that Jon Lester just got six years and $155 million -- but it immediately knocks a number of mid- to small-market teams out of consideration.
As for the second issue, Hamels is under team control until 2019. He'll be 31 next year. If the Phillies were going to be good again in '16, would it be worth dealing away a bona fide ace? Probably not. But if it's going to be '17 or later, they have to trade him.
There are several options out there, but the Red Sox need an ace and make the most sense as a potential trade partner.
Could the Phillies package another player with Hamels in exchange for 26-year-old starter Joe Kelly, under team control through 2018, along with catcher Blake Swihart, left-hander Brian Johnson and a mid-level position player prospect?
That's a high asking price, but it's a starting point. It's not entirely unlike the framework of the James Shields/Wil Myers trade a few years ago.
Problem: Ryan Howard's contract.
Solution: Howard's best years are obviously well behind him, and that massive contract is never going to look any better. Howard had a .690 OPS in 153 games last year, and he just turned 35.
He is the most difficult player for the Phillies to move, but it simply has to be done. Reports say Philadelphia is willing to pay a substantial portion of his contract -- he's guaranteed $60 million through 2016 -- which is a good start.
But it's hard to imagine the Phillies getting anything of value for Howard if the other club still has to pay him even $20 million over the next two years. They might be able to simply get rid of Howard that way, but they wouldn't reap any sort of reward.
So here's a harsh recommendation for the Phils: If you can get anything for Howard, eat his entire contract. Just admit your mistake and move on. The payroll shouldn't be that big of an issue the next few years anyway.
At this point, anything you can get for Howard is probably more valuable to your team than what you'd achieve by playing him, and trading him is at least a better look than releasing him.
A team seeking a DH with some power could bite at the opportunity for a free player who hit 23 homers last year. Perhaps the Rays, who reside not far from Howard's under-construction mansion in Clearwater, Fla., or the Orioles.
Problem: That's not enough to call it a rebuild.
Solution: Correct. Several other veterans need to be traded, too.
Byrd tops this list simply because he possesses a quality teams crave: right-handed power.
The Mariners, Orioles and Royals are among the clubs looking for a corner outfielder this offseason, and Byrd would fill that need at a relatively affordable rate -- $8 million next year with an $8 million vesting option for 2016.
Byrd hit .264/.312/.445 with 25 homers and 85 RBIs last year, which makes him an intriguing trade target even at 37 years old. If the Phillies can get a decent return, deal him away.
They also could look to deal catcher Carlos Ruiz, who is owed $8.5 million each of the next two years with a $4.5 million option for 2017.
Dealing second baseman Chase Utley, another franchise icon like Rollins, and closer Jonathan Papelbon could prove to be much more difficult. Utley has full trade protection and has said he wants to finish his career in Philadelphia.
Papelbon, while still a capable closer, would be difficult to trade given his $13 million salary and perceived attitude problems.
So the Phillies can hang on to Utley and Papelbon, but they need to capitalize on the chance to deal away all their other potential trade assets.
Problem: What's left of the team won't be very good.
Solution: That comes with the territory, so settle in. The last two years' 73-win teams weren't very good, either. At least this way, the Phillies are heading in the right direction.
There aren't many pieces in place to build around, so they have to simultaneously shore up the Minor League pipeline. But with the Phillies' financial resources, this doesn't necessarily have to take more than a few years if done correctly. Take a look at what the White Sox have pulled off recently.
Chicago had a couple bad years, traded for some young talent, drafted and spent wisely and supplemented its existing core with some big moves this offseason, quickly reemerging as a presumed contender without breaking the bank or decimating its future chances.
The Phillies need to inject their farm system with future big leaguers. They need to regain financial and personnel flexibility in the Majors. They need young, cost-controlled talent to make all that happen.
They can do that over time by drafting and developing well, and they can speed up that process by trading away some of their highly paid past/present stars for whatever they can get.
Next year likely will be ugly for the Phillies. There will be unrecognizable names, some youthful mistakes and plenty of questions about how far away the next good Phillies team is.
But look at what their bullpen, full of young players given a chance, accomplished last year. Relievers like Ken Giles stepped up and provided hope for the future.
At this point, can't we all agree that hope for the future is better than clinging to the past?
Adam Berry is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.