I was watching some of the Phils-Mets series ender last Sunday with some Met fan friends, rooting for the Phils to squeak one out and not have to suffer the indignity of a home sweep at the hand of their hated NL East rivals. To my mild surprise, though, some of the Met fans were rooting for the same outcome. When LaTroy Hawkins (seriously, Mets? LaTroy Hawkins??) closed the door on the Phils in the ninth, cementing the sweep, and knotting the two teams in the standings at 71-84, I'm not sure which of us was more disappointed.
The concept of rooting for losses, and the team tanking that occasionally accompanies it, is nothing new to the 21st century sports fan. Still, for the most part, it's been a practice confined to sports like basketball and football, where drafting is a slightly more reliable process, and where one player can (in theory, anyway) turn around an entire franchise. In baseball, no one player matters that much, and you might have a #1 overall pick who never even plays a single game for your major league squad (like the Yankees' Brien Taylor or the Padres' Matt Bush), so the incentive of piling up losses to secure a higher pick isn't nearly as high.
Since the new CBA, though, the rules with the MLB draft are a little different. You might have heard some whispering among writers and/or big fans of losing teams this year about the importance of finishing in the bottom ten of the league standings this year. The reason for this is that teams who finish in the bottom ten--and thus are awarded top ten picks in the upcoming draft--are then protected from losing their first-round picks as compensation for signing away big-name free agents in the off-season.
In years past, signing a Type A free agent--like, say, the Phils did in prying Jonathan Papelbon from the Red Sox in 2011-automatically resulted in the forfeiture of the team's first-round pick, which the Phils then lost in the 2012 draft. (The Phils received a pick in return for the Angels signing away Ryan Madson, but it was lower, in the supplemental first round, due to Madson having a "Modified Type A" status.)
That still happens for teams who sign Type A free agents after finishing with one of the top 20 records in baseball, but now if you're a bottom ten team, you get to hold on to your first-round pick after signing a Type A free agent (though FAs are no longer known by "type"s, and instead judged based on whether they have been tendered an offer of a salary commiserate with a top 125 player salary by their former team--confusing stuff for sure). Instead, the old team is now rewarded a supplemental round pick, while the new team is forced to forfeit their next available pick (either a second-rounder or a supplemental first-rounder if the Phils have one of heir own), which essentially just vanishes.
In plain language, this means that if the Phils finish with a bottom-ten record, then go out and sign a big-name free agent next year, they won't lose their top-ten pick in the process. This isn't as big a deal as it is in the NBA--especially since there's no lottery in baseball, and thus no chance of the Phils somehow sneaking in with a top three pick--but it's a pretty big deal, since the Phils have a relatively barren farm system at the moment, partly as a result of not having a pick in the top ten since 2001 (and no first-rounders at all three of the last five years).
So how close are the Phils at the moment to securing that kind of, um, security? Well, difficult as it was to watch, losing a combined six of their last seven to the Mets and Marlins certainly helped--thanks to the 'Politans just taking an improbable two of three from the Reds, they've climbed above the Phils in the standings, leaving the Phils in a tie with the Blue Jays for the ninth-worst record in baseball. Here's how the overall standings currently look, from the bottom up:
1. Houston Astros (51-108)
2. Miami Marlins (59-100)
3. Chicago White Sox (62-96)
4. Chicago Cubs (66-93)
(tie) Minnesota Twins (66-93)
6. Seattle Mariners (70-89)
7. Milwaukee Brewers (71-87)
8. Colorado Rockies (72-87)
9. Toronto Blue Jays (72-86)
(tie) Philadelphia Phillies (72-86)
11. San Francisco Giants (73-85)
(tie) New York Mets (73-85)
13. San Diego Padres (74-84)
As you can see, even with just four games left, the Phils are pretty far from secure in the standings from getting that bottom ten record. However, they do control their own destiny going into the start of tonight's four-game series against the Braves in Atlanta, who might care a little about securing home field advantage in the playoffs (they're currently one game back of the Cards for best overall in the NL, and two ahead of the West-best Dodgers), but generally won't have a ton to play for, having long since clinched the East title. (They start David Hale tonight, who's pitched a grand total of five innings in his major league career--though most Phils fans would probably still feel more comfortable with him than with our own starter, Tyler Cloyd.)
Of course, the question of how important it is to lock down a bottom-ten record in our last four games leans a great deal on what the team's plans are for next year's free agency. Ruben Amaro Jr. seems pretty unlikely to launch a full-scale rebuild in the off-season, but he's been pretty restrained with his big-money purchasing in the meantime, and it's unclear if that'll change before 2014.
What's more, it's a pretty weak crop of free agents hitting the market in the fall--the only real superstars up for grabs are Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano and Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and after that, it's a bunch of 2nd and 3rd starters (Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco) and good-not-great position players (Shin-Soo Choo, Brian McCann, our old friend Hunter Pence).
It's hard to see the Phils really breaking the bank for any of these guys--though a quality corner outfielder and a reliable third starter would certainly be a nice off-season get--so it's possible this will be irrelevant anyway. Meanwhile, the team already has nearly $120 mil committed in salary for next year, and that's before getting to all our arbitration-eligible players, whatever deal we might re-sign Carlos Ruiz to, and the money we already promised to Cuban signee Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. That's already a lot of cash for a sub-.500 team, and without any huge fixes obviously available, the team might be wise to show a little more prudence with their additional off-season spending.
Still, it's better to have the option than not, and with RAJ looking to bolster confidence in the team in advance of their big upcoming TV deal, he might be looking to add some more names to the roster--in which case, we'd certainly be much better off with a bottom ten record and a protected top-ten pick. It's definitely not the standings race we hoped we'd be monitoring with the Phils down the season's home stretch, but it's still one worth keeping an eye on this weekend, if you can avoid the urge to chug a bottle of lithium in the process.