Getting Young, Part III: A few failed trades

ap-leevictorinopence-slideshow.jpg

Getting Young, Part III: A few failed trades

In Part II of our series examining the serious roadblocks preventing the Phillies from getting younger, we explained why trading any of their high-priced veterans is, at the moment, impossible.

But while five of their eight projected starting position players will be 35 or older come opening day, the Phillies do have a good amount of young talent on the roster.

Darin Ruf and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez are 27. Domonic Brown, Jake Diekman and Justin De Fratus are 26. Ben Revere and Cameron Rupp are 25. Freddy Galvis, Ethan Martin and Phillippe Aumont are 24. Jonathan Pettibone, Cody Asche and Cesar Hernandez are 23.

The problem is that, aside from possibly Brown, none of those players are on the verge of stardom. The Phillies don’t have the kind of young, impact talent that seems to be sweeping the league.

Ruben Amaro Jr. traded 16 young players from 2009-12 to acquire Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence and Revere. In all fairness, none of those 16 players has yet blossomed into a difference-maker at the major-league level.

Kyle Drabek and J.A. Happ fizzled out. Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp couldn’t stay healthy. Michael Taylor was dealt at his peak, as was Vance Worley.

In that list of 16, the players with the best chances of stardom are catcher Travis D’Arnaud, who has since been dealt to the Mets for R.A. Dickey, and the three players traded to the Astros for Pence -- right-hander Jarred Cosart, first baseman Jonathan Singleton and outfielder Domingo Santana. If the Phillies had those three players right now, the future would look much brighter.

But they don’t. They do have Aumont, Martin, Tyson Gillies and Tommy Joseph.

And that’s the issue.

The Phils made three big trades from 2009-12 to get younger and replenish a weakened farm system, but none of the three moves panned out.

Lee to Seattle
The Lee-to-Seattle trade in December 2009 remains the worst move of Amaro’s tenure as Phillies GM. He hurriedly dealt Lee to the Mariners for a package of prospects the front office liked. Many criticized the rushed nature of the trade -- remember, they traded Lee the same day they landed Halladay -- but the Phillies didn’t want to give fans a chance to get used to a rotation fronted by Halladay and Lee since they didn’t plan on keeping both.

When Aumont was mercifully demoted to Triple A this past season, he had thrown the highest percentage of balls of any major-league reliever. Control and confidence remain major hurdles. He’s not a starter, he’s not a closer, he’s not even a right-handed specialist. How can a team be confident putting Aumont into a tight situation? He’ll never meet Phillies fans’ lofty expectations (which isn’t solely his fault), and he may never justify his former first-round status.

Gillies hasn’t been able to stay healthy or avoid off-field controversy. He also hasn’t been able to hit. When the Phillies acquired him, he was coming off a ridiculous age-20 season at High-A in which he hit .341/.430/.486 with 17 doubles, 14 triples, nine homers and 44 steals. He looked like a toolsy centerfielder who could one day replace Shane Victorino.

Didn’t work out. Those numbers were compiled in notoriously hitter-friendly ballparks in the California League. Gillies’ power began disappearing as he made the switch to the East Coast, and while the singles were there in Double A, he hit just .220/.286/.313 this past season at Triple A.

The failures of that deal became even more apparent late in the 2013 season when the Phillies needed a setup man to replace Mike Adams and a centerfielder to replace Revere ... and couldn’t turn to either Aumont or Gillies to fill the voids.

The third player in that deal was J.C. Ramirez, whose 95 mph fastball played well in the bigs for a few weeks until hitters figured out it was his only pitch. He was granted free agency and signed with the Indians.

Victorino to the Dodgers
At the 2012 deadline the Phils dealt Victorino to the Dodgers for Martin and reliever Josh Lindblom.

Lindblom was mediocre, and the Phillies used him to acquire Michael Young several months later.

Martin’s ceiling appears to be a late reliever, which isn’t bad considering it cost the Phils just a half-year of Victorino. 

The second Pence trade
The same day they traded Victorino, the Phillies sent Pence to the Giants for Joseph and Nate Schierholtz.

Schierholtz was strangely non-tendered last winter (only to have a career year with the Cubs), and Joseph’s development time was stunted in 2013 because of concussion issues.

So yeah, there are factors and reasons and excuses for why the few moves the Phillies did make to replenish the farm system haven’t worked. But all that matters is that those moves haven’t worked. They traded Lee in his prime for very little. They traded Pence -- who was then a year and a half away from free agency -- for significantly less than 100 cents on the dollar. And they’re paying the price.

The Lee and Pence deals were genuine opportunities to add talent and depth to a barren farm system. But trading is an inexact science -- as evidenced by the mediocrity in that list of 16 -- and that’s a major reason Amaro chose to hang onto Lee at this past trade deadline rather than flip him for a prospect who may or may not pan out.

The outlook isn’t completely hopeless, though. The Phillies do have all those twenty-somethings mentioned above, as well as the rapidly developing Maikel Franco and a potential front-line starter in Jesse Biddle. But it would have helped a great deal if they acquired just one difference-maker for Lee, Victorino or Pence. Had Amaro “hit” on just one of those players acquired from Seattle, Los Angeles or San Francisco, we may not even be talking about this today.

Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

usa-yordano-ventura-andy-marte-crash.jpg
USA Today Images

Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Yordano Ventura quit school as a teenager so he could begin working a construction job to help his family make ends meet, laboring day after day in the hot sun of the Dominican Republic.

It was a chance tryout with the Kansas City Royals that changed the trajectory of his life.

Yordano wowed scouts with an electrifying fastball, the best they had seen in years, and a confident demeanor that bordered on brash and arrogant. And both of those traits served him well as he rocketed to the major leagues, helped the Royals win a long-awaited World Series championship in 2015, and became one of the most popular players in a city that embraced baseball one again.

Ventura, whose nickname "Ace" fit so perfectly, died Sunday in a car crash on a stretch of highway near the town of San Adrian in his native Dominican Republic. He was 25.

"Our team and our organization is hurting deeply," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "It's certainly something that puts everything into strong perspective, and challenges us all to never grow tired or weary or cease to do what is right, and loving others. Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow.

"We loved Yordano," Moore said. "We loved his heart, we loved who he was as a teammate, a friend. He was somebody that challenged us all and made us better and I'm going to miss him."

Highway patrol spokesman Jacobo Mateo said Ventura died on a stretch of highway 40 miles northwest of Santo Domingo, the nation's capital. Mateo did not say whether Ventura was driving.

He's the second young star pitcher to die in past four months. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was 24 when he was killed along with two other men in a boating accident near Miami Beach in late September.

Also Sunday, former major league infielder Andy Marte died in a separate car accident in the Dominican Republic. Metropolitan traffic authorities said he died about 95 miles north of the capital.

"I was traveling to the airport this morning and I got a phone call wanting to know if I'd heard about Yordano, and I thought they meant Marte," Moore said. "My first thought was, `Were they together?'

"Then shortly afterwards, I got a call from Major League Baseball confirming this tragedy."

The Dominican Republic has the second-highest traffic-related death rate in the world -- officials there believe alcohol, speed and a blatant disregard for traffic laws is to blame. Oscar Taveras, Jose Oliva, Rufino Linares and Jose Uribe are among players who have died in crashes in the country.

It wasn't known whether Ventura had been drinking or speeding at the time of his accident.

Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, a fellow Dominican whom Ventura called his hero, posted pictures of Ventura and Marte on Twitter and said, "Guys, the only way we can pay tribute to you, is by reflecting on the adjustments we all have to make in this game called life."

Moore speaks frequently with Latin American players about dangers of returning home, including driving on the perilous roads.

"I'm more intentional about it to the point where it probably goes in one ear and out the other," Moore said, "but we're constantly discussing these things."

The Royals lowered flags at Kauffman Stadium to half-staff Sunday, and displayed Ventura's photograph on the large, crown-shaped scoreboard in centerfield of the empty ballpark. Fans were leaving flowers, hats and other mementos within hours of learning of his death.

Royals teammates learned the news in a text chain and took to Twitter to share their sorrow.

"I love you my brother. I'm in disbelief and don't know what to say," first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas also expressed disbelief, tweeting: "I love you Ace. I don't know what to say other than I'm going to miss you a lot. RIP ACE."

Ventura will be buried Tuesday in the Dominican Republic. Moore, manager Ned Yost and other members of the Royals are planning to attend.

Before his start in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, Ventura paid tribute to Taveras, his close friend and countryman who had been killed days earlier in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Ventura wrote "RIP O.T (hash)18" on his hat and also wrote messages on his glove, cleats and the mound before shutting out San Francisco for seven innings in a win.

"If he was still here, I would for sure be talking to him, and Oscar would be very happy for me," Ventura said afterward. "Oscar was a very humble guy and very likable, and I'm going to miss him a lot."

Ventura signed a $23 million, five-year deal with the Royals shortly before he started on opening day in 2015. He then helped them bounce back from their loss to the Giants in Game 7 by returning to the World Series and beating the New York Mets in five games for their first crown since 1985.

The right-hander went 11-12 with a 4.45 ERA last season, and his fiery demeanor was never more evident than when he hit Orioles star Manny Machado with a fastball to trigger a brawl. Ventura was suspended nine games for the pitch, though it was cut to eight on appeal.

In a surreal coincidence, the 33-year-old Marte played his final game in the big leagues for Arizona on Aug. 6, 2014. Ventura started that game for Kansas City.

"Today is a very sad day for our entire game and particularly for the many loyal fans in the Dominican Republic, the home of both Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.

Said players' union head Tony Clark: "It's never easy to lose a member of our fraternity, and there are no words to describe the feeling of losing two young men in the prime of their lives. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends, teammates and fans throughout the United States and Latin America."

Moore said he spoke to Miami general manager Mike Hill early Sunday, in part because Moore admired the grace and heart in which the Marlins organization dealt with Fernandez's death.

It wasn't certain whether Fernandez was driving the boat when it crashed on Sept. 25. He had a blood-alcohol content level of 0.147, above Florida's legal limit of 0.08, according to autopsy reports released by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office.

"That was one of the first things that came to mind when I began to figure out how we were going to process this," Moore said. "Mike was able to provide some insight. Just give me some comfort, really."

Ventura wound up pitching his entire career for the Royals, going 38-31 with a 3.89 ERA.

Born June 3, 1991, in Samana, Dominican Republic, Ventura was a true rags-to-riches story. He quit school at 14 and was laboring on a construction crew to support his family when he heard about a tryout, which led to a spot in the Royals' academy located on his picturesque island home.

Still, the odds were long that Ventura would ever make it to the big leagues. Very few players from the Dominican academies reached the pinnacle of the sport.

But over time, Ventura was able to harness one of the most electric fastballs that scouts had seen in years, and his headstrong and confident nature was essential to his rapid rise. He made his debut to great fanfare in 2013, allowing just one run again Cleveland in a sign of things to come.

He eventually became a cornerstone of a youth movement that included young stars such as Hosmer and Moustakas, one that carried the Royals first to respectability, then to the top of the American League.

He was 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, and helped the Royals reach the World Series for the first time in nearly three decades. Then he helped to lead them back to the Fall Classic in 2015, this time completing the job on a crisp night in New York.

"He always had a zest for life, an innocence about the game, a freshness, a fearlessness," Moore said, his voice cracking. "He was a very compassionate human being, loved to compete, no doubt challenged us, but that made us better. Nobody could ever doubt how much he cared about his teammates, how much he cared about the fans, and how much he loved to compete and to pitch."

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.