Phillies Fans Should Cling to Cheap, Young Vance Worley

So why doesn't everyone shut up about trading him?

The Phillies’ Vance Worley is a young, dependable and very good starting pitcher. He earns a pretty low salary for his skill level and is under team control for five more years. So why has he been mentioned in trade rumors pretty much from the moment he joined the team?

Worley is 24 years old. After a brief cup of coffee in the majors in 2010, he went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA last year, holding his own in a starting rotation full of established aces and representing the team’s most pleasant surprise of the season. He’s kept it up this year, going 2-1 with a 1.97 ERA. He pitched brilliantly against the Cubs Monday night, giving up one run in seven innings, and while the bullpen cost him the win, the team went on to pull out a late victory.

This year, Worley is scheduled to earn $495,000. By normal human standards, that’s a pretty good salary, especially for a 24-year-old. But in baseball, it makes him one of the lowest-paid players on the team.

He may not be a superstar, but Worley is a solid, trustworthy starter, and those guys don’t exactly grow on trees. There are teams in baseball that haven’t produced  a starter as good as Vance Worley in years. And, judging by his humorous Twitter feed and the unconventional haircuts he favors, he’s the sort of character Philly fans usually love.

Yet for some reason, all throughout Worley’s superlative rookie campaign and continuing into this year, fans have wanted more. Namely, they’ve wanted the Phillies to solve one of their deficiencies by trading for another team’s superstar. And the player most often mentioned as going the other way, whether in fan or media-generated rumors, is Vance Worley.

Last year, prior to the July trade deadline, it was a clear majority opinion among Phillies fans that the team should offer up Worley in a potential trade for Hunter Pence. That the team was able to acquire Pence without surrendering Worley was great, but it didn’t stop the same people from pivoting almost immediately to a Worley-for-David Wright scenario.

There’s a reason everyone immediately leaped to this conclusion. Fans expect the Phillies to trade prospects and young major leaguers for star veterans, because that’s been the team’s preferred method of player acquisition in the Ruben Amaro years. That’s how they got Roy Halladay, and Hunter Pence, and Roy Oswalt and (the first time) Cliff Lee. This strategy has served the team well, even if it hasn’t delivered them any championships since Amaro took over, and fewer things are as exhilarating, for fans, as the acquisition of an established star player.

However, that strategy has its limits. Eventually, you run out of top prospects and other young players. And the Phillies are just about at that point.

Under baseball’s economic system, players are paid relatively little money in the early years of their careers. Until they’re eligible for arbitration after around their third year, ballplayers earn the minimum, which is under $1 million. If the player is effective and lasts a long time in the league, eventually he’ll earn arbitration and, if he’s good enough, either an extension from his current team or huge free-agent dollars.

Several teams in recent years, from the “Moneyball”-era Oakland A’s to the more recent Tampa Bay Rays, have built powerhouses without spending a lot, by collecting very young players who were good right away. Building a team that way gives a ballclub both a huge amount of value and the promise of a bright future.

Even the Phillies, who no one would ever confuse with a Moneyball team, started their run that way. When Ed Wade was the general manager  he was criticized for his unwillingness to trade prospects, but the guys he didn’t trade ended up the nucleus of a championship team. Indeed, when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, their homegrown nucleus of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins were all in their primes, and Howard and Hamels were both making less than $1 million.

But the Phillies, needless to say, don’t do it that way anymore. On their present roster, nearly every player of significance is making either $10 million a year or slightly less; they are all over 30, with the exception of the 29-year-old Pence. That’s a big reason their payroll is in the $170 million range and they’re always flirting with the luxury tax threshold.

When the Phillies went looking for new players last offseason with a mandate to get younger, the first guy they signed was 41-year-old Jim Thome. They went on to fill their bench with Juan Pierre and Ty Wigginton (both 34) and 31-year-old Laynce Nix.

The Halladay and Pence trades were unquestionably the right move at the time. But when you trade three or four prospects per year, the pipeline of good young major leaguers can just slow to a crawl. And that’s part of the team’s problem this year: Their roster is too old and too injured, and they don’t have reinforcements coming up from the minors who are capable of filling in and helping the team.

That’s the reason it bothers me that so many people want to give up Worley. Not only is he young, effective and inexpensive, but he’s literally the only player on the Phillies’ roster who fits that description. If Domonic Brown ever gets called up and produces, he’ll fit it as well, so naturally, Worley and Brown are frequently packaged together in fan-generated trade scenarios.

I’m not quite ready to call the Phillies dead yet; it’s hard to count out a team that has that starting rotation in place, and there’s always a chance Ryan Howard and Chase Utley can come to the rescue when they’re healthy. But if the Phillies want to ensure themselves a bright future, they need more players like Vance Worley, not fewer.