Why the Phillies Were Right to Trade Ken Giles
Baseball’s winter meetings took place this week. While these were once the time when the Phillies laid the groundwork for major deals like trading for Roy Halladay or re-signing Cliff Lee, that was in the team’s glory days of, um, a few years ago. The Phillies lost 99 games this year, the worst record in baseball. Unless they lock up a guy long term, it doesn’t make any sense for a young, rebuilding team like the Phillies to make a big splash for a major-league player.
But they did agree to a trade yesterday. The Phillies will send closer Ken Giles to the Astros for four prospects. In essence, the trade is similar to the trade of Jimmy Rollins last winter, or the in-season trades of Ben Revere, Jonathan Papelbon, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley: These guys are solid players, and the Phillies are not going to be good next year. Why not trade these players now for younger prospects who may be in their primes when the Phillies are good again? (This assumes the Phillies will ever be good again, but stay with me here.)
There is one major difference: Ken Giles is only 25. After Papelbon was traded on July 28th of last season, Giles finished 22 games for the Phillies and had 15 saves. He had a 1.71 ERA after assuming the closer’s role. Opposing batters hit just .198 during that stretch. He’s pretty good! A rebuilding team may not need an elite closer, but Ken Giles is young! He might still be good by the time the Phillies are good again.
So why is it a solid move?
Because the market overvalues closers. It makes sense: If you’re a team that got close last year — the Astros lost in the divisional series to World Series winners Kansas City — adding a closer is a move that you think could put you over the top. Before the 2008 season, the Phillies sent Michael Bourn, Mike Costanzo and Geoff Geary to the Astros for Brad Lidge (and Eric Bruntlett). Including the postseason, Lidge went 48-for-48 in saves and the Phillies won the World Series. Bourn was an All-Star with the Astros in 2010, but who cares? The Phillies won the World Series.
Giles doesn’t guarantee the Astros a World Series victory, but they were six outs from advancing to the ALCS before giving up 7 runs in the final two innings to the Royals. After that kind of meltdown, it’s only natural for a front office to want to upgrade the bullpen. And since Giles is so young, he commands a premium. The Phillies didn’t have to trade him. They held on to him until the Astros gave up four guys for him.
There are downsides. The prospects might not work out. Giles is young so he could be a great closer for a long time. But if you look at the all-time saves leaders, you have to go to No. 8 to find a guy who made his MLB debut with the Phils. The Phillies can always go get another closer. Sure, if Ken Giles becomes the new Mariano Rivera, the Phillies got hosed. But what are the chances of that?
The Phillies acquired righthanded pitcher Vincent Velasquez, left fielder Derek Fisher, righthanded pitcher Thomas Eshelman and lefthanded pitcher Brett Oberholtzer for Giles. Matt Winkelman of the Phillies Minor Thoughts blog wrote a nice round-up of the upside of the four prospects. Velasquez is the best of the bunch. The 23-year-old pitched in the majors last year as a starter and reliever; he could make the Phillies out of spring training. His fastball occasionally touches 98 mph.
Eshelman has off-the-charts control. He walked just 18 batters in 376 innings in college. “Nobody in college baseball has ever seen anything like him,” Cal State–Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook told SI last year. He’s almost 22, so he could move up in the system quickly. He pitched at single-A last year.
Fisher was the Astros first-round pick in 2014. He hit .275 between two levels of class-A ball in the Astros organization last year. “There is enough between the bat and the speed for him to be a regular,” Winkelman writes, “but he will need to prove it outside of the Cal League.”
Oberholtzer is 26; he started 42 games for the Astros over the last three seasons. He’ll probably compete in spring training to be the Phillies’ No. 5 starter.
The Phillies got worse next year by trading Giles. But that’s OK. There’s a shot it pays off in the future. With his first deal, new Phillies GM Matt Klentak made a trade with a lot of upside. Not a bad start.