The wrong mid-summer trade is being criticized three years later.
By Joe Darrah
At the MLB trading deadline during the summer of 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies were well on their way to a fifth consecutive National League East title. Roy Halladay (19 wins), Cliff Lee (17 wins) and Cole Hamels (14 wins) led a vaunted starting rotation that also featured impressive rookie Vance Worley (11-3 record) and Roy Oswalt (at nine wins, the only guy not to reach double-digit victories on the year, despite sporting a respectable 3.69 ERA). The team was in the midst of its best month during a regular season that would ultimately end with the most wins of any Phillie club in franchise history. Halladay would finish second in Cy Young voting just one year after claiming the honor, Ryan Howard would collect more than 100 RBI for the sixth straight year and even Ryan Madson would go on to have a standout campaign, his 32 saves leading a bullpen that finished in the NL’s top 10 for ERA and batting average against.
Just about the only conceivable component missing from an otherwise flawless roster that summer was a legitimate right-handed power threat, preferably playing in a corner outfield spot. The left-handed hitting Domonic Brown had shown enough flashes of good play to be considered the team’s left fielder of the future while Raul Ibanez was playing out the string of a three-year deal. Ben Francisco, the “other guy” acquired with Cliff Lee two years prior, would go on to play 100 games that season, mostly in right field — and hit a big home run in what sadly became a woeful NL Division Series against eventual champion St. Louis — but was never considered a permanent fixture for the future.
So as July 31 loomed, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. did what he had become known to do during his first two seasons as GM. He took action. He didn’t hesitate to add the quintessential “one more piece,” much like he did in 2009 with the Lee trade or in 2010 when he scored Oswalt from the Houston Astros. One year to the day later, on July 29, 2011, RAJ would again pluck a prized trade-deadline option from the ‘Stros, garnering All Star right fielder Hunter Pence for four prospects.
You’ve probably become familiar with two of those prospects by now — first baseman Jon Singleton and right-handed starter Jarred Cosart — however, only recently. To date, the 6-2, 255-pound Singleton is mostly known for the five-year, $10 million deal he signed earlier this month in Houston prior to participating in a Major League game. An eight-round selection by the Phils in the 2009 amateur draft, is currently hitting .231 with four home runs in 14 games for his last-place team, which got its 32nd win of the season Monday behind Cosart, a 38th-round pick from 2008 who made his MLB debut in 2013 and has collected six wins versus five losses in 2014, including wins in five of his last seven decisions.
As Houston has become what is currently a group of 25 teams that have more wins than the Fightins (as of this writing), the dismay as it relates to baseball in this town is as thick as it’s been since the waning days of Veterans Stadium, I get that. But is it really logical to now, almost all of a sudden, be overly analytically critical of a trade that made a whole lot of sense three seasons ago just because a pair of guys are giving a still bad team a glimmer of hope for its future?
I don’t think so. Especially when considering that the trade signified a championship-caliber team trying to win now and that just more than a month prior to the Phillies getting Pence former Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren conversely enacted a complete obliteration of the face of his championship-caliber franchise in a pair of same-day deals that saw a young captain and a young perennial goal scorer shipped away in separate transactions.
You well know their names. On Monday they partook in a parade to celebrate their second Stanley Cup championship over the course of the last three years in Los Angeles with the NHL’s Kings. But these trades somehow have accumulated approval, presumably because the Philly fan base has inexplicably become so focused on the future. What ever happened to this city wanting and demanding its teams to try to win in the here and now?
That the trades of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter continue to not be condemned instead actually still seemingly supported by many (or at the very least a more vocal minority) makes me wonder what has happened to people’s sports priorities around here. Are we as a city really more enthralled with the thought of what prospects may one day bring to a team as opposed to doing what makes the most sense to go for a title in the moment? This is not the Philadelphia I grew up in. I really feel quite lost right now as I try to fathom how Richards and Carter could not be more missed when players like Singleton and Cosart suddenly are.
Because, unlike Amaro’s 2011 deal for Pence, Homer’s behavior for the Flyers did not resemble someone who was acting to win in the present tense. That it took until 2014 to get Ron Hextall in his place, a guy who by the way went after both of these players as an assistant GM in LA, should have been a major source of outrage around here.
Am I’m supposed to think the Richards/Carter trades make sense to this day due to the (I’m sorry for this) “king’s ransom” we received in return as far as the future is concerned?
I think not. As both Richards and Carter (not to mention Justin Williams, who, as with the Pence trade, was at least justifiably dealt in an attempt to solidify a championship contender) continue to contribute to a team that’s on the verge of becoming a dynasty, he didn’t act appropriately for the future either. The window of future for the Flyers and their fans in terms of assessing what went down on June 23, 2011, is not limitless. In fact, it was probably totally destroyed already.
Consider: At the time of the Flyers’ trades they couldn’t even be considered an aging team as the Phillies could. For the Fly Guys, the clichéd “future is now” was already applicable. The team that went to the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Finals had an average player age of just 26, with Richards and Carter checking in at 24 and 25, respectively. By that point they had led the team to playoff appearances in four of five seasons, coming within a fluke goal in Game 6 of the 09-10 Finals that required an agonizing video-review confirmation as well as a seemingly bending of time, space and light of playing a decisive Game 7 versus Chicago. Although Carter had established at least a minor reputation for getting hurt and not being quite as productive in the playoffs as he had been known to be in the regular season, Richards had blossomed into a point-per-game player as well as one with a flair for both the clutch and the dramatic as he would lead the league in shorthanded goals as well as set a record with his third career shorthanded goal at 5-on-3.
Am I supposed to believe that a pair of players who were the face of the franchise and who had both been inked to a combined 23 years of contracts (Richards: 12 years, $69 million during the 07-08 season; Carter: 11 years, $58 million during the 10-11 season) were all of a sudden expendable simply due to a messy playoff series? (At the time of the trades, the team had just been swept in the second round against Boston in a revenge series for the Bruins, whom the Flyers had come back to beat in seven games when trailing 3-0 in the series.) I simply don’t.
More importantly, am I supposed to accept the fact that these two were moved undoubtedly in part to “justify” financially the signing of Ilya Bryzgalof on the very same day to a nine-year, $51 million deal when all he had done of note up until that point in his NHL career was put up a 12-13 playoff record for three other organizations, including allowing 17 goals with Phoenix in a four game sweep to the Red Wings during the 10-11 quarterfinals? Sorry, but I won’t, especially when the Flyers had a perfectly good option to hand over the net-minding reigns to their own Sergei Bobrovsky, who unmercifully was subjected to what became a nauseating record tying goalie carousel when former coach Peter Laviolette made seven in-game goalie substitutions during an 11-game 10-11 postseason.
All for the opportunity for “Bryz” to allow 37 playoff goals in 11 games during his first and only season in Philly. Sickening.
The decisions to ship away Carter and Richards were a huge risk at the time and have since become a complete and total disaster — a conclusion that is aided not by the Cups they’re collecting in LA but by the almost total deterioration of the Flyers’ defense now that Chris Pronger, whom it’s been widely reported/speculated was unhappy with the culture of the locker room under the once youthful leadership present, has long been lost to likely career-ending concussion symptoms. Granted, there was no way of Holmgren knowing that the Hall of Fame-bound Pronger would be injured so severely, just as it was not foreseeable that Carter would end up in LA exactly eight months to the day of his trade from Philadelphia to Columbus and just in time to help the Kings earn the eighth seed and eventual championship. It’s simply an unfortunate coincidence for the former GM and any fan in support of the deals that these two ended up together, but that’s what we’re left with. All the individual 20-goal scorers in the world don’t make up for two Cups, and if you think that Richards and Carter haven’t been pivotal to both LA crowns you’re fooling yourself. The fact that the Kings already possessed a stable foundation, including arguably the game’s best goalie in Jonathan Quick, doesn’t dilute Carter or Richards’ contributions in any way. In fact, Richards finished just five points shy of Anze Kopitar’s team-high 20 points in the 11-12 Cup run and Carter was just one shy of his high of 26 this year. Also of note, Kopitar and Quick played in two postseasons together prior to Richards and Carter joining their forces: They had zero series wins to show for it. It’s not coincidence that the former Flyers were part of the start of the championship winning ways in La La Land. You need to look no further on this than the career of Richards, who is the only NHL player to win at the Junior Championships, minor leagues and Olympic and World Championship levels as well as a Stanley Cup. Together, he and Richards won the Calder Cup with the Phantoms in 2005.
Furthermore, just because the newest collective bargaining agreement bailed the Flyers out of the Bryzgalof contract with an amnesty doesn’t clear Holmgren of the knee-jerk decision to trade his true core. And I’m not giving him any gold stars for trading away the younger James van Riemsdyk on that magical date of June 23 in 2012 in an attempt to compensate for the Pronger injury. Nor does the financial structure that the NHL adjusted to following the most recent lockout and new CBA that ushered in salary cap restrictions and contract term limitations offer enough evidence that would suggest the Flyers couldn’t have won Cups with these two guys.
At this point, the only way for any of us to objectively evaluate these trades as successful is if the Flyers claim at least two titles before Richards and Carter leave the sport. This becomes even more true if you’re one of those sitting on the edge of his seat waiting to see how well Cosart and Singleton develop in order to hold Amaro over the fire.
However, if you’re open to complaining about the Pence trade to San Francisco, I’m all ears.