Phillies Sign Chad Qualls

Whether it was the desire to add a more proven Major League arm to the ‘pen or a move made over concerns about Jose Contreras’s rehab, the Phillies and right-hander Chad Qualls agreed to a one-year/$1.15M deal this morning.

The move all but fills out the Opening Day bullpen, and assuming health across the board – something that obviously can’t be taken for granted with this club – the bullpen will likely be constituted as such:

  • Jonathan Papelbon
  • Antonio Bastardo
  • Chad Qualls
  • Dontrelle Willis
  • Michael Stutes
  • Kyle Kendrick
  • One of David Herndon/Justin De Fratus/Michael Schwimer/Jose Contreras

It’s something of a makeshift ‘pen, even with the big arm looming at the end. Will Bastardo return to midsummer form? Is Willis going to keep demolishing lefties as a reliever? Can Stutes keep the walks in check, and can Kendrick keep my blood pressure below 180/110?

As for Qualls, what are we to make of a downward-trending strikeout rate? The past four seasons have seen a steady drop in Qualls’s punch-outs per nine, migrating from 8.7 in ’08 to 7.8, 7.5 and 5.2(!) in the following years. Going by Fangraphs’ pitch type data, Qualls is not leaking velocity on his fastball or slider.

One thing that stands out for Qualls over the past two years is the amount of contact batters are making on pitches out of the zone, detailed here. Hitters are chasing Qualls’s stuff more over the past couple of years, but they’re making far more contact, fouling or putting balls in play that, when missed in a two-strike count, would be strikeouts.

The third column in the above picture, denoting movement by Qualls’s sliders across both horizontal and vertical planes, show pretty significant drops from 2010 to 2011. While that’s not entirely conclusive, it seems to lend itself toward the idea that, while Qualls’s velocity may not be fading yet, the crispness of his breaking stuff seems to have lost an edge last season.

Perhaps this is a correctable issue. Qualls is a veteran who knows what he needs to do to prepare for the season. If Rich Dubee and Co. see something in the spring that needs addressing, hopefully it’s corrected then, and Qualls turns into a relative steal for a ‘pen that could use him at his best.

“100 Things Phillies Fans…” Out Now!

In anticipation of what appears to be a fun and exciting year of baseball, Triumph Books has released “100 Things Phillies Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die”, authored by yours truly, slightly more than a month early. If you pre-ordered the book, it should be on its way to you now if it hasn’t gotten there already. For those of you who didn’t slap your hard-earned cash down well in advance, you can still order it online or head to a local bookstore to grab it.

I intend to promote the book pretty heavily in the coming weeks, so I will keep you informed of my whereabouts. If you happen to find me out and about (probably at Lenscrafters… I lead an exciting life), I will be happy to sign the book for you.

I’m excited to hear what people have to say about the book, so don’t hesitate to drop me a line here, on Twitter, Facebook, or via email (crashburnalley at gmail). Many long nights were spent putting together everything behind the cover, so I’m quite proud to see it out on bookshelves already. Hopefully you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Blog Battle with Ian Riccaboni of Phillies Nation

Continuing Wilson Valdez Week here at Crashburn Alley, I took a minute to have it out with Ian Riccaboni of Phillies Nation about the legacy of Wilson Valdez and how the Phillies should address their middle infield situation in his absence, even though one of the potential replacements we discussed, Ryan Theriot, is now off the market.  Here’s the link, so check it out, and I promise this will be the last time I write about Exxon for a while.

Blog Battle: Wilson Valdez Trade [Phillies Nation]

You can follow Ian on Twitter at @ianriccaboni.


Wilson Valdez was, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light.”

I’ve written before at Phillies Nation about the complex and emotional relationship I’ve enjoyed with another Phillies shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, and in a way, my Phillies fandom regarding Exxon, as I’ve come to call him, has been even more emotional and and complex. I’d like to talk to you briefly, now that Exxon is no longer with us, about that relationship, and about the tenure of one of the more intriguingly polarizing athletes to come through Philadelphia in recent years.

I was in the stands for the home opener in 2010, when Jimmy Rollins unexpectedly injured himself on the dugout steps before the game. He was replaced in that game by Juan Castro, but the Phillies needed a new utility infielder if Castro was to take over full-time for Rollins at shortstop. On April 14, 2010, the Phillies called up Wilson Valdez from AAA Lehigh Valley. Now, when this happened, I had never heard of Valdez before. I texted a couple friends to tell them the news, and made the first of what must have been dozens of Exxon Valdez oil spill puns (“I hear he’s a slick fielder”) and thought that Valdez would, like thousands of other career minor leaguers, be up for a couple weeks while J-Roll got better.

But he didn’t. He stuck. And over the course of the summer of 2010, I came to hate Wilson Valdez in a way I’d never anticipated. It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t very good at baseball–after all, he was, like all pro ballplayers, the best player he was capable of becoming–it was the way, for some reason, fans took to him. People started voicing the opinion that Valdez was a preferable alternative to Jimmy Rollins going forward, that as a rookie he had more to offer than Rollins. Never mind that Valdez was actually six months older than Rollins and, at 32, hadn’t been anything resembling a prospect in nearly a decade. Hearing about how “clutch” he was, for the double he hit in the 11th inning to put the Phillies ahead against the Giants on April 28. For the single he hit to put the Phillies ahead against the Diamondbacks on July 29. They raved about his throwing arm (which we’ll get to later), and called him a great defensive player, even though no one had gathered any significant data on his range or ability to convert chances once he got to them. Soon enough, in my mind at least, Wilson Valdez was the poster child for confirmation bias and the shortsightedness of a fan base too stubborn or lazy (or whatever) to realize that Exxon not only had an OBP well below .300, but was grounding into double plays at a historic rate.

I called him Exxon not out of the same sense of fun, glee, and adoration with which I call Roy Halladay “Doc” or Antonio Bastardo “Tony No-Dad,” but with malice in my heart and the glint of hatred in my eye. I dreaded his trips to the plate. I once went to a bar and wound up screaming a string of obscenities and statistics at a friend of a friend who suggested that he’d rather have Exxon at the plate with the game on the line than Jayson Werth, who was at that time in the midst of both the best season of his career and a bizarre and fluky slump with runners in scoring position. Then there was that nonsense about Wilson Valdez being the team’s MVP. Give me a break. All the while I tried to keep calm and spread the gospel: Wilson Valdez Isn’t As Good As You Think He Is, culminating in this post, on Sept. 29, in which I wrote the following:

“And how about this–he’s come to the plate with a runner on first and less than two out only 82 times this season. In those plate appearances, he has 20 GIDP, and only 18 hits. I’ll repeat that for the cheap seats: with a runner on first and less than 2 outs, Wilson Valdez is more likely to ground into a double play than he is to get a hit. “Dreadful” hardly does that statistic justice.”

Complex and emotional indeed. The comments for that post, unfortunately, were deleted when Phillies Nation underwent its site redesign last year, but there were more than 100 of them before the furor died down. To Exxon’s credit, he came to the plate once more that season with the opportunity to ground into a double play, and he got a hit.

After 2010, however, order was restored. Jimmy Rollins was healthy and reasonably productive, and Wilson Valdez was returned to a role more suited to player of his talents: utility infielder. Of course, Chase Utley missed the first eight weeks of the season or so, but there was always a sense that he’d come back soon enough, and if he didn’t, the Phillies would be screwed no matter who replaced him.

Two days after Utley returned, on May 25, 2011, the complexity of my relationship with Exxon grew tremendously.

By this point, Wilson Valdez had gone from unknown quantity, to minor nuisance, to my personal Moby Dick, then back to nuisance and minor curiosity as his role with the team was reduced. I still feared the medium-speed ground ball to second that seemed to come every time he came up with a man on, but after a while, with Utley on the mend, Exxon was set to return to obscurity. Or so it seemed.

Paul Boye and I went to the 19-inning game together, and, well, in short, it was the best experience I’ve ever had at a live sporting event. That was, of course, due in large part to seeing an infielder pitch–and more than that, the infielder upon which I’d heaped so much attention and anger. I remember sitting in the stands, jumping up and down, clapping, screaming, and chittering like a schoolgirl at the sight of the man whose mere existence sent me into a homicidal rage. I had turned the corner. I had caught Valdez Fever.

After that night, after those of us who stayed up until 1 a.m. to watch the game had seen a below-average utility infielder retire not only the National League’s hottest hitter but the National League’s reigning MVP, shaking off Sardinha and recording 380-foot outs. It was remarkable theater, and one of the highlights of a season that would ultimately end in disappointment.

I loved Wilson Valdez.

It seems silly to speak of legacy for a player who played a marginal role for a little under two seasons, and wasn’t much more than passable in that marginal role, but for some reason Valdez took on a larger-than-life quality. It still baffles me why. He’s not the first light-hitting backup shortstop to get a key hit or two, or the first one to have a weird goatee. Maybe he was lovable for the same reason Bill James said Pedro Martinez was great–a multitude of small advantages that compound each other. I really couldn’t tell you. I never could stand him as a player.

But the fact of the matter is that we can’t judge Exxon as a player alone. It’s almost as if we have Wilson Valdez, Infielder, who’s a replacement-level player, but then we have Wilson Valdez, Literary Hero, who’s capable of bringing joy to the masses through legendary feats of sporting averageness.

In the end, I’m amazed that Ruben Amaro was able to ship off a 33-year-old utilityman who can’t really hit to a club on the verge of contention for a 26-year-old lefty who looks like he could be worth a damn. In July 2010, I would have open-mouth kissed anyone who told me that the Phillies would one day trade Exxon for someone like Jeremy Horst. This trade is an excellent baseball move. But seeing Wilson Valdez sent packing, now that I’ve embraced the joy and absurdity that comes with watching him play, fills me with sadness. I’m not even sure I’ll miss him because I’ll miss hating him. I think I may have genuinely caught some of that Exxon fever, and now that he’s gone, I’m not sure watching the Phillies will ever be the same.


Phillies Send Wilson Valdez to Cincinnati

Per CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury:

So long to good guy Wilson Valdez, traded to Cincy for LHP Jeremy Horst, Phillies announce.

While not much with the bat, Valdez provided good value to the Phillies as insurance. The Phillies saw each part of the infield succumb to injury over the past two seasons: third baseman Placido Polanco missed 60 games, Jimmy Rollins missed 92 games, and Chase Utley missed 97 games. As a result, Valdez made 24 starts at third base, 70 at shortstop, and 68 at second base. He wasn’t much with the bat (.285 wOBA), but played average defense and ran the bases well — he was the second-best runner on the team behind Shane Victorino, according to EQBRR from Baseball Prospectus.

At Phillies Nation, Pat Gallen lists some possible candidates to fill the vacant spot left by Valdez:

This certainly opens things up for the Phillies when it comes to the roster. They can go out and sign another utility guy or scour the minor league level for someone of that ilk. Some middle infielder names still available are Aaron Miles, Bill Hall, Jeff Keppinger, Ryan Theriot, Edgar Renteria, Miguel Tejada, and Felipe Lopez, among others.

It will be interesting to see how the Phillies approach this, whether by relying on Michael Martinez or going outside of the organization for one of the few remaining free agents.

Meanwhile, Horst is a 26-year-old lefty reliever coming off of his rookie season. In 15 and one-third innings with the Reds last year, he struck out nine and walked six. However, over his five-year Minor League career, he has a career K/9 and BB/9 at 8.5 and 2.9, respectively — not too shabby.

Horst’s fastball sits in the high-80’s. Behind that, he uses a slider and change-up that both register in the low-80’s. He comes in as the Phillies’ third lefty reliever and will compete for a spot in the back of the Phillies’ bullpen.

Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer has some interesting quotes from Ruben Amaro, who explains his thought process in dealing Valdez. The utility infielder will turn 34 in May, and for as much as fans loved him, he is the definition of a replacement-level player. Getting anything of value in return for Valdez has to be considered a win and they did so with a potential diamond in the rough in Horst.

First Basemen and Outrageous Contracts

Prince Fielder shocked the baseball world yesterday when he agreed to a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers. This excitement comes in the doldrums of a rather boring time in the off-season, when replacement-level players find new homes and spring training is on the horizon. Phillies fans watched from the sidelines, simply glad that yet another top-tier player moved from the National League to the American League.

However, as Fielder just signed his mega-deal and used to be considered in the same stratosphere as Howard (the two have since gone in opposite directions), comparisons were made and questions were asked. Is the Fielder deal worse than Ryan Howard‘s five-year, $125 million contract? Ruben Amaro actually feels quite content, believe it or not. Per Rich Hofmann of the Philadelphia Daily News:

“I’m kind of happy,” [Amaro] said. “Really happy. Because if I would have had to put an 8- or 9-year deal on Howard’s deal right now, that would be a little disconcerting. Right now, we have Howard for the next 5 years. I kind of like that idea rather than having to do an 8- or 9- or 10-year deal.

“You can say what you want about Ryan Howard and how he stacks up against those guys, but there’s not too many people who, over the last several years, have had this kind of production – and he’s right there in the mix with those guys.”

Obviously, a deal that is nearly twice as long and twice as rich comes with exponentially more risk, but there are three big factors at play here:

  • Fielder is currently 27 years old; Howard is currently 32 years old, both entering the first year of their respective deals
  • Fielder has outproduced Howard by  more than 30 points in wOBA over the last three seasons (.403 to .372) and more than doubled his fWAR (15.3 to 7.6)
  • Fielder is expected to outproduce Howard in each and every season going forward

Because of Fielder’s young age, he can still be expected to improve slightly. The ten-year forecast from Baseball Prospectus saw Fielder posting a 5.0 WARP last year (he actually produced 5.3) and improving to 5.1 in 2012 and 5.3 in 2013 before dropping down to 5.2 in the next two seasons. Howard was expected to hit the slopes years ago; Prospectus projected 4.0 WARP last year (Howard posted 1.6 in reality) and expects gradually less with each coming season.

As details of Fielder’s contract have not been published yet, we will have to assume an average annual value of $24 million per season. Over the length of Howard’s contract, Fielder will make only $4 million more in the first two years. From 2014-16, Howard will earn $1 million more than Fielder. Should the Phillies pick up Howard’s $23 million option in 2017, Howard will make $1 million less than Fielder.

The following are two tables depicting the players’ projected WARP along with their salary, and how much their respective teams will pay for 1 WARP every season. Generally speaking, 1 WARP costs about $5 million in free agency.

Prince Fielder
Year Age PA WARP Salary $/WARP
2012 28 783 5.1 $24.0M $4.7M
2013 29 789 5.3 $24.0M $4.5M
2014 30 787 5.2 $24.0M $4.6M
2015 31 783 5.2 $24.0M $4.6M
2016 32 768 5.0 $24.0M $4.8M
2017 33 760 4.9 $24.0M $4.9M
2018 34 744 4.6 $24.0M $5.2M
2019 35 734 4.5 $24.0M $5.3M
2020 36 723 4.3 $24.0M $5.6M
Ryan Howard
Year Age PA WARP Salary $/WARP
2012 32 666 3.7 $20.0M $5.4M
2013 33 654 3.6 $20.0M $5.6M
2014 34 637 3.3 $25.0M $7.6M
2015 35 628 3.3 $25.0M $7.6M
2016 36 614 3.0 $25.0M $8.3M
2017 37 595 2.9 $23.0M $7.9M
2018 38 579 2.5
2019 39 563 2.5
2020 40 543 1.9

Here is a pretty chart that illustrates the difference:

Depending on the distribution of the $214 million in Fielder’s contract, his blue line can move up or down at either end (here is a hastily-thought-of example). Because the Phillies backloaded Howard’s contract and he is projected to decline precipitously into his late-30’s, the Phillies are paying significantly more per WARP than the Tigers will pay on average. An additional caveat is that Howard’s projections are likely optimistic as his 2011 was well below expectations and Prospectus has not updated their projections as of yet (as far as I know, anyway).

Yesterday, I saw some responses to the Fielder contract from Phillies fans that viewed the exorbitant price as a justification for the Howard contract. They were saying that the Howard contract looks less silly in comparison, but that isn’t the case. Spike Eskin put it best on Twitter yesterday:

If you buy an overpriced car, and someone else also buys an overpriced car, you still have an overpriced car.

The Fielder contract not only fails to justify the Howard contract, it makes it look even more silly. The Tigers bought a Mercedes-Benz for the sticker price; the Phillies bought a used Camry for a Mercedes-Benz sticker price.

Turning Back the Clock

In an email to the Crashburn staff, I asked, “if you could take back one move the Phillies made this off-season, what would it be and what would you have done differently?” It’s a fun hypothetical game that most of us play in the dreary winter months. Check out what we had to say about our dream off-seasons and let us know if you agree or disagree, or if we missed something.

. . .

Bill Baer

For as much as I didn’t like the contract given to Jonathan Papelbon, I think the most obvious blunder was not taking Ryan Howard‘s absence seriously enough. The most recent updates on Howard’s health are encouraging. However, the Phillies certainly couldn’t have counted on Howard being ready by Opening Day (and that is still a very optimistic expectation) when they signed Jim Thome on November 4. Since 2006, Thome has taken all but 17 of his plate appearances in the American League and has played all of 28 innings in the field. Given his age and health, the Phillies will consider themselves fortunate to get one start out of him per week.

In the meantime, the Phillies plan to use Ty Wigginton at first base. Dan Syzmborski’s ZiPS projections see Wigginton putting up a slugging-heavy .711 OPS, exactly 90 points below the National League average for first basemen during the 2011 season. To say that six Wigginton starts and one Thome start per week would fail to live up to Howard’s production would be a massive understatement.

If the Phillies were willing to spend a bit more money at the time (remember, this was before Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins signed their deals), they could have better-filled the gap at first base. Carlos Pena recently signed with the Tampa Bay Rays on a one-year, $7.25 million contract. With the Chicago Cubs last year, Pena posted a .354 wOBA, which includes a .357 on-base percentage, a mark that would have been second-best on the Phillies last year behind Carlos Ruiz (.371). Two more factors make Pena significantly more attractive as well: he is, by all accounts, a terrific defender at first base, and he has been able to stay on the field consistently in each of the past five seasons.

There is one drawback with Pena: like Howard, he can’t hit left-handed pitching. Over the course of his career, Pena has hit for a wOBA 55 points higher against RHP than LHP (.376 to .322). A platoon wouldn’t be mandatory, but it would be beneficial. Using John Mayberry (.403 wOBA vs. LHP last year in 120 PA) in a platoon with Pena would yield the best offensive output with Howard on the sidelines — significantly more than Wigginton/Thome.

Let’s say the Phillies did sign Pena, but Howard happens to return rather early in the season. Paying $7.25 million (perhaps slightly more given that Pena had more leverage three months ago) for a lefty bench bat is excessive, no? It is indeed, but Pena is the type of player that would be in demand at the July 31 trade deadline. Whatever the Phillies happen to need at the time, whether it is a utility infielder, a reliever, or a speedy outfielder, Pena can be used as trade bait to bring such a player into the fold. Or the Phillies can have a team eat some or all of his remaining salary and get back a solid prospect or two.

There are hardly any scenarios where Pena would provide negative value to the Phillies, and decidedly fewer such scenarios compared to the current configuration of Wigginton and Thome. The added $6 million for Pena over Thome would be worth the extra security and the significantly better production (both offensively and defensively). As the Phillies would be even closer to the luxury tax threshold with such a signing, it would preclude superfluous signings such as Laynce Nix, Thome, and Wigginton. As it happens, that would actually be a good thing.

Michael Baumann

There was a lot not to like about this offseason. Spending big money on a reliever, even one as good as Jonathan Papelbon, drove me up the wall, and if there’s a good reason to give Laynce Nix all of Domonic Brown‘s at-bats in 2012, a full year after he should have been a major league regular, no one’s told me. But frankly, I’m sick to death of writing about those topics. So let’s talk about a lesser evil: Ruben Amaro‘s habit of going with the known quantity.

This is somewhat about Nix, somewhat about Papelbon, retroactively about Raul Ibanez, and largely about Kyle Kendrick. I’ve got nothing against Kendrick–he deserves a ton of credit for being a loyal foot soldier and an acceptable fifth starter/long reliever. I’ve made the argument that the Red Sox may have missed out on a World Series run for want of a Kendrick. When he was a rookie, I said immediately that if he didn’t raise his strikeout rate significantly, he’d be out of the league by 2009. Instead, thanks to some tenacity and some batted ball luck, he continues to skate by as a slightly-better-than-replacement-level pitcher. There’s value in that, just not $3.585 million worth of value. In the end, overpaying Kendrick won’t kill the Phillies–it’s just another instance of the Phillies being unwilling to take risks.

Under Pat Gillick, they took flyers on young players like Kendrick and Ryan Madson, and low-risk/low-cost guys like Jamie Moyer and Jayson Werth, with remarkable success. But under Amaro, the reverse has been true: the Phillies always seem to go with the proven commodity, even when that commodity isn’t very good. Paying for proven veterans is wise when those veterans are Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and even to a lesser extent, Papelbon. But Kendrick and Nix are another story. We know that Kendrick and Nix aren’t very good, and there’s next to no chance that they will one day become good. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that if Brown got those at-bats over Nix, that he would be, at the very least, not very good? If Phillippe Aumont or Justin De Fratus got those innings out of the bullpen instead of Kendrick, wouldn’t one of them be, at the very least, not very good? The difference is, Brown, Aumont, and De Fratus stand to get better with time, while Kendrick and Nix get worse. And even if they’re worse than not very good, and the Phillies need to cut bait and bring in a different option, guys like Kendrick and Nix grow on trees. They, by definition as replacement players, aren’t anything special.

Certainly nothing worth giving up multiple years or multiple millions of dollars just for the sake of having the known quantity. That’s for damn sure.

Paul Boye

You could take back the Papelbon contract. You could revise the Laynce Nix deal to a more appropriate Minor League pact. You could go back and make Cole Hamels the offseason’s top priority. You could do any one of those things and likely have a good catalyst for improving the Phillies’ winter. We’ve been over these things. A lot. In an attempt to look elsewhere, I see another, more subtle thing I would redo.

This is it.

Nothing has actually happened in Clearwater yet, but to publicly proclaim Domonic Brown as destined for Lehigh Valley for, basically, an entire season so soon after the Phils’ exit from the playoffs set a tenuous tone for the entire winter. Maybe it really all started when Ryan Howard’s leg exploded, but to me, hearing that the club’s former top prospect will once more be banished to the Minor Leagues told me right away that the 2011-12 winter would be one of my discontent. Brown is 24 and has just 280 Major League plate appearances – less than half of one season – against 2,013 Minor League trips to the dish.

If the club thought Brown needed to learn more at AAA, why was he relegated to DH and the bench down the stretch as the IronPigs went to the playoffs? When the Pigs were eliminated and Brown was recalled on Sept. 16, why did he only see one at-bat and one pinch-running appearance in the 14 games he could have seen action in?

This continuing saga is more baffling me to than almost anything else surrounding this team. After experiencing Pat Burrell and Raul Ibanez for the last decade and a half, you would think bad corner outfield defense would be a palatable thing, too. At this point, I almost want Dom to get traded. His talent is being wasted behind the likes of Laynce Nix, and that just isn’t fair.

Ryan Sommers

If you’re tired of hearing about Jonathan Papelbon, you might want to stop here. The other three took admirable strides to avoid bringing it up again, but he is the first, second, third, and fourth thing that popped into my head when I read Bill’s question.

Entering the offseason, chatter linking Michael Cuddyer to the Phillies was already abundant, and when they inked his friend Jim Thome to a one year deal on November 4th, it only heightened. To me, this was going to be the annual jump-out-of-your-chair-and-set-the-market Ruben Amaro special. Cuddyer would get a contract similar to that given to Raul Ibanez in 2009, and we would re-live that saga once again. But a week later, after some confusing flirtations with Ryan Madson — the details of which are still disputed by both sides — it was the reliever market that Ruben Amaro had put a shiny new ceiling on. Ostensibly, it’s 4 years, $50 million with a 5th year vesting option. But the 2016 option vests with 55 games finished in 2015 (or 100 games finished from 2014-2015), and that happens to be Papelbon’s seasonal average in the six seasons in which he’s been a full time reliever. It’s not as if Charlie Manuel is stingy with the finishing opportunities when it comes to his closer, even when he’s struggling; it’s tough to see that option not vesting. As reported by ESPN, it’s the largest total package ever given to a relief pitcher, and in terms of annual salary is tied for second all time with another reliever contract the Phillies would like to forget — Brad Lidge.

Yes, he is an elite reliever. Since 2006, he has a 200 ERA+ (a ratio representing his park and league adjusted ERA; 100 is average) in 395 and 1/3rd innings. But the Phillies are betting on him continuing this success and sustaining it for 5 years. Only one full-time reliever has maintained a 200 ERA+ in more than that amount of innings — Mariano Rivera. Can Papelbon exhibit the kind of consistency previously known only to the best reliever of all time? Does his fastball, the one elite pitch that he relies on, have anywhere near the staying power of Mo’s cutter? I strongly doubt it. But the Phillies are paying him as if they believe this. The annual average value of his contract is second only to Mo in the history of reliever contracts. He’ll make about $13 million per year, Mo makes just $2 million more than that. Even if Papelbon does keep up his level of production for the next 5 years, think of it this way: if each are true to their respective averages for the last three seasons, Papelbon will face about 276 batters next season and be worth about 2.1 WAR, and Roy Halladay will face 963 batters and be worth 6.8 WAR. The former makes $11 million (ignoring the $58 he had tacked on to the deal just to be insufferable), and the latter makes $20 million. That’s $39,855 per batter and $5.2 million per win for Papelbon, and $20,768 per batter and $2.9 million per win for Halladay. The Phillies paid a premium and will get less bang out of each buck they lay out.

Inexplicably, the Phillies purchased Papelbon’s services before the reliever market had been mapped out with any certainty, at the time when his cost was highest. It’s difficult to tell how it would’ve shaken out had he been left on the market longer with the other big name relievers, but inevitably there would have been a Ryan Madson — some substantial talent whose options had dwindled and who had to sign for less than expected. Below the top tier, there are guys like George Sherrill, Takashi Saito, Kerry Wood, and Jonathan Broxton, all of whom have an even or better chance at decent output in 2012, and signed for reasonable one year deals. Even now, there are relievers like Todd Coffey, Mike Gonzalez, and Scott Linebrink still on the market, to be had for very cheap, who could be league average or better next season. Any of the above-named would have been a great supplement to the young internal arms headed back to the Phillies pen next season, and that’s not even mentioning the big pool of reclamation projects who would happily except minor league deals. With the starting rotation what it is, that’s all they would have needed.

Reminder: Batting Order Isn’t Terribly Important

In the comments of Friday’s post about Placido Polanco, some Crashburn readers discussed their ideal batting order for the 2012 season. It’s a common discussion you’ll see among fans of any team — and, hey, it’s January, what else is there to talk about? I’d like to use that as a jumping-off point to remind fans that batting order doesn’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. That’s not to say it should be ignored, but its relative magnitude should be kept in perspective.

Using this lineup analysis page, I punched in the on-base percentage and slugging percentage projections for the Phillies, courtesy Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS. Below are the noteworthy batting orders and their expected runs per game output. The eight players used were Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Hunter Pence, Carlos Ruiz, Placido Polanco, Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry, and “pitcher” (Phillies’ aggregate 2011 OBP/SLG for pitchers).

Most Optimal Lineups: 4.46 runs per game (723 runs in 162 games)

  • Ruiz-Victorino-Rollins-Pence-Utley-Mayberry-Wigginton-Pitcher-Polanco
  • Ruiz-Utley-Rollins-Pence-Victorino-Mayberry-Wigginton-Pitcher-Polanco

Most Likely Lineup: 4.21 runs per game (682 runs in 162 games)

  • Victorino-Polanco-Utley-Pence-Wigginton-Rollins-Mayberry-Ruiz-Pitcher

Least Optimal Lineups: 3.95 runs per game (640 runs in 162 games)

  • Pitcher-Rollins-Pence-Polanco-Mayberry-Ruiz-Victorino-Utley-Wigginton
  • Pitcher-Rollins-Wigginton-Polanco-Mayberry-Ruiz-Victorino-Utley-Pence

(Even if you’re highly skeptical of ZiPS or the lineup analysis tool used, the results will more or less scale.)

The difference between the most optimal and the most likely lineups is 0.25 runs per game, or about 40 runs over a 162-game season. Of course, that is made less relevant by the Phillies’ reliance on pitching and defense in lieu of offense: it would be more important to scratch and claw for the extra one-fourth of a run every game if they didn’t have an ace taking the mound three out of every five turns (each of whom averaged fewer than 2.8 earned runs allowed per nine innings in 2011).

Just for fun, I substituted the recovering Ryan Howard in for Wigginton. The most optimal lineup went up to 4.60 runs per game and the most likely lineup increased to 4.37 runs per game. The downgrade from Howard to Wigginton will cost the Phillies 11 runs over the course of a full season, or slightly more than one win. It’s not so much where you put your players in the batting order; it’s who you have in there in the first place.

Furthermore, the truly important lineup decisions will be made in the middle and late innings of games, when Charlie Manuel will be forced to pinch-hit, pinch-run, and make double-switches. For instance, deciding between Mayberry facing a tired right-handed starter and Jim Thome facing a fresh lefty reliever in the seventh inning of a 3-2 game will have more of an impact on winning or losing a game than whether Carlos Ruiz hits seventh or eighth in four at-bats over the course of that entire game. Batting order isn’t irrelevant, but the real focus should be on solid in-game decision-making.

Along Goes Polly

Placido Polanco finished the 2011 season with a .277/.335/.339 line, easily the worst of his 14-year career. Stats which adjust for league and position make that line look a bit better, but it is hard to ignore the trend that Polanco has been in steep offensive decline since 2007. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections don’t expect Polanco to improve much at all in the coming year (.307 wOBA; .304 in 2011), so that begs the question: should the Phillies have done more to improve at third base over the off-season?

Going by FanGraphs WAR, Polanco was the fifth-most valuable third baseman in the National League at 2.8 fWAR, a fact that will likely surprise a lot of Phillies fans. Third base has become a position of scarcity. 2011 was the first season since 2003 in which the average OPS for National League third basemen was below the overall league average.

Season NL OPS 3B OPS “OPS+”
2000 .782 .771 99
2001 .759 .760 100
2002 .748 .737 99
2003 .755 .729 97
2004 .763 .773 101
2005 .749 .751 100
2006 .768 .792 103
2007 .758 .766 101
2008 .749 .761 102
2009 .751 .756 101
2010 .728 .733 101
2011 .720 .705 98

“OPS+” simply divides 3B OPS by NL OPS and multiplies the quotient by 100.

It’s not as if third basemen with a better bat than Polanco’s were both plentiful and available at an affordable price. The Phillies were rumored to be interested in former Chicago Cub Aramis Ramirez, but that was before they re-signed Jimmy Rollins. Aside from Ramirez (who signed a three-year, $36 million contract), there were seven other third base-capable players that signed guaranteed Major League deals: Willie Bloomquist, Greg Dobbs, Jerry Hairston, John McDonald, Nick Punto, Edwin Encarnacion, and Adam Kennedy. Obviously, none of the seven compare favorably to Polanco.

Upgrading third base was never a realistic option for the Phillies, at least not without taking a hit somewhere else (in the Ramirez example, the Phillies would have been worse at shortstop). They will have to live with Polanco in the last year of his three-year, $18 million contract, and that’s just fine. Even if you apply a high dose of skepticism towards UZR (and his 2011 NL Gold Glove award), Polanco is considered to be one of the best defenders at the hot corner. The following table lists defensive data (FanGraphs) for third basemen with at least 750 defensive innings in 2011. A shade of red indicates Polanco led; a shade of green indicates he ranked second.

Name Team Inn DRS RZR OOZ DPR RngR ErrR UZR UZR/150
Placido Polanco PHI 1044.2 16 0.775 38 -2.3 10.4 5.9 14 16.7
Pablo Sandoval SFG 904.2 22 0.78 42 -0.6 10.8 2.2 12.3 17.9
Casey McGehee MIL 1233.1 -2 0.71 36 0.3 9.4 -3.2 6.5 7.3
Ryan Roberts ARI 902.1 -4 0.713 23 0.3 -0.3 1.7 1.7 2.6
Chase Headley SDP 895.1 0 0.685 31 0 -2.8 -0.2 -2.9 -5
Ryan Zimmerman WSN 866.2 0 0.677 23 -0.3 -3.4 0.7 -3.1 -4.4
Greg Dobbs FLA 755.0 -5 0.691 17 0 -2.6 -2.2 -4.8 -10
Chipper Jones ATL 1006.1 -5 0.668 35 0.4 -12.2 3.8 -8 -12.4
Aramis Ramirez CHC 1241.1 -12 0.653 22 -0.2 -10.7 1.5 -9.4 -10.9
David Wright NYM 893.2 -7 0.673 40 -0.7 -4.8 -5 -10.5 -16.4
Chris Johnson HOU 841.1 -16 0.668 14 -0.1 -14.2 -0.2 -14.5 -22.2

Glossary – DRS: Defensive Runs Saved; RZR: Revised Zone Rating; OOZ: Out of Zone plays; DPR: Douple Play Runs; RngR: Range Runs; ErrR: Error Runs; UZR: Ultimate Zone Rating; UZR/150: UZR per 150 defensive games.

As long as Polanco can hit close to the league average for third basemen and continues to play great defense, he will be more than worth the $6.25 million the Phillies will pay him in 2012. The only frightening variable is Polanco’s health — the 36-year-old missed 31 games last year with a back injury and a sports hernia. If Polanco does succumb to injury, Ty Wigginton can easily fill in at the hot corner.

The Phillies’ off-season has been open to quite a lot of criticism, but looking back, you have to give them credit for addressing the third base situation properly: by doing next-to-nothing.

Hamels Kicks Off Farewell Tour with $15 Million Contract

The Phillies have signed LHP Cole Hamels to a one-year, $15 million deal, avoiding a final year of arbitration with one of their aces. In the short term, this is fine. Hamels was among the best pitchers in baseball last year, and $15 million is more or less in line with what he was going to make in arbitration, and at any rate, makes him something of a minor bargain.

This news, however, does warrant jumping off a cliff, because indications look good that one of two things will happen to Hamels: 1) He’ll re-sign with the Phillies next year for one of the richest contracts ever given to a pitcher or 2) He’ll sign with the Yankees for one of the richest contracts ever given to a pitcher. What appears almost impossible now is that he’ll sign for something along the lines of the 5 years and $85 million the Angels gave Jered Weaver last summer, or the 5 years and $77.5 million they gave C.J. Wilson last month.

In the winter of 2008, Sabathia was entering his age-28 season, a left-hander who had posted a career 120 ERA+ over 1,659 1/3 innings. Up to that point, he’d posted a K/BB ratio of 2.66 and accumulated 33 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. Hamels, in the winter of 2012, will be entering in age-29 season, and if he slides back to his career averages, he’ll have posted a 128 ERA+ and a 3.74 K/BB ratio over a little less than 1,400 innings, good for about 27 WAR in half a season less than Sabathia. When Weaver signed with the Angels in August, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, among others, suggested that Weaver’s deal would make a good starting point for a Hamels extension. Now, after a breakout season, and with another year’s worth of uncertainty resolved, Hamels could easily make half again what Weaver made in overall value. With another season like 2011, when he posted a WHIP under 1 and struck out more than four times as many batters as he walked, Hamels will raise his price to the point where Weaver’s contract will look like Evan Longoria‘s. Even in a strong pitching market, bidding could start at Cliff Lee‘s 6-year, $147.5 million deal and end up looking like Sabathia’s 7-year, $161 million contract from the 2008/09 offseason, adjusted for inflation.

Of course, there’s nothing to be done about this now–the time to act was after 2009, when Hamels’ public perception was at an all-time low, but his peripheral stats remained unchanged, or after 2010, when Hamels was once again the front-line starter who was voted MVP of the World Series at age 24, but before he turned into the kind of molten lava-flinging cartoon superhero he was in 2011.

Locking up top homegrown talent long-term has become almost a reflex action for Major League Baseball’s smarter franchises. The Rays signed Longoria in 2008 to a contract that allows them to pay, on average, less than $4 million per year for one of the game’s best two-way players until the end of the 2016 season. James Shields will cost the Rays an absolute maximum of $44 million between 2008 and 2014, and this offseason, they signed rookie starter Matt Moore to a 5-year, $14 million contract that could run to eight years for $40 million.

The key to those contracts is signing players with great potential early. The longer a team waits to sign a player, the more certainty exists over his value. So a team like the Rays can approach Longoria or Moore before either has established himself as a quality major league player and offer to lock them up to a long-term extension with multiple team options. If Longoria had flamed out, he’d have cost the Rays less than 3/4 of what Ryan Howard will make this year, but instead, the Rays have locked up a perennial all-star third baseman for roughly the same annual salary as Kyle Kendrick. Likewise, Moore, who has thrown only 9 1/3 regular season innings in the majors, is projected to become one of the top left-handed pitchers in the game, comparable to Hamels, David Price, and their like. If he blows out his arm in April and never pitches again, the Rays have lost less than what Cole Hamels will make this year. If he fulfills his potential, they’ve picked up a bargain–an ace lefty for about a fourth, give or take, of his market value.

The Rays, as you know, are characterized by their extreme relative poverty, so their reliance on signing players long-term and early is extreme. The Phillies can afford to be more conservative, but they’ve overshot the mark with Hamels. The advantage to signing young homegrown players long-term is that they can be had for less than what the free market would dictate, and for a term that would end before the decline phase woes that make teams gunshy about thirtysomething free agents like Jayson Werth and Albert Pujols. This is what the Phillies did with Chase Utley before the 2007 season, and what the Cardinals did with Pujols when they extended him in 2004. Those were instances of teams locking up players after they’d become franchise players, but before they demanded to be paid as such.

The Phillies have missed that opportunity with Hamels, and this $15 million deal is evidence of that. As Longoria, Shields, Moore, Utley, Weaver, and Pujols all showed is that young players are willing to sacrifice earning potential for financial security. As their quality becomes evident, their value goes up. Now, there Hamels has no uncertainty for the Phillies to buy out. He knows he’s a star, he knows he can make nine figures over six years if he wants to, and he has no incentive to take a discount for the Phillies to give him long-term security. If they’d tried to sign him a year or two ago–or even five months ago–he might have, and failing to pounce on that opportunity will likely cost the Phillies somewhere on the order of $40 to 60 million, if it doesn’t cost them Hamels himself.

So as far as the one-year arbitration buyout is concerned, that’s fine. Hamels is well worth front-line starter money, and he’s making a little bit less than that, so he represents, as I’ve said, a minor bargain. But when all is said and done, that this contract is only for one year and not for six could very well lead to Hamels playing out the best years of his career in pinstripes of a different color, and that could cause the Phillies’ run of dominance to unravel quite a bit more rapidly than it might have otherwise.