Bringing Back the Running Game

After the 2010 season, when the Phillies and former first base coach Davey Lopes couldn’t agree on a salary, I asked the question, “How do you replace Davey Lopes?” The answer, really, is “you don’t”. Few base coaches have had as tangible an effect on a team as Lopes had on the Phillies, who took them from an above-average running organization to historically great. In 2007, the Phillies set a Major League record with a stolen base success rate at 88 percent and were found in the upper quartile in aggression as well.

The absence of Lopes, as well as the recurrence of the injury bug, contributed to the Phillies significantly cutting into their base running aggression last year. As a team, they attempted only 120 steals (though with a success rate at 80 percent), the tenth-highest total in the National League. Only two Phillies — Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino — attempted to steal 15 or more times, a drop off from four such players in each season from 2008-10.

The Phillies transformed from an offensive powerhouse to a team that values pitching and defense, partially due to necessity. As many have pointed out, the Phillies are an old team with players past their offensive peak that cannot manufacture runs with their bodies anymore. During the off-season, the Phillies remained homogenous when acquiring Jim Thome, Laynce Nix, and Ty Wigginton, none of whom are fleet of foot. Looking at the current roster, it is hard to see the Phillies making any significant progress in the running game, even with a healthy middle infield with Rollins and Chase Utley and a full season of Hunter Pence.

However, the Phillies are still pursuing a fifth outfielder. Victorino and Pence will start every day in center and right field, respectively, while left field should be composed of a platoon including Nix and John Mayberry. Domonic Brown is expected to start the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, leaving one spot open. Tyson Gillies is on the Phillies’ 40-man roster, but don’t expect much out of him as he took just 13 trips to the plate throughout the 2011 season with Single-A Clearwater.

Rumors circulated in late December around bat-first players like Jonny Gomes, Ryan Ludwick, and Cody Ross. I think that is the wrong approach — the Phillies already have a slew of bench bats. What they lack is speed from the bench. During games when Mayberry does not start, he would be the Phillies’ best base-stealing threat late in the game. When he is already in the lineup, the next-best option would be… Dontrelle Willis. Even worse, two other pitchers would be next in line: Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. All three pitchers would be superior pinch-running options to the likes of Wilson Valdez, Brian Schneider, Wigginton, Nix, and Thome.

What the Phillies should do instead is fill that fifth outfielder spot with a speedy outfielder like Juan Pierre or Willie Harris. Pierre, currently 34 years old, stole 68 bases in 86 attempts during the 2010 season with the Chicago White Sox. He didn’t have a great showing last year, stealing 27 bases in 44 attempts, but his agility certainly hasn’t declined. If he has a slight improvement in offense, he would be a league-average hitter and give the Phillies a great weapon on the bench. He would be in line for a significant pay cut, having finished up the last year of a five-year, $44 million contract. Comparable free agents that have already signed include Jerry Hairston (Dodgers, two years at $6 million), Willie Bloomquist (Diamondbacks, two years at $3.8 million), and Endy Chavez (Orioles, one year at $1.5 million). For Pierre, the Phillies would be looking at something between one and two years at $2-3 million per year.

Harris is perhaps an even better fit. He earned $800,000 with the New York Mets last year and is arguably just as good, if not better, than Pierre. He has great plate discipline, walking in at least 12 percent of his plate appearances over the last three years. His stolen base attempts don’t reflect it — less than ten attempts in each of the past two seasons — but he possesses above-average speed and would not be a liability in the field (at least according to scouting reports; UZR tells a different story). Harris could be brought in on a one year deal between $750,000 and $1 million.

One other name to consider is Corey Patterson. The St. Louis Cardinals acquired him in a trade at the deadline last year, but declined his 2012 option. He’s been a mercenary over the past three seasons, spending time with five different teams. At times showing the potential the Chicago Cubs saw when they drafted him third overall in the 1998 draft, Patterson has failed to live up to expectations. However, even at 32 years old, he still has speed, having stolen 34 bases in 47 attempts in the last two seasons. He doesn’t provide much in the way of contact or on-base skills, but he has more power than Pierre and Harris, so he could be used late in the game when a double or home run would be helpful as well. Patterson earned $900,000 last year and is not in any position to ask for more, so he would fit within the Phillies’ budget as they are ever mindful of the luxury tax threshold.

As presently constructed, the Phillies are a team that should finish at least in the mid-90’s in terms of wins. Players like Pierre, Harris, and Patterson would not push them into a better playoff position. We have seen over the last three seasons, however, that one small thing can mean the difference between the Phillies watching the next round of the playoffs at home, or writing that chapter themselves.

Phillies Sign Joel Piñeiro to Minor League Deal

Per Jayson Stark, the Phillies have signed veteran right-handed pitcher Joel Piñeiro to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training.

There were not many suitors for Piñeiro’s services following a rough 2011 outing. He posted 5.13 ERA over 145 and 2/3rds innings, and a problem that has plagued him for the last six seasons — his inability to punch hitters out — reached a new career low, in the form of a 9.8% strikeout rate. Ostensibly, he hails from the Kyle Kendrick school of sinker ball pitching: acceptable but not impressive groundball rates, better than average walk rates, both put to waste with abysmal strikeout abilities. His secondary pitch is a slider, and he mixes in a curveball and changeup, but none are offerings suited for a spot in a major league starter’s arsenal. Piñeiro found success with the Mariners from 2001-2004, when he sustained a much better strikeout rate (17.6%) coupled with an advantageous BABIP (.276).

The Piñeiro from 2001-2004 would be a perfectly serviceable 2nd, 3rd, or 4th starter, but his bat-missing skills and batted ball fortune faded, and he found himself bouncing around the Red Sox and Cardinals’ minor league systems. There was some hope in 2009 that Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan had put his magic to work and salvaged Piñeiro. He posted a 3.49 ERA in 214 innings, mostly thanks to a sizable jump in groundball rate — 60.5% compared to his 49.2% career average. That proved unsustainable, and he landed with the Angels, ranging from mediocre to bad in 2010 and 2011.

Joe Blanton already figures to fill out the 5th spot in a rotation that is otherwise famously comprised of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Vance Worley. Kyle Kendrick, freshly inked to a $3.585 million deal to avoid arbitration two days ago, will be a costly swing man with dim hopes to repeat his fortunate 2011. For the Phillies, then, Piñeiro likely represents AAA filler and a deep starting pitching option. Like the Jason Grilli or Andrew Carpenter of days gone by, he will shore up the Iron Pig rotation until the Phillies find themselves in need of a spot starter or injury replacement. He may not even be high on the depth chart, with a bevy of other one-hit wonders ready to go if the Phillies find themselves in desperate circumstances. Piñeiro is marginally better against right-handed hitting, but nothing about his profile bodes well for a relief role, so it’s unlikely he could land with the big league squad for that purpose.

In the broader construction project that is the 2012 Phillies, Piñeiro is a minor, fungible cog that the machine would hardly miss. But it’s worth a no-risk minor league deal to bring him to spring training and give him a chance to prove some usefulness. His game plan should mirror Kendrick’s — walk as few hitters as possible, and rely heavily on the sinker, praying either that it works or that he gets lucky. In the best case scenario, he will approach Kendrick’s serviceability without inspiring the same odd compulsion to throw substantial money in his direction. In the worst case, he may add more than a few dents to the Lehigh Valley bleachers.