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Turning Back the Clock
Posted By Bill Baer On January 24, 2012 @ 7:51 am In MLB,Philadelphia Phillies,Sabermetrics | 59 Comments
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.
. . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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