Which Hunter Pence is at the Negotiating Table?

This winter, Hunter Pence heads to his second salary arbitration hearing, in his third year of eligibility. 2011 was, indisputably, the most successful season of his young career. He produced a .314/.370/.502 line, including a particularly impressive .324/.394/.560 run in 236 plate appearances following his trade to the Phillies. He set career highs in OBP, OPS+, rWAR, and fWAR. Not surprisingly, Pence could net a fair purse for 2012. Matt Swartz, via his salary arbitration model, projects the value of his case to be around $11 million. Under Amaro, the Phillies are typically loathe to leave a player’s salary up to an arbitration panel, so they may try to reach a deal with him in advance of the deadline for exchanging salary submissions later today. Either way, the proceedings hinge on the Phillies knowing just how valuable a player Hunter Pence really is, and the gulf between his 2011 season and those that came before it introduces substantial doubt to that determination.

Prior to 2011, Pence had a career 115 OPS+ on his resume, and was just shy of being a 2 win player (rWAR) in the average season. His offensive numbers were respectable, but not those of a top-flight MLB corner outfielder. From 2007-2010, 17 other leftfielders and rightfielders accrued at least 1500 plate appearances and posted a better OPS+ than Pence, and they are some of the names more closely associated with the offense-first character of the position — Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Jayson Werth, Matt Holliday, Andre Ethier, etc. Pence’s bat was above average at a position which is usually home to excellent or even elite ones.

Still, he developed a reputation that somewhat overstated his abilities. This was due in part to playing for a Houston Astros team that was perennially short on talent; Craig Biggio retired after playing alongside Pence for one season in 2007, and after that, Hunter, Lance Berkman, and a declining Carlos Lee were the lone bright spots on a team that never climbed higher than third in the NL Central. Phillies fans in particular were made to watch Pence post a .330/.382/.681 line against their team’s pitching from 2007-2010. His schizophrenic, penguin-out-of-water, proprioceptively-impaired style of play garnered additional attention and (understandably) clouded attempts at level-headed evaluations of his talent (during a rough stretch for Pence in 2010, Eric Seidman quipped, “I’d say he isn’t seeing the ball well, but he never closes his eyes so I don’t see how that would be possible”).

2011 was a different story entirely. His .378 wOBA last season put him on the same offensive tier as Mike Stanton, Robinson Cano, and Dustin Pedroia. As the five win player that Pence was in 2011 (rWAR), he would be more than worth the money he is poised to make, either by arbitration or extension. The temptation with any sudden surge or depression in hitter production is to search for signs that it could be a passing fluke. In Pence’s case, his BABIP jumps off the (web)page. In both 2011 and his rookie season, which was his second most successful season by OPS+, his BABIP reached levels which are hard to imagine any hitter sustaining — .361 and .377 respectively. Only three hitters in history have logged a BABIP above .360 for their career (minimum 2000 plate appearances): Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Shoeless Joe Jackson — none of whom, I think we can agree, are suitable comparisons for Pence. In the last decade, the BABIP leader with that minimum is Shin-Soo Choo, who tops out at .353.

Pence’s BABIP wasn’t the only difference, though. His line drive rate spiked in 2011, reaching 17.9%, the highest since his rookie year mark (19.4%). This, along with the corresponding decline in ground ball and fly ball rates, works favorably towards his BABIP. If he is consistently hitting the ball harder, he’ll obviously have more success on balls in play going forward. But “consistently” is the key there. According to research by Derek Carty, a hitter’s line drive rate stabilizes when the sum of his infield flies, outfield flies, ground balls, and line drives reaches 795 (using MLB Advanced Media, which was not the source of my earlier figures but which shows the same spike for Pence). For Pence, that sum was just 487. And even if we had evidence that Pence had reliably boosted his line drive ability, his 2011 rate still doesn’t support the .361 BABIP. Per Fangraphs’ xBABIP estimator, his batted ball profile in 2011 portends just a .319 BABIP, which also happens to be his career expected BABIP using that same formula. That’s a 42 point difference, which means about 20 less hits, reducing his 2011 batting average to .281 and his on base percentage to .340, and that’s discounting the peripheral effects that reduced contact success might have on his walk and extra base hit rates.

The bulk of Pence’s batted ball fortune in 2011 appears to have come on ground balls. His BABIP on grounders was .329 in 2011; the league average was .237. Looking at the distribution of his ground ball hits, it’s easy to pick out a few that were luck-of-the-draw:

Then again, Pence has always outpaced the league in ground ball success, maybe owing to his speed. Even removing 2011, his career BABIP on grounders is .296.

There is plenty more at stake in the evaluation than just one arbitration hearing. Three of the prospects surrendered by the Phillies to acquire Pence immediately became top 10 prospects in the Astros system — Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart at 1 and 2 respectively, and Domingo Santana at 6, by Baseball America’s reckoning. Granted, the Astros farm system was essentially a wasteland prior to the trade, but Cosart and Singleton would rank well in any system, and it says a lot about the trade that the player-to-be-named turned out to Santana, a formidable well of potential in his own right. The Phillies may not have had a clear spot for Singleton in the big leagues, as he now does with Houston moving to the AL and adding a DH slot to their lineup. They also may not have had much need for Cosart, with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee locked up for several more years, and Cole Hamels presumably on his way to an extension. It may also be true that, as fresh entrants into the heavyweight class of payroll spenders, the Phillies can afford to exchange prospects in favor of established, more expensive big league talent. But if the true Hunter Pence is closer in ability to his 2007-2010 self, and not his 2011 self, then the Phillies acquired an above-average corner outfielder for a premium package of talent that they were well positioned to sit on until the ideal target came along.

Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, likely drawing on the BABIP concerns already mentioned, forecast a .281/.334/.450 batting line for Pence, amounting to a 108 OPS+. That’s not a bad season by any means, but it’s not far off from, say, Carlos Ruiz‘s 2011, or Ben Francisco‘s 2010. It’s certainly not the sort of elite bat you can use to maximize the value from a corner outfield position. If that’s the sort of player Pence is going to be, they’ll need offensive surplus from positions where it’s harder to find. They used to have that built-in, season after season, in the form of Chase Utley, but his health leaves that to question now. They may have it from Shane Victorino if he builds on his immensely successful 2011, or from Carlos Ruiz, or from Jimmy Rollins if he can spark a rare late-career surge. Suffice it to say, there are no standout candidates. More importantly, if Pence’s value will reflect something in the neighborhood of that ZiPS projection going forward, the Phillies will have to hope that the package they surrendered manifests more of its risk than its potential, and they’ll have to exercise restraint with negotiating the salary of a new fan favorite and bona fide good guy.

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.

A Halfhearted Defense of the Kyle Kendrick Contract

This afternoon, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, the Phillies have avoided arbitration with RHP Kyle Kendrick by signing him to a one-year, $3.585 million contract that seems structured specifically to irritate people who write about such things by making us type out the dollar value to the thousand-dollar place.

As the news broke, my Twitter feed was dominated by reactions to the Kendrick signing, ranging from resignation, to fear, to what I assume is a potshot at Darren Rovell, to mocking incredulity, to more mocking incredulity, to unbridled snark, to a dose of placid rationality with an unflattering comparison. For a while, my window to the internet was almost entirely dominated by Kyle Kendrick, with a little bit of France Football‘s Philippe Auclair musing about the political legitimacy of credit rating systems.

The point is, no one seems to really like that the Phillies re-signed Kyle Kendrick.

So what of Kendrick and his contract? Well, Bill wrote earlier this afternoon in big friendly letters, “Don’t Panic,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Kendrick, an extremely durable swingman who never walks anyone and goes from the rotation to the bullpen to Lehigh Valley without ever uttering a word of complaint, is more valuable a piece than we might realize. Perhaps no team relies more on (or expects more from, at any rate) its starting rotation than the Phillies do, so having a Kendrick to plug in for 15 starts might come in handy if one or the other of Joe Blanton‘s elbow or Vance Worley‘s two-seamer prove to be less reliable than expected. If nothing else, we know that Kendrick can come in and pitch slightly-better-than-replacement-level ball for six innings or so on very little notice.

I probably wouldn’t be making this argument if not for the 2011 Red Sox, who, I would argue, missed out on the playoffs last year for want of a pitcher like Kendrick. While the Red Sox went into the season with a projected rotation of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. That group included the reigning AL ERA champion (Buchholz), one of the four or five best young left-handed starters under 30 (Lester), two guys who, while wildly overpaid, were expected to at least be mediocre (Lester and Dice-K), and Josh Beckett. Not a bad group, on the whole.

Well, in the blink of an eye, Buchholz and Matsuzaka were out for the season, Beckett missed a couple starts (though he went on to post the best season of his career, by ERA+ and bWAR), and Lackey suffered what I’ve come to call the Alex Fernandez Injury. In Game 2 of the 1997 NLCS against Atlanta, Marlins pitcher Alex Fernandez blew out his arm but stayed out on the mound at least an inning after it became clear that someone had set off a grenade inside his elbow. After being horrified and fascinated by this incident, I’ve thought of Fernandez every time I’ve watched a pitcher do his elbow, then try to get by 81-mph arrows in the vain hope of the velocity, movement, or location coming back.

While the Marlins yanked Ferndandez after 2 2/3 innings, the Red Sox trotted Lackey back out there for another two months or so with the inside of his elbow resembling nothing so much as the mangled inner workings of the Cylon Raider that Starbuck fixed up in that episode of Battlestar Galactica. So the Red Sox traded for Eric Bedard, who was hurt and ineffective. Then they found themselves in the stretch run with only two effective, healthy pitchers: Beckett and Lester. The other three spots in the rotation went to the injured Lackey, the aged Tim Wakefield, and the ineffective Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland. In 1949, the Red Sox reeled off an 11-game winning streak over the last two weeks of the season by going to a two-man rotation–over the last 20 games of the season, the Red Sox only won two games that where neither Mel Parnell nor Ellis Kinder recorded a win or a save. When Beckett and Lester were unable to duplicate that success, the Red Sox were screwed.

The presence of Kendrick, who almost certainly won’t be able to duplicate his 3.22 ERA of last season, makes such a disaster profoundly unlikely for the Phillies in the coming year. Now, is $3.6 million too much to pay for a pitcher with a career 4.65 xFIP? Probably, but not disastrously so. He’s almost certain to come down from his excellent 2011, unless his BABIP stays at .261. But with the cost of a marginal win hovering somewhere north of $5 million for this season, Kendrick doesn’t have to be particularly good to justify his contract–about 2/3 of a win will do nicely, and even if he comes up a bit short, overspending by $1 million or so on Kendrick isn’t a disaster for a team whose utter contempt for prudent stewardship of its monetary resources is made clear by the contracts extended to Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, and Jonathan Papelbon, while Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Madson merited little more attention than a panhandler at the PATCO stop at 8th and Market.

And there’s the old adage about there being no such thing as a bad one-year contract.

All in all, there’s a lot to like about this deal: short duration, relatively low cost and expectations, and it fills a need. All in all, Kyle Kendrick is like a slightly overpriced spare tire–kind of irritating if you don’t need him, but absolutely essential if you do. If you want to feel good about the Phillies, you can stop reading now.

HOWEVER.

Today, MLB Trade Rumors noted that the price has come down for the top starting pitchers remaining in the free agent market, including Roy Oswalt, who, it is said, would accept a one-year, $8 million contract. Hiroki Kuroda could be had for $10-11 million. I’ve always liked Kuroda, but his age and his price probably eliminate the Phillies from contention. Of course, if the Phillies hadn’t signed Joe Blanton, Jonathan Papelbon, and Kendrick to deals no one was crazy about when they were signed, they’d have room on their payroll for Kuroda, Madson, and probably one other pitcher. But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

But let’s compare  how the three have done, in terms of fWAR, since Kuroda joined the National League in 2008.

As you can see, Oswalt and Kuroda, each in a relative down year, were each somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 times more valuable than Kendrick was. Of course, Kuroda threw a little less than twice as many innings than Kendrick, so let’s say that Kuroda was six times more valuable than Kendrick, per inning pitched, and set aside the intrinsic value that innings pitched have. Oswalt threw about 20 percent more innings than Kendrick, so let’s call him ten times more valuable in 2011.

This is what drives me absolutely busalooey about the way the Phillies do business. They tendered Kyle Kendrick for arbitration, knowing that he’d be in for a multi-million-dollar payday, when better options were out there. Kendrick had a good 2011, buoyed by unsustainably low batted ball numbers. For reference, Happ posted a .261 BABIP, a 4.43 xFIP, and a 2.93 ERA in 2009. In 2011, Happ’s BABIP returned to a relatively normal .297, and his xFIP rose slightly, to 4.59, but his ERA was 5.35. Amazing what a little bit of luck can do to you.

But the Phillies, because of ontological blindness, naivete, or sheer force of their intractably reactionary institutional philosophy, have once again spent $3.6 million on a pitcher with a career low 4.04 xFIP, when $8 million would have nabbed them a pitcher with a career high 3.97 xFIP, or $10 million would have landed them a pitcher with a career high 3.89 xFIP. Imagine shopping for beer like this. Signing Kendrick to this contract with Oswalt and Kuroda where they are in the market is like going to Canal’s, passing the 24-pack of Sam Adams for $12, then passing the Great Lakes variety 24-pack for $15, then deciding you’d rather spend six bucks on two pounders of Beast Light. Those are not the actions of an informed shopper. I know this and I just spent 20 minutes on Google and three minutes tooling around in Excel. The Phillies are an organization worth half a billion dollars or more, with hundreds of full-time employees. How can they not be aware of this?

In a vacuum, re-signing Kendrick is a nice, if slightly pricey insurance policy. Given that the Phillies appear willing to sign Cole Hamels to a one-year deal rather than locking him up long-term (what possible purpose this could serve is a mystery to me), keeping Kendrick on at this price is hardly the most actively harmful personnel decision the Phillies have made this week. And I’ll grant you, that by price, age, and role, Oswalt and Kuroda aren’t completely fair comparisons to Kendrick. But the Phillies have so gravely miscalculated the value of starting pitchers this offseason that if NASA were so off-base, they’d have sent Apollo 11 straight into the center of the Earth.

So did the Phillies do well to re-sign Kendrick? It depends on how you look at it.

Phillies Sign Kyle Kendrick for $3.585 Million

News! With a general doff of ye olde ballcap to the Phillies beat, we have learned that Kyle Kendrick will earn $3.585 million during the 2012 season. This was essentially a formality as Kendrick was not among those non-tendered at the December 12 deadline.

Kendrick earned $2.45 million last season when the two parties similarly avoided arbitration. The right-hander made 15 starts and 19 relief appearances, providing value as a swingman throughout the season. He finished the season with a 3.22 ERA, a career-low, including 3.14 as a starter and 3.41 as a reliever. He figures to work in the same role in 2012 with the Phillies’ rotation set in stone, barring some unforeseen news involving Joe Blanton.

That Kendrick was given $3.585 million shouldn’t surprise anyone as a result of his not being non-tendered. At the time, I argued that the Phillies should cut their ties with him. Since they didn’t, Kendrick’s salary is neither shocking nor cause for outrage. MLB Trade Rumors estimated Kendrick would earn $3.2 million if he were to go to arbitration, so the Phillies only overpaid by about $400,000, or roughly the Major League minimum salary. Meanwhile, the Phillies maintain a reliable back-up plan in the event of an injury or a change of scenery for Blanton, and they add one of their vaunted veterans to the bullpen.

In terms of raw skill, Kendrick leaves a lot to be desired. Between 2007-08 and ’10-11 (he spent most of ’09 in Triple-A), his lowest xFIP is 4.42. He doesn’t miss bats very often and he possesses no unique batted ball skills. In the event the Phillies limit his exposure to left-handed hitters, Kendrick’s numbers could be better (4.03 xFIP vs. RHB; 5.36 vs. LHB), but you simply don’t see ROOGYs in baseball, especially not on a Charlie Manuel-managed team. The Good Phight’s Taco Pal argues that Kendrick may have made a significant improvement last season, but we’ll need more data before we can make any strong conclusions. The most we can say at this point is that he is a below-average pitcher.

Overall, Kendrick’s salary won’t make much of a difference on the 2012 roster. While the Phillies will be nudging up against the luxury tax, Kendrick’s earnings will not make it any more difficult for the Phillies to get Cole Hamels signed to a multi-year extension. To use a cliche, it is what it is. The Phillies keep a reliable arm around at a slightly above-average rate relative to Kendrick’s skill level and the market. That’s just fine.

Michael Baumann will have more on this topic soon.

Guest Post: Maikel Franco Profile

Throughout the year, Crashburn Alley will be accepting guest posts. If you would like to contribute, submit your entries to CrashburnAlley [at] gmail [dot] com.

Today’s guest post is from Ben Skalina. You can follow him on Twitter @TweetaSkalina.

. . .

The Best Phillies Prospect You Haven’t Heard of Yet: Maikel Franco

Who is this guy? Franco was signed in January 2010 out of the Dominican Republic, and played most of 2011 as an 18-year-old third baseman with Williamsport in the New York-Penn League.

What did he do? Franco showed advanced plate discipline against older players, posting a nearly even strikeout-to-walk ratio (10.9% BB, 13.1% K) over 229 PAs in Williamsport. Bumped up to Lakewood in the Sally league for a brief 17-game stint, Franco struggled mightily and was returned to the NYPL. He also showed a nice line drive stroke with the Cutters, mashing 20% of his contact for line drives.

His .287/.367/.411 line in Williamsport was 24 percent better than league average, and scouting reports indicate he should be able to hold down third base going forward. At any rate, The NYPL is a difficult hitting environment, due in large part to the recently-drafted college pitchers who dominate the level. For Franco to hold his own against savvy pitchers three or more years his senior portends well for his future.

What are his red flags? No prospect (except for Bryce Harper) is perfect, and Franco is no different. His .124 ISO with Williamsport was low for a corner position, and he’ll need to hit for more power going forward to be viewed as a legitimate prospect. Additionally, his inability to hit of anything in his short Lakewood experience (.123/.149/.200) raises some eyebrows. Franco does not profile as a premium athlete (0 career SB), so he’ll need to hit his way through the system and be wary of gaining extra weight.

What’s next? Franco should head to Lakewood for a full season as the Blueclaws’ third baseman, where he’ll play most of the season as a 19-year-old. If Franco can continue to display good plate discipline while increasing his power output he could challenge Sebastian Valle at this time next year as the Phils’ top hitting prospect.

What could he be? Franco currently looks like he could develop into a league-average third baseman, hovering between 2 and 3 Wins Above Replacement annually. If his power develops, and you squint really hard, some 20-home run seasons could be out there, too.

Why care? With the loss of Carlos Rivero, Franco is the Fightins’ most realistic third base prospect. He was rated the number 4 prospect in the NYPL by Baseball America, and Marc Hulet had him 6th in his Phillies Top 15 at Fangraphs.

. . .

Thanks to Ben for profiling a lesser-known prospect. If you enjoyed his work, you can follow him on Twitter @TweetaSkalina.

Ryan Madson Signs with Cincinnati

Per ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, the Cincinnati Reds have signed former Phillie Ryan Madson to a one-year, $8.5 million deal. I’ve written a lot about this subject recently, so I won’t beat a dead horse, but suffice it to say that the Reds made out like bandits with this deal. The Phillies have massive amounts of egg on their face for signing Jonathan Papelbon so quickly, and Madson’s agent Scott Boras looks even worse. The good news is that the Phillies will get two draft picks as a result of offering Madson arbitration. Jim Callis with the specifics:

#Phillies get sandwich & 2nd-rder for Madson going to #Reds. As of now, those would be picks 38 & 72. #mlbdraft

Madson will spend one year in Cincinnati before jumping back into the free agent pool. He may have better luck when fewer relief options are on the market. For now, he’ll take $8.5 million, which is likely less than he would have been awarded in arbitration. The acquisitions of Madson and lefty Sean Marshall give the Reds a fearsome bullpen as they make a serious push to win the NL Central in 2012.

Relevant reading:

The Farewell Voyage?

If there was one thing I was concerned about entering this offseason, it was the possibility that the Phillies would fail to lock up Cole Hamels to a multi-year extension.

As you all know and are probably tired of hearing by now, the 2012 season will be Cole’s last under team control in his current contract situation. His three-year, $20.5M extension ended at the conclusion of last season, and ’12 will be his final year of arbitration eligibility. The logical comparison often bandied about is Jered Weaver‘s five-year, &85M extension, signed this past August. The numbers bear out a close comparison. Hamels is almost 15 months younger, but both pitchers have about six years of Major League service, separated by 0.08 in ERA, 114 strikeouts, 16 walks and 29.2 innings. Despite concerns – Weaver with his cross-body delivery and Hamels with Minor League arm trouble – both have been durable, starting 30-plus games each of their past four seasons.

Only one is signed past the 2012 season, though, and it ain’t the one pitching for the Phillies this season. And that is quickly becoming a problem.

CSN’s Jim Salisbury recently posted a piece which details the club’s focus in signing Hamels to a one-year contract. That it’s even come to that is damning. I’ve held to the belief for a couple years running now that, if Hamels is allowed to play the 2012 season as a walk year, he will indeed walk right out of Philly to a new home at season’s end.

Consider Cole’s possible competition on the free agent market next winter. Obviously, things could change depending on how players perform, injuries and other miscellany throughout 2012, but at this moment, this is the 2013 free agent market. Matt Cain will command money. Zack Greinke should also probably expect to receive a healthy contract, but not on the same level. The next tier includes guys like James Shields and Ervin Santana, both of whom have reasonably affordable options (or, in Shields’s case, may be traded for and extended by their new team). They would be a half step below Hamels to begin with, but if they don’t reach the market, that’s more power yet to Cole.

The point is, Hamels and Cain are the heads of the class. There’s little potential of a Ryan Madson-type positional market flooding preventing Cole from cashing in. And guess who’s lurking? The Yankees, for one, who have an obvious need and plenty of dinero. The Red Sox had some rotation issues, too. And that’s not to mention any number of teams that wouldn’t love to add an ace before he turns 30.

It’s all gut feeling at this point. What I may be feeling, you may be sensing the opposite. And sure, a decent one-year deal could keep Hamels placated and away from running the gauntlet of an arbitration hearing. But he doesn’t own this city any type of loyalty or discount, especially to a fan base which, on a maddeningly large scale, wanted him run out of town after an unlucky 2009 and a front office that seems to think Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papelbon are worth major bucks, but not him. This is the game you play and the risk you take.

Hamels is entitled to every penny the market will bear, and he will get it, especially if he stays healthy and posts another non-2009. Call it fatalist or pessimist, but don’t forget to call it realist. The Phillies are big boys and can spend with the big dogs, but with more than $100M already committed to just six players in 2013, adding Hamels at potentially $17M-plus – a higher AAV than Weaver – will make the luxury tax loom even larger than it already does.

It’s an unnecessarily complex situation, given the Howard and Papelbon deals, but it’s complex nonetheless. Call it a kneejerk reaction, but as of this second, I don’t like the way this is shaping up one bit. Not one bit at all.

Reddit Q&A with Trevor May

Last night, Phillies pitching prospect Trevor May answered a bunch of questions on Reddit. Lots of really interesting answers and a bit of a look into the life of a Minor Leaguer. Make sure to check it out and follow him on Twitter.

May spent all of the 2011 season with Clearwater, where he posted a 3.63 ERA with a 12.4 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9. Baseball America lists him as the organization’s #1 prospect.

Here are a few of my favorite Q&A’s:

Reddit: what has been your best experience with a big leaguer rehabbing with your squad?

May: Talking Pitching with Brian [Schneider]. That guy is awesome to talk to.

. . .

Reddit: Let’s say you make the show..and you face Bryce Harper. How would you go about pitching against him?

May: In, In, Up and IN.

. . .

Reddit: Is it ever weird to watch MLB games on TV or live, now that the chance for you to be in them is so close? How is it different from watching those games as a kid?

May: Sometimes I stop and realize how surreal it is and will be when I finally throw on that mound. You just always think its so far away, but now that its close its hard to truly realize what It will be like.

Tip of the cap to @jph89 for giving May the idea.

Scrounging Around in the Bargain Bin

The Phillies, through the years, have heavily relied on veterans to get the job done out of the bullpen. When Brad Lidge wasn’t available early in 2010, the Phillies placed the responsibility of closing out ballgames on 38-year-old Jose Contreras rather than 29-year-old Ryan Madson. Even in less-important roles, the Phillies have preferred to go with veterans such as Chad Durbin and Scott Eyre. It wasn’t until last year, out of necessity, that the Phillies finally handed the ball off to the younger arms, starting with Michael Stutes.

After newcomers Jonathan Papelbon and Dontrelle Willis, as well as Contreras, the Phillies will be going into 2012 with a young bullpen. Antonio Bastardo, Kyle Kendrick, and David Herndon each are 27 years old or younger, and the final two spots will be open to competition in spring training. Familiar faces such as Stutes, Justin De Fratus, and Michael Schwimer would be considered for that role along with Phillippe Aumont.

There is a veteran arm out there that has shown up on the Phillies’ radar, however. Over the last three seasons spanning 152 innings, this right-handed pitcher averaged 10 strikeouts and 4.6 walks per nine innings. Last year, he earned just $1.5 million while posting a 10.1 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 with a 3.11 SIERA.

That pitcher is Kerry Wood. According to Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com, the Phillies and the Chicago Cubs have interest in signing the 35-year-old starter-turned-reliever. Contrary to speculation, Wood does not intend to retire according to one of his recent tweets. He fits the Phillies’ bullpen mold almost perfectly, with the only blemish being his spotty record of health — Wood has missed 80 days to the disabled list in the last two seasons. Wood has experience closing, having finished 132 games in the last four seasons and he has been effective in doing so.

The best part for the Phillies, though, is Wood’s price. As mentioned, he made a paltry $1.5 million last year and does not have the leverage to ask for a significant pay raise. He would slot in the seventh or eighth inning, allowing the possibility for Bastardo to be used as efficiently as possible. If Wood flames out or succumbs to injury, it’s not a big deal and there would be no issue in asking everybody else to move up a notch. Signing Wood would be a low-risk, high-reward (even if unnecessary) move and it would match up with the organizational philosophy we have seen from the Phillies over the last five years.