The Key for Chase Utley

If you listened to my spot on ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast, you heard me mention that Chase Utley is crucial to the Phillies’ success in 2012. Mark Simon, of ESPN Stats & Information, posted a blog illustrating Utley’s declining performance against left-handed pitching. Traditionally without a platoon split, it was surprising to see Utley struggle so much throughout the year, but it may be a one-off due to his knee problems.

More concerning is Utley’s declining performance after July. Given Utley’s nature to run full-speed for every routine out and dive for every ground ball, the obvious explanation is that the second baseman simply runs out of gas with two months to go.

In the past, the Phillies have hinted that they would like to give Utley more time off, but it never happened. At the end of December, one of the three New Year’s Resolutions I picked for the Phillies was to give Utley more scheduled rest. Utley means more to the Phillies at close-to-100-percent in 130 games than he does at below-70-percent in 150 games (if the Phillies are lucky enough to see him in that many games, anyway).

Don’t forget that Utley’s durability doesn’t just affect his bat; it affects his base running (29 total stolen base attempts in the last two seasons compared to 23 in 2009 alone) and his defense (his range runs over the last two seasons, per FanGraphs, were the lowest since 2006). Perhaps the days of Utley being a 7-8 win player are over, but he can still reach the 5-6 win plateau with the correct application.

The Phillies Are In the Running for Jorge Soler

In the past few days, the Phillies’ position with regards to Cuban prospect Jorge Soler has gone from silence to “interested” to, as Jeff Passan put it, “in hardest,” along with the New York Yankees. Soler’s case is somewhat unique, as he will be one of the last international signings to occur before the new collective bargaining agreement’s restrictions on international spending go into effect this summer. The (frankly, rather absurd) new rules will impose harsh, progressive taxes on international contracts that exceed a set limit, so a lot of teams faced with one last opportunity to make their money truly work for them in the global baseball market may seek his services.

The Cubs were apparently close enough to signing him on Monday night that some outlets reported the deal as done, but with last year’s highest and second-highest payrolls now in the bidding, many teams may be priced out. The supposed Cubs deal that has since been refuted was for around $30 million dollars; he may end up making substantially more than that, even more than the 4 year, $36 million deal handed out to fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, but without the latter’s ability to become a free agent when the deal expires.

Soler cuts an even lower profile than Cespedes, who came with many questions and only a 20 minute long self-aggrandizing YouTube video to answer them. In Jorge’s case, we have no video, and, by way of illustration, the above picture that looks like a found photo from the 1960s is the only one I could find [ed. note: appropriately, this wasn’t even a picture of Soler, so I removed it]. Still, he’s been generating some amount of discussion in scouting circles for the last two years, and now that MLB teams are meeting with him, a reasonable snapshot can be assembled. The basics: he is a 6′ 5″ right-handed hitter that weighs in at around 200 pounds. Most of the available reports on his abilities are in decent alignment, and Soler’s raw power is the first thing that gets mentioned. One report noted that he could be a 30 home run hitter at the big league level, while Ken Rosenthal reported that some scouts compared his power to that of Marlins slugger Mike Stanton. While he was in the minors, Stanton’s power had a sort of folk legend status, and the young right-fielder has slugged .525 in his first 1,000 or so major league plate appearances, so it’s hard to overstate what high praise that is.

Of course, power isn’t very useful if a hitter’s contact and patience skills aren’t playable. It seems generally agreed-upon that Soler is still raw in those areas, and will need a lot of seasoning in the minor leagues to bring them up to speed. Since he’s only 19 years old, this makes him not much different from most high-ceiling hitting prospects that come from both the United States and elsewhere abroad, and similar to the sort of hitters that the Phillies have drafted over the years — Larry Greene being the most recent to come to mind. More than one source makes reference to Soler’s five-tool potential, though certain of these receive more press than others. Besides his power, his arm is apparently a standout asset, which, combined with evaluations of his fielding, causes many to suspect that he’ll move from center field to right field when he finds a landing spot in the United States. He possesses formidable speed, having been clocked by one scout at 4.26 seconds from home plate to first base, which is above average for a right-hander. Scouts seem to doubt that this will be enough to make him a significant base-stealing threat in the MLB, however.

Slotting Soler along with more well-understood prospects requires some guesswork. Kevin Goldstein was asked (many times) where Soler would rank among his top 100 prospects list, released this week, were he to include foreign talent. He placed Soler at 39, ahead of Padres catching prospect Yasmani Grandal and 13 spots ahead of the highest Phillie on his list, Trevor May. I asked Keith Law the same question in a recent chat, but he did not answer it. He did say that, were the Cubs to sign him, he would place Soler “ahead of [Brett] Jackson” at 89 but not ahead of Anthony Rizzo at 36, which leaves plenty to the imagination. Notably, though, Law also said that he would rather “roll the dice on Soler” than Cespedes, given the former’s age and what he’s heard from his sources. Regardless, there is plenty of the uncertainty that comes with any international prospect. Law has said several times that the level of competition in Cuban baseball is lower than that of single-A, but with a wider divide between the best and worst players, and Soler is certainly at or near the top of competition in that environment. As a 19 year old, rookie or single-A baseball is the most suitable home for him anyway at this point, but Soler will have to cope with not only a whole new field of competitive talent, but also the psychological burdens of a teenager moving to an entirely new country and making the necessary adaptations.

For the Phillies, Soler is a risk worth taking, both because of their financial situation and because Soler represents an immediate step towards relieving one of their more pressing problems — the farm system. With Domonic Brown having graduated from prospect status (albeit, in this metaphor, still living with his negligent parents) and the toll taken by last season’s trade for Hunter Pence, Keith Law understandably ranked Philadelphia’s organization in the bottom five in the MLB. As mentioned, Kevin Goldstein, for one, would rank Soler ahead of the Phillies’ highest-rated prospect, Trevor May. He also, incidentally, places Soler ten spots ahead of Jarred Cosart, the highest-rated of the Pence bounty. The Phillies will be patient with talents like May, Larry Greene, Jesse Biddle, and Sebastian Valle, but with some rule 4 draft changes looming that will restrict their ability to throw money around with U.S. amateurs, Soler represents a quick, easy boost to the farm system that could pay serious dividends in four or five years. Like the rest of the talent in the Phillies’ system, Soler is raw, but if the Mike Stanton comparisons are even remotely plausible, Citizens Bank Park would be a very cozy home for him.

This Phillies offseason has been understandably fairly quiet, outside of the early acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon. There was no real need for big ticket signings, given the roster’s composition. But, in addition to being a sound baseball move, signing Jorge Soler would carry a certain excitement with it, owing particularly to the Phillies’ historical reluctance to dabble in big money international signings. Several years down the road, when the roster will be thick with age and expense, the potential for a comparatively cheap young talent with team control is well worth a significant up-front investment, and the assumption of the risk that goes with it. Jim Salisbury reports that the Phillies are a “serious player” for Soler, having “remained in close contact with Soler and his agents since [he] defected.” Once the formalities associated with him attaining official free agent status are overcome, it may be only a short period of time before we know where he will land.

Talking Phillies on ESPN’s Baseball Today Podcast

I spoke with ESPN’s Eric Karabell (@karabellespn) — also the author of a Philadelphia-themed book involving a list of 100 — yesterday about the Phillies and “100 Things Phillies Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die“. You can click here to listen to it, or find it on iTunes.

Note: On Baseball Today, I said that Michael Martinez was in the infield when Roy Halladay threw his perfect game in 2010. I meant Juan Castro!

I will be on WRTI-FM today as well, though I am not aware of when my spot will air. This post will be updated when I find out.

Update: Here’s what WRTI-FM plans to do with the interview we taped today:

The plan right now is to do a feature on it.  We call it News and Views.  It will probably air closer to the start of baseball season […] last week of March or first week of April.  It’s essentially three two minute pieces that air throughout the day on our station and the whole thing will be on our website.

Which Phillies Storyline Are You Following?

Phillies baseball is on the horizon, as pitchers and catchers report on February 19 in Clearwater, Florida. Their arrival marks the official turning of the page after an ugly ending to the 2011 chapter, Ryan Howard slumped on the ground grabbing at his heel while the St. Louis Cardinals punched their NLCS ticket. With a fresh start, the Phillies will once again rely on a dominant starting rotation and a patchwork offense to navigate to the summit of the NL East. 2012 features a slew of interesting individual plot lines, each an important piece of the puzzle, one the Phillies hope has a lot in common with the puzzle from 2008. Which one will you be following?

Domonic Brown and the Forked Road

Last year, the sky was the limit for the young outfielder. Jayson Werth had vacated right field, leaving an obvious spot for the top prospect. However, the Phillies didn’t let him take a cut in the Majors until May 21. While he looked better than in 2010, he didn’t catch fire in the way Jason Heyward did with the Braves. By the end of July, Brown was back in the Minors. When rosters expanded in September, he was recalled, but had just one plate appearance in the final month.

Now, in 2012, Brown is expected to learn left field in the absence of Raul Ibanez. He will start the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley but GM Ruben Amaro said that a very productive spring training could be Brown’s ticket back to the Majors. Just two years ago, if you had said that Brown would be struggling to hold a job with the Phillies, many would have called you crazy. For those very reasons, the Phillies refused to include Brown in any trade, whether for Roy Halladay, or Cliff Lee, or Roy Oswalt. As cliche as it sounds, 2012 is absolutely a make-or-break year for Brown, and it starts in just a few days. His success or failure will tinge many of the transactions both large and small the Phillies have made in recent years.

The Return of Joe Blanton

Yes, Joe Blanton is still a Phillie, though perhaps not for long. The Phillies have made other teams aware of Blanton’s availability, but the right-hander enters spring training in red pinstripes. Blanton appeared in only 11 games last year (eight starts) due to an elbow injury. Once a #3, Blanton rounds out the rotation behind Vance Worley and is just a few bad starts from being nudged out by Kyle Kendrick. He has very little wiggle room, so he must prove he is both healthy and productive quickly. Blanton is in the last year of a three-year, $24 million contract, so the Phillies would prefer to recoup some value from the right-hander before his time is up.

The Twilight of Jim Thome‘s career

Thome took less than 1,600 trips to the plate as a Phillie, but he quickly became a legend in Philadelphia sports history. The Phillies signed Thome going into the last year in Veterans Stadium, signaling that ownership was serious about putting together a competitive team. Thome hit his 400th career home run at home on June 14, 2004 against Jose Acevedo of the Cincinnati Reds, a memory that ranks with the final out of the 2008 World Series, Ryan Howard’s Ruthian home run against Mike Mussina, and Jimmy Rollins‘ 20th triple on the last day of the 2007 regular season.

Now 41 years old and having spent almost all of his time since 2006 in the American League, Thome is expected to take the field at least once a week in the absence of Howard. No one knows, given his age, durability, and lack of fielding practice exactly how Thome will do upon his return to the National League, but all eyes will be watching, for sure. Now with 604 career home runs, eighth-best in baseball history, Thome needs five to tie Sammy Sosa and 26 to tie Ken Griffey, Jr. While the latter is highly unlikely, watching Thome inch his way further into the 600’s will be plenty entertaining.

The New Look Bullpen

The Phillies shopped for a bullpen at Tiffany’s, despite my insistence they instead browse around the thrift store. They signed Jonathan Papelbon (spurning Ryan Madson at the same time) to a four-year, $50 million contract, easily the most lucrative contract given to a reliever during the off-season. Dontrelle Willis and Chad Qualls were also added to provide veteran experience along with the recovering Jose Contreras. Although many young arms emerged last year (out of necessity), the Phillies felt more comfortable relying on experienced players than asking Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, and David Herndon to lead the way again.

Qualls had a shaky 2011 as his K/9 dropped from 7.5 to 5.2, perhaps a symptom of the comfort provided by Petco Park in San Diego. Qualls has great control and induces plenty of ground balls, so he fits in quite well as a middle reliever, assuming the declining K-rate was just a fluke. Meanwhile, Willis has had a very shaky past, but profiled well as a LOOGY in recent years. Facing nearly 150 left-handed batters in 2010-11, Willis posted a 2.32 xFIP against them in 2010 and 2.01 in 2011. It remains to be seen if manager Charlie Manuel will use Willis in this way, however.

The Cole Hamels Contract Situation

When we spoke of Hamels’ potential free agent eligibility prior to the end of the 2011 season, it was simply assumed that the Phillies and Hamels would agree to something rather quickly. The two sides still haven’t reached an agreement as the Phillies don’t want to offer Hamels more than five years and the Hamels’ camp feels the young lefty defies comparisons to pitchers who have signed more team-friendly deals such as Jered Weaver (five years, $85 million). As a beacon of youth on an otherwise old roster, retaining Hamels is key to the Phillies’ competitiveness in 2014 and beyond. Additionally, the Phillies’ best pitching prospect, Trevor May, has yet to throw above Single-A, so the reinforcements may not be coming from within. Once a goat, Hamels is beloved by the city of Philadelphia and fans would like nothing more than to see the drama of his potential free agency avoided.

Can Vance Worley Retain His Swag?

Worley was one of the more interesting players in baseball last year as a result of his deception. He had the most called strike threes in baseball last year, tied with teammate Cliff Lee (who had exactly twice as many total strikeouts) with 61. The charts below show the location of Worley’s called strikes by batter handedness.

There is no evidence that called strikes are meaningful, so it seems to be just an interesting statistical anomaly from the 2011 season. He posted an ERA 70 points below his SIERA, which tells us he isn’t likely to repeat that performance this season. However, he has built up a sizable fan base in his short career, so many are pulling for a repeat performance. Unfortunately, Worley has a lot more in common with J.A. Happ than a Cy Young candidate. Prolonged failure from Worley could mean more breathing room for Blanton or an opportunity for Kyle Kendrick.

Ryan Howard’s Recovery

It’s tough for any team to lose their cleanup hitter, but particularly so for the offensively-declining Phillies, who are trying to retain their dominance over the National League. They don’t have another hitter who slots into the #4 spot in the lineup as comfortably as The Big Piece did, nor do they have a prototypical first baseman. Rather, a combination of Ty Wigginton, Thome, and potentially John Mayberry will see time at first base as the Phillies bide their time until Howard’s return. Right now, a return after the All-Star break seems like a realistic goal, but the Phillies would be ecstatic if he beat the timetable a la Chase Utley.

Which story will you be following throughout the year? Let us know in the comments.

Crashburn Fantasy Baseball 2012 (Take Two)

The first attempt at setting up this new league didn’t go so well, as I left a logical hole in the process. Let’s make things super simple and easy this time. If you participated in last year’s league, there will be a couple key changes: 1) the league is moving over to ESPN, and 2) there will be a buy-in to create incentive to follow your team through to the end of the season. I quickly grew tired of finding people to take over abandoned teams in May.

Here is the link for the league if you’d like to check it out. A quick summary: 14-team mixed 5×5 standard roto. The draft will be held online on Sunday, April 1 at 7 PM ET. Don’t sign up if you know you can’t attend the draft.

The buy-in will be $20 via Paypal (obviously, no refunds). The winner will get two-thirds of the pool (less Paypal’s transaction fees) and the runner-up will get one-third, rounded to the nearest $5 or $10. I will be the only Crashburn representative playing, and if I earn a prize, I will donate 100 percent of it to a charity of my choice.

If you are interested in signing up, leave a valid email address with a comment below (put it in the email field, not in the message field, so it is hidden from the public and from spam bots). Those who participated in last year’s Yahoo! league will be given preference. If you were among them, list your team name from the league. Remaining players will be drawn from a hat or a random number generator. Once selected, you will have a week to pay the buy-in or your spot will be forfeited to someone else.

Depending on the level of interest, I may start another league. As the first league will be traditional, the second one would be a Saber-oriented league (OBP instead of AVG, for instance). If you’d prefer to play in the Saber league, note this in your comment. You may only play in one of the two leagues, so choose wisely.

Thanks for your patience. Next time, I’ll outsource the league setup as I’m quite bad at it.

UPDATE: I have created a Saber league. It is a 14-team mixed roto league using the following categories: OBP, SLG, net stolen bases, and RBI for hitters; quality starts, shut-outs, K/9, and saves for pitchers. The draft will be held at the same time as the other league: Sunday, April 1 at 7 PM ET.

UPDATE #2: Participants have been randomly selected, so check your email for notification. Please submit your $20 entry fee by Feb. 29 at 5 PM ET, otherwise you forfeit your seat. If you didn’t get an email, you weren’t selected.

The Outfield of the Future

Quick, name the five most valuable outfielders in the National League in 2011. Let’s see… Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Justin Upton… who else was in there? Would you believe Shane Victorino? That’s right, the Flyin’ Hawaiian, if you don’t remember, was a legitimate NL MVP candidate through August last year. The Rule-5 pick finished with 5.9 fWAR, fourth-best in the league, despite missing 27 games due to a thigh strain and a thumb sprain.

The chatter throughout the off-season centered on the Ryan Madson and Jonathan Papelbon situation, as well as the still-unfinished Cole Hamels contract issue. Perhaps just as importantly, 2012 could be Shane Victorino’s last year in Philadelphia. The center fielder, now 31 years old, will earn $9.5 million this year in the last year of a three-year, $22 million contract. Since becoming a Phillie in 2005, Victorino emerged from a bit player to a two-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner, providing value in all facets of the game. His bat was vital in the 2008 NLCS as the Phillies trampled through October competition en route to their first championship since 1980 and he became a premier base runner under the tutelage of former first base coach Davey Lopes.

PECOTA expects Victorino to regress in 2012. Victorino projects to go from a .301 true average (TAv, where .260 is the baseline) to .276. In terms of WARP (the Baseball Prospectus version of WAR), Victorino projects below 3 WARP each. That isn’t bad by any means, but it’s not at the 2011 echelon. Despite the drop-off in production, though, Victorino is far better than any other options the Phillies have.

In the event Victorino is unable to be signed to a contract extension, the Phillies will have to pick from players currently with the organization such as Domonic Brown (presently learning to play left field), John Mayberry, and Tyson Gillies (who played in just three games last year). Otherwise, the Phillies would be forced to draw from an uninspiring free agent class with B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn at the top, or acquire an outfielder via trade, something that will be difficult to do with the 25th-best farm system according to ESPN’s Keith Law.

Logically speaking, it is just as important for the Phillies to retain Victorino. Roy Halladay is under contract through at least 2013 and most likely ’14 as well, while Cliff Lee will be around through at least 2015. With an easier ability to patch the back of the rotation via free agency and minor trades, as well as the emergence of Vance Worley and the expected emergence of prospect Trevor May, the starting rotation is less of a priority. Of course, there is some risk involved with Halladay and Lee that is much less present with Hamels as mentioned here.

That is not to say that these issues are mutually exclusive. The Phillies have $108 million on the books for the 2013 season according to Cot’s Contracts, so they could certainly fit in $20 million for Hamels and $15 million for Victorino without hamstringing themselves in other areas. However, it does illustrate that the one issue that seems to be overlooked is the potential changing of the guard in the outfield — it is a very big deal, and something that will have a profound effect on the Phillies’ competitiveness as their so-called window shrinks.

Guest Post: Expensive Outs: Why Paying a Premium for Papelbon Doesn’t Make Sense

Tom Holzerman (or TH, if you will) is a wrestling blogger found at a few sites on the web, most prominently at his site, The Wrestling Blog. He also has some things to say about other topics, baseball being one of them. If you have any feedback, questions or angry missives, send them to his Twitter, @tholzerman.

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, it’s time for a little bit of cost analysis. We’ll be looking at two pitchers, both who are contracted to the Philadelphia Phillies for the 2012 season, but who serve far different roles. In one corner, we have Harry Leroy Halladay III, the indomitable ace, fantasy zoo companion and rock upon which the starting rotation is built. The workhorse of the rotation signed a contract that was valid from the start of this past season until the end of the 2013 season with a vesting option for 2014. For all intents and purposes though, we’ll only count the guaranteed years, which are worth in aggregate of $60 million. In the other corner, it’s recent Bostonian import and new closer Jonathan Papelbon. This past offseason, he signed a four year contract worth $50 million.

On the surface, the Phillies now have two of the elite pitchers in the league at the same absolute dollar amount. If anything, Papelbon, who right now is at the very least the second best closer in the game after Mariano Rivera, has been gotten more cheaply than Halladay, not only in total, in average as well. Papelbon’s $50 million is spread out over four years instead of three. That would be fine and good if both pitchers had similar roles in the game, which they clearly do not. As established before, Papelbon is a closer, Halladay a starter. Closers pitch in one inning per game on average, whereas a top line starter like Halladay will average seven with a healthy sprinkling of complete games mixed into his season. With that knowledge presented, the amount of innings that Halladay will pitch over the length of his contract, even with the year of shortfall compared to Papelbon, will dwarf his 9th inning counterpart.

Over his career, Halladay’s full season average for innings pitched stands at 240, while Papelbon’s is at 66. Assuming those averages stand for the entire lengths of each pitcher’s contract (and yes, I’m aware that Halladay already pitched a season of his contract, but just bear with me here), the cost per out for each pitcher stands at about $27,000 for Halladay compared to $63,000 for Papelbon. Papelbon’s individual outs more than double Halladay’s. To put things in perspective, the average per capita income for Philadelphia County is a shade over $16,500.

That, of course, operates under the assumption that every out in a baseball game is equal. From a cold, hard statistical standpoint, yes, that ends up averaging out to be true over the long haul, but there are situations where some outs are probably worth more. For example, getting Matt Kemp out is definitely a tougher task than Yuniesky Betancourt. That being said, over the long haul, both Halladay and Papelbon will more than likely have relatively equal distributions of how hard their outs are per inning pitched, so it feels moot. Arguing from an intangible standpoint, there does seem to be a lot more pressure in the 9th inning. Even though there are plenty of arguments that suggest this is a myth, let’s pretend the closer mentality is real.

Papelbon will undoubtedly pitch more 9th innings than Halladay, but he’ll do so with a whole game’s rest. Halladay completes an above average number of games per season; in the last five years, he’s averaged over 8. He obviously enters the game in similar situations, where the game is still pretty close (in blowouts either way, he’s probably out of the game for someone mopping it up for him), with the added strain of having recorded 8 innings worth of outs. Even though Papelbon will have worked on average five to six times more 9th innings than Halladay would have, Halladay’s final frames would almost invariably have a far greater degree of difficulty because of arm strain and fatigue. That gives a little perspective into how “elite” a closer can seem in the face of a real elite pitcher.

So, with that all being presented, maybe all outs should cost the same. If that’s the case, then what should an out cost? If they all cost what the Phillies were paying Halladay, then Papelbon’s contract would be slashed from the $50 million down to $21.3 million. If every out was valued at Papelbon’s costs, then Halladay’s contract balloons up to $136.1 million, the average value of which would make him the highest paid player in the league by far and more expensive than some teams’ entire payrolls. The most galling thing is this is only comparing the elite level of pitchers. My guess is if we compared the lower tiers, the costs would become even more outrageous.

This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten on my horse to decry the overvaluing of the closer position, but at the same time, when the Phillies are going to have to pay valuable dollars to players who’ll have more total value to the team than Papelbon like Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels and Hunter Pence, and when they have holes in the lineup at positions like left field and first base, it just looks silly that there’s so much money tied up into a guy who impacts less than five percent of the regular season. If Hamels ends up in Yankee pinstripes, or the Phillies have the ultimatum in front of them of whether they keep Pence or Victorino in future offseasons, the blame can be placed almost solely on the rash spending on what is a luxury position.

Ed. Note: Thanks to Thomas for the guest post. Check out his blog The Wrestling Blog as well as his Twitter, @tholzerman.

Welcome Back, PECOTA

After much anticipation, Baseball Prospectus released the 2012 edition of their PECOTA projections yesterday. Fans might be surprised with the rather pessimistic projections for the Phillies going into the season. With three players finishing with 3 WARP or better (four if you round Chase Utley up from 2.9), only one projects to do so in 2012 (Utley, 4.6). Five hitters project to be above the .260 true average (TAv) median, but only two are significantly above that mark (Utley, .299; Hunter Pence, .287). We have seen the Phillies transition from an offensive juggernaut in 2007 to a pitching-and-defense focused team starting in 2010, and that will continue to be the case going into this season.

The most surprising projection, though, involves Domonic Brown. Once a top prospect, his future with the Phillies is shrouded in question marks, but PECOTA foresees him posting a .271 TAv and 1.4 WARP. While that is not amazing, it is better than all of the other options the Phillies have in left field. John Mayberry isn’t far behind at .270 TAv and 1.4 WARP as well.

The other left field options are Laynce Nix (.263, 0.3), Ty Wigginton (.257, -0.1), and Juan Pierre (.237, -0.2). Nix hits right-handed pitching significantly better than left-handed pitching, while Wigginton and Pierre don’t show much of a platoon split. The jury is still out on Brown, but in his 280 career MLB plate appearances, he has shown as vast a platoon split as Nix despite being lauded for his ability to handle left-handed pitching in the Minors.

Is it worth keeping Brown in the Minors just to learn how to play left field better — he has nothing more to gain from hitting sub-standard pitching in Triple-A — at the expense of reducing Brown’s trade value and losing his production in left field? Brown is unarguably better than Nix in all facets of the game, and exponentially better than Wigginton and Pierre would be in the same role. Even if the Phillies platooned Brown with Mayberry, their production in left field would be better than it has been since Raul Ibanez in the first half of the 2009 season.

Ruben Amaro said that, unless Brown had an amazing spring training, the left fielder would start the season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. The Brown situation has been a subject of much debate, but it is evident that the Phillies would be much better off breaking camp with Brown in left field, even in a platoon.

On Actually Getting Excited for Pitchers and Catchers

Winter is always tough for me. I feed on sports discourse the way a tree feeds on sunlight–I need lots of it, all the time, or else I shrivel up and die. This might why I have the ESPN app on my phone sending me score updates for 17 teams across five sports, plus a racing driver. During baseball season, the Phillies (and, in passing, the South Carolina Gamecocks) are enough to keep me going because baseball is the sport I know and care most about. I certainly give the Stanley Cup playoffs their due attention, and if  there’s an Olympics or a World Cup to fill the dull hours, so much the better. Once the World Series is over, there’s Hot Stove discussion, plus the best part of college football season and the part of the Premiership season before Arsenal drops out of the title race, to keep the sports juices going.

But after the New Year, things get grim. Particularly in a year when the soccer team you follow is suffering its worst season in more than a decade, and the mention of the club’s best player and the historic season he’s having elicits not joy but soul-crushing depression at the knowledge that he’ll leave for Manchester City or Barcelona in the summer. Just like all the best Arsenal players do. Sure, the Sixers are on a nice run, and I love hockey, but without baseball, it’s not enough. This is the time of year where I try to psych myself into caring about the effect of the near-ubiquitous duckbill nose in the coming Formula 1 season. Early February is a rough time for me.

Which brings me to my point: all winter long, people I follow on Twitter (mostly women, for whatever reason, though that might just be a product of who I follow and is not meant to convey any sort of commentary on gender politics in modern sports fanhood) have been counting down to the start of spring training. “93 days until pitchers and catchers!” they said, back when that distance was so great as to be depressing. Now we’re within two weeks of that blessed day: “pitchers and catchers.” And I cannot bring myself to get excited about it. At all.

It seems like we fetishize training camp in baseball more than in other sports. I love soccer and hockey, but I have no idea when Arsenal starts their summer workout regimen, or even when they start playing exhibition games. The same for the Flyers–I went to a preseason game this past fall, but I have no memory of what month that game took place, even though Tom Sestito’s brutal, if massively illegal, hit on Ranger center Andre “Bel Biv” Deveaux was one of the highlights of my sporting 2011. No sport except for football, which magnifies and fetishizes everything, places such stock in its preseason. I think the name “pitchers and catchers” is part of the problem. It sounds cool and somehow in-the-know to say “pitchers and catchers,” I think, so we do it.

There’s also something to spring training marking the beginning of, you know, spring. Baseball is, perhaps more tied to the seasons than any other popular American game. Football has been played professionally in the United States in spring, summer, and fall. Basketball, a largely indoor undertaking, is almost devoid of seasonal or meteorological context, and ice hockey, for all the nostalgia about skating on frozen lakes with your buddies, in 2004 crowned its champion in June, in Florida, and holds its world championships in the summer. As for soccer, most of the world’s leagues play roughly a basketball schedule, August to May, while in the United States, Russia, and Scandinavia, the game runs through the summer.

So much for seasonal context.

But in baseball, weather and history dictate that we have “spring training,” the “boys of summer,” and the “fall classic.” The start of baseball, more than the equinox or warm weather, marks the start of spring, a sentiment captured by the poet Donald Hall. It’s beautiful stuff, and I appreciate that. I get that the trip down to Clearwater makes a nice spring vacation, and an opportunity to see the stars in a closer and more relaxed environment than you might find during a regular season game. At least I’d hope so, because if it weren’t a great baseball trip there’d be no rational reason to get that close to Tampa. I just don’t get the hysteria over practice. Not a game. Practice.

“Pitchers and catchers” makes for a nice temporal landmark, but from a baseball perspective, doesn’t mean anything. The entire team doesn’t even work out together for a full week after pitchers and catchers report, and doesn’t play an exhibition game until a week after that. Everyone’s been counting down to wind sprints, long toss, and weightlifting. They’ve been doing this all winter, folks. The only difference is that they’ll have called each other before coming to work and decided to all dress alike. Even if they wanted to play a game, they’d be seven guys short.

Then spring training games start, and after a couple days of watching Matt Rizzotti mash meaningless taters, we start to get down to business. Then we get to see who might be on form for the coming season, who’s developed a new pitch or altered his swing, and which unknown is set to make the leap and contribute in a big way. To say nothing of the return of Jim Thome and the first look at Jonathan Papelbon. That time, around the second week of March, is when I start getting excited about baseball–when something worth talking about happens.

Of course, if you do get all worked up for pitchers and catchers, more power to you. I certainly don’t think getting excited for preseason workouts is stupid or anything, and I’ll certainly be paying attention when it happens. It’s just hard to work up the enthusiasm, even for a deranged sports addict like me.

Halladay and Lee Through a Santana Prism

Aaron Gleeman, of his self-titled website and Hardball Talk and Rotoworld fame, has a guest column up at Baseball Prospectus today. As a Twins fan, he looks back on the Johan Santana trade that sent the then-premier southpaw to the New York Mets in exchange for a handful of prospects including Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Kevin Mulvey, and Philip Humber. Gleeman wrote:

There’s a tendency to declare an immediate “winner” in every trade, and even when taking a long-term view of a blockbuster deal involving a superstar in his prime being swapped for a multi-prospect package, it’s usually fairly easy to determine who benefited most. When it comes to this trade, however, the question is more like who suffered least. And even that’s tough to say, because everyone involved went bust.

Four years into their six-year, $137.5 million investment in Santana, the Mets have gotten just 88 starts of ace-caliber pitching and an uncertain future. And for their in-his-prime ace, the Twins ended up with 1.5 seasons of a replacement-level Gomez and a year of Hardy that they later squandered, 1.5 seasons of Rauch by way of Mulvey, nothing from Humber, and whatever hope still remains that Guerra can turn into a useful reliever.

Naturally, I thought about the recent trades the Phillies have made to acquire Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee (the first time), and Roy Oswalt. In all three transactions, the Phillies held on to their jewel, outfielder Domonic Brown. For Halladay, though, the Phillies relinquished Travis d’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, and Michael Taylor. Taylor was quickly flipped to the Oakland Athletics for Brett Wallace, who was later traded to the Houston Astros. Drabek had a forgettable start to his Major League career, posting a 6.06 ERA in 157 innings last year. d’Arnaud, however, ranked as one the Jays’ #1 prospect, a five-star player, according to Kevin Goldstein of BPro. About d’Arnaud, Goldstein wrote:

The Good: d’Arnaud has all the tools to be a star player. He has a quick bat, outstanding hand-eye coordination, the ability to hit .280-.300, and the strength to add 25-plus home runs annually. He’s very athletic for a catcher with a plus arm, and he moves well behind the plate. He is a 40 runner.

The Bad: d’Arnaud has the potential to be a plus defender, but he still needs to improve his receiving skills and the quickness of his release. He’s made some strides in his plate discipline, but it could still use refinement.

The Phillies acquired Lee from the Cleveland Indians for four prospects: pitchers Jason Knapp and Carlos Carrasco, infielder Jason Donald, and catcher Lou Marson. Carrasco has been more or less replacement-level in his 192 big-league innings while Knapp accrued only 28 innings in 2010 and missed all of 2011, causing him to be left out of Goldstein’s rankings for Indians prospects. Donald posted decent numbers in 143 plate appearances last year, but it was fueled by an unsustainable .423 BABIP and he has no other skills aside from making contact. Marson was slightly above replacement-level but only because he played decent defense — his .271 wOBA was less than acceptable.

Finally, Oswalt came to the Phillies from the Houston Astros for lefty starter J.A. Happ, shortstop Jonathan Villar, and outfielder Anthony Gose. The Astros sent Gose to the Jays for first baseman Brett Wallace, a deal that has thus far worked out well for them. In 385 innings with the ‘stros, Happ has been awful, posting a 5.05 ERA. Villar showed improvement with Single-A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi, earning him a #5 spot on Goldstein’s Astros prospect rankings. Goldstein wrote about Villar:

The Good: There are top-100 prospects who don’t have Villar’s upside, but he’s very far from it. He’s a 60-65 runner, good for 30-plus stolen bases, plus range at shortstop, and a very strong arm. He added a power element to his game in 2011 with 14 home runs, and has at least average raw power.

The Bad: Villar’s game might be best described as “out of control.” His newfound power led to plenty of bad habits at the plate; he became pull-conscious, adding to a strikeout rate that was already a considerable concern. He also has a history of making weak contact. As capable as he is of spectacular plays at shortstop, he’s just as likely to boot a routine play, and scouts question his concentration on both sides of the ball.

It’s safe to say that, so far, the Phillies look like bandits with these trades. Only one player has the potential to provide any real surplus value (d’Arnaud) while most of the others have floundered. The Phillies got three aces in their own right: Lee led the Phillies to the 2009 World Series and then was used to bring three prospects to Philadelphia in a trade with the Seattle Mariners (pitchers Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez, and outfielder Tyson Gillies); Halladay was the ace of the 2010-11 rotations, tossing both a perfect game and a post-season no-hitter in 2010; and Oswalt was by far the best #3 starter in baseball for the Phillies in 2010-11.

It makes one wonder, though, given Santana’s fall from grace. In 2008, Santana posted a 2.53 ERA in 34 starts and finished third in Cy Young voting. The next year, he made 25 starts with a 3.13 ERA. In 2010, he made 29 starts with a 2.98 ERA. And then… nothing. Santana missed all of 2011 with a left shoulder injury and portends to miss at least the start of the 2012 season. The Mets still owe Santana $55 million and paid him $22.5 million last year for exactly zero innings. Needless to say, it is an albatross of a contract and, given the recent financial issues surrounding the Mets franchise, a heavy burden.

While the Phillies have most likely seen the last of Oswalt, they still owe Halladay at least $40 million through 2013 (and his 2014 $20 million option is guaranteed with good health). Lee is owed at least $109 million through 2015 (includes a $12.5 million buyout for 2016). Halladay and Lee could just as easily succumb to a career-threatening or even career-ending injury. Given that the two were acquired strictly for the purposes of winning a World Series, an unapproached goal as of now, such a scenario would crush the Phillies. Remember, Santana was 32 last year; Lee was 32 as well and Halladay was 34. Fortunately, both pitchers have steered clear of arm injuries over the past five years, something Santana did not do prior to 2010.

In their respective two years with the Phillies, Halladay and Lee have been nothing short of terrific. However, the Santana case shows just how a trade that looks fantastic at the time can go sour very quickly. Such is the risk teams take when they go into “win now” mode.