Crash Bag, Vol. 10: I Will Sign Cody Ross

One of my favorite lines ever written about baseball came from Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan, who several years ago wrote a quick-hit spring training preview with one question for each of the 30 teams heading into the preseason. This was the year Andruw Jones and Juan Pierre were teammates on the Dodgers, Pierre as he was starting his career as the scrappy journeyman out machine, and Jones coming off a three-year stretch where he parlayed a three-year span of hitting 118 home runs and a reputation as the greatest defensive center fielder ever into a two-year contract with Los Angeles that would see him nearly eat his way out of baseball.

Anyway, Passan wanted to know something along the lines of “Can Juan Pierre throw a baseball farther than Andruw Jones can throw Juan Pierre?”

That got me thinking–how bad is Juan Pierre’s arm really? Like, can a normal person throw a baseball harder than he can? My brother is a college senior who pitched in high school but hasn’t played organized baseball in years. When he was 14 or 15, he hit 70 on a radar gun, and it’s fair to assume that he got stronger since then. He was never even “he’s going to play in college” good, but let’s say he topped out in the mid-to-high 70s by the time he was a junior or a senior.

Now, when you see a position player pitch, usually he gets up around 90, and these are guys with good throwing arms, like Wilson Valdez. Pierre is famous for his lack of arm strength. Can we say that he throws 15 miles an hour slower than Exxon? I think that’s plausible. I know it’s just one tool, and Pierre is faster than and makes more contact than the vast majority of the American population. But he’s in his 13th major league season, and I’d bet that if you took 100 varsity high school baseball players from around the country, about half would be able to beat him on the radar gun.

Like most of what I write, I’m not sure what the larger point is. But if someone can track Pierre with a radar gun and get me the number, I’d be curious to see how he stacks up against your average high school pitcher.

@SkirkMcGuirk: “Is this year like the ’79 Phils (bad season in an otherwise great era) or the ’96 Phils (first of many disappointments)?”

This is an excellent question, Skirk, and it depends on what kind of moves are made in the offseason. I don’t know that either is the perfect comparison, because the Phillies weren’t anywhere near this bad in 1979, and they weren’t coming off this good a run in 1996. Plus, 1979 was sort of fluky. They on 84 games that year and won 92 games and the World Series the next year with almost exactly the same lineup and pitching staff. I like 1996 a little bit better because it carried a similar realization that the players that won the Phillies the pennant a couple years earlier were older and not all that good anymore.

But I’d liken this season to 1984 more than anything else. Coming off a season in which they added another No. 1 starter and did quite well with an extremely old roster (Cliff Lee is John Denny in this metaphor), the Phillies paid the price for their lack of youth the following season, as the Wheeze Kids dropped to .500. Like this team, those Phillies were built on a philosophy of getting guys who were good five or ten years ago, or at least I assume they were, because I can’t think of another good reason to go into the mid-1980s with two key pitchers also having been key pitchers on the 1969 Miracle Mets.

Anyway, after that season, they stumbled around .500 for a couple years, then went into a swoon that, save for the aberrant 1993 season, continued until they finished second in 2001, starting their current run of success.

But I realize that that’s not what you’re asking. Is this bad season a one-off, or is it the beginning of the end? I think 2013 is going to be a rough year, but it really depends on how the Phillies handle some really tough decisions about Cole Hamels and Domonic Brown now, and Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz and Roy Halladay in a couple of years. Beyond that, it’s up to things that not even Ruben Amaro can control.

@TonyMcIV: “Who gave Bill his Twitter skills? & If The Phils sign Coal Hammels what hope is there for bullpen help?”

I wasn’t aware Bill had Twitter skills.

And if the Phillies pass on Cole Hamels as a free agent and spend $20 million shoring up the middle relief, I’m going to sell all my worldly possessions, move to Croatia and start a farm, where I’ll raise something ridiculous, like peanuts or reindeer. And I’ll never think about baseball again. I hear Dubrovnik is lovely this time of year. A quick stop off on Wikipedia says Croatian olive oil is a major export. That sounds wonderful. I think I might become a Croatian olive farmer even if the Phillies do get better.

@PhreshPhillies: “If you had to take a random guess right now, who are the starting outfielders in 2013?”

Tom Waits, Jens Voigt and Robinson Cano. First three names that popped into my head.

Though I don’t think you meant random like that, so I’ll give you a couple different answers.

The best-case scenario is, well, if I’m honest, probably something like Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Jason Heyward, though I don’t think I see that one coming off. So the outfield I’d like to see the most is Domonic Brown, Tyson Gillies and Nick Swisher. Nick the Swish is a free agent this offseason and, while expensive, will get on base and hit for some power from both sides of the plate. Gillies is a reach, but this is my best-case scenario, so he rakes for the rest of the season and in spring training, then is not completely abysmal as a rookie center fielder. And frankly, if not for a run of bad fortune and personal oppression by the fates the likes of which we haven’t seen since the book of Job, Domonic Brown would have been starting in an outfield corner two years ago. Here’s hoping Brown’s story ends as happily as Job’s did. Note: this scenario involves trading Victorino and Pence, so if one of them nets a decent young center fielder, you could plug him in instead of Gillies.

The worst-case scenario is probably John Mayberry, Josh Hamilton and Hunter Pence. That would mean that 1) the Phillies spent as much on Hamilton as they would have on Hamels and didn’t get Hamels. Hamilton’s great now, but if you believe he’s suddenly going to start not being hurt all the time at age 32, and you believe that strongly enough to give him, say, the Matt Kemp contract, I really don’t know what to say to you. Retaining Mayberry means that the Phillies have not only continued to bury Brown but that they’ve failed to come up with a better option than a 29-year-old corner outfielder with a career .306 OBP. And finally, retaining Pence means that the Phillies feel strongly that he’s their best right field option going forward, enough to give him $14 or $15 million a year.

A more likely scenario probably involves Brown and Pence in the corners with either some scrub free agent in center if they re-sign Cole Hamels, or a massively overpaid average to above-average center fielder if they don’t. I’m thinking Michael Bourn, Melky Cabrera or B.J. Upton. I’m fairly confident the Phillies are going to screw this up expensively, if not massively.

@uublog: “You go back in time and add or eliminate one transaction. What do you do and how does it change the team now and in the future?”

I’m not taking the bait and drafting Jackie Bradley Jr. over Larry Greene.

I know this is the easy answer, but I’d can the Howard contract. With that money, the Phillies could have been major players for either Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder last offseason, both of whom are signed to expensive deals that will extend far past their usefulness, but both are as good at the plate as Howard is being paid to be right now. Or they could have taken that money and extended Cole Hamels. Depending on when that extension gets done, they’d have had enough money left over to go get another useful free agent. When it was signed, I didn’t grasp how awful the deal was, and on how many levels. I curse myself for my shortsightedness.

Or. I could go back to 2008 and hire a different GM when Pat Gillick retired. That’s a much better idea.

@bxe1234: “If you were a GM, what’s the first thing you’d do to make us hate you? Cause we will eventually. Just curious about your opener”

Am I just going about my business, or am I specifically out to troll you? Because if I were out to troll you, I’d sign Cody Ross and start him in center field next season.

But if I were being serious…actually, you know what, I am serious. Cody Ross isn’t a bad one-year option of the Phillies trade Pence and Victorino and Tyson Gillies isn’t ready in center. I’d be totally okay rolling him out for 500 plate appearances in center, and I’d want to punch him in the noggin every time he came to the plate.

So it’d either be that or building that time machine to go back and draft Jackie Bradley.

@CitizensBankers: “Higgs Boson: go.”

Apparently it’s a big deal. I gotta admit, my knowledge of anything smaller than an electron is almost nothing. And frankly, I don’t care one bit how the universe was created and how it’s held together. Not that it’s not important, but I’m a writer, not a theoretical physicist. But it’s cool that someone let scientists build something as big as the LHC for no purpose other than to advance knowledge. I think we could use another national science and engineering project on the level of the Apollo missions–where we set out to do and learn something just because we can. Put a man on Mars, maybe, or explore the bottom of the ocean. I think what they’ve done at CERN is important, even if I’m not particularly interested in the details. If Europe’s top scientific minds say they’ve found the God particle, I’m willing to take them at their word.

Now if the Higgs Boson can play third base, then you’ve got my attention.

@MitchGoldich: “Am I crazy for thinking the #Phillies should move Utley to LF next year to prolong his career? Puts Galvis at 2B in non-premium offensive position. Do it in 13 to determine proper value of Utley’s next contract.”

I hate to say this, but yes. You are crazy for thinking that.

Galvis is a great defensive second baseman, by all indications. Considering that, maybe the Phillies should move Utley to a less-demanding position in order to save his ailing joints. Seems reasonable off the bat. However, five considerations make that a bad idea.

First, Galvis might be a great defensive second baseman, but he’s a terrible, terrible hitter. Granted, these numbers come from a portion of a rookie season, but a .266 wOBA is not exactly a ringing endorsement of his ability to produce even the scintilla of offense needed to justify putting his glove in the field. The Marlins went through this recently with a third base prospect named Matt Dominguez, whose glove, it is said, is every bit as good as Ryan Zimmerman‘s or Evan Longoria‘s, but whose bat never developed. Before they signed Jose Reyes and moved Hanley Ramirez to third base, the Marlins planned to slot Dominguez in at that position, but Dominguez couldn’t even hit AAA pitching, and so he was shipped off to Houston for Carlos Lee. I don’t think Galvis is that bad, but Dominguez provides a cautionary tale.

Second, we don’t know if Galvis’s back is going to take anything off his game going forward. If he can’t move as well as he could before the injury, he goes from being unbelievably good with the glove to being merely good, and there’s no excuse to put him in the lineup at all, much less move Utley.

Third, Galvis might be a great defensive second baseman, but so is Utley. He’s been the best defensive second baseman in the game for ages, and even as his joints fail him and he slips, his glove will never be bad enough to make up the gap in hitting ability between him and Galvis.

Fourth, I’m not convinced a move to left field does a whole lot for Utley. Maybe it’s a little less demanding physically, but his bat doesn’t look nearly as good in a corner outfield spot as it does at second base. Instead of playing at a position where the best offensive players are Dan Uggla and Ian Kinsler, Utley would have to keep up with Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton, Justin Upton and average corner outfielders like Nick Swisher. Utley can play second, so let’s keep his bat there if we can. It’s easier to find a left fielder who can hit better than Galvis than it is to find a second baseman who can hit better than Utley.

Fifth, are we totally giving up on Domonic Brown now? I hope not.

@SpikeEskin: “could you come up with a similar baseball situation to Spencer Hawes playing power foward for the Sixers instead of center?”

Playing Juan Pierre in left field over Domonic Brown. Though worse than that is signing Kwame Brown to a multi-year deal to do anything.

@ETDWN: “Along the lines of Crashburn writers as House characters, what about Crashburn writers as characters from The Wire?”

I can’t do that for three reasons. Apparently talking about The Wire is a Bill Simmons staple, and some of the readers get their panties in a bunch whenever something I write resembles something Simmons could have written. Second, describing the five of us seems a little grandiose and needlessly self-referential. And third, I’m only up to Season 4, so I don’t have the whole series’ worth of perspective on these characters. Sorry.

(But since you asked, Bill: Avon; Bradley: Sydnor; Paul: Daniels; Ryan: McNulty; and me as Stringer. I’ll let you try to figure out why on your own.)

One last note on The Wire. All due respect to President Obama, anyone who thinks Omar is a better character than Stringer had better let me take a hit of whatever you’re smoking, because that must be some powerful stuff. I marvel at the creativity it took to create a character like Omar, but he’s a cartoon. Just because he carries a sawed-off shotgun and delivers pithy lines doesn’t make him a good character. Stringer’s actually human, and exhibits a depth of feeling and a totally believable and fascinating set of conflicting motivations the likes of which you rarely see in fiction of any kind, much less television. Omar’s more fun, but Stringer’s the better character.

@gvntofly1021: “Current Phillies as beer.”

Heineken. Everyone thinks it’s really good, but it’s nothing more than really expensive pisswater.

@DashTreyhorn: “Phillies players as Game of Thrones characters. Go.”

Getting awfully pushy there, buddy.

A couple people responded to Dash with pretty good answers, so I’ll just repeat those here:

@TurtleZoot: “Hunter Pence is Hodor…:P” and “Halladay is Ned Stark. That MIGHT not be a good thing though…;)”

Emoticons alike, I like both of those: Hunter Pence is really big, doesn’t seem particularly bright and has done a lot of heavy lifting. Halladay is trying in vain to save the kingdom, but is taken out of commission early. Plus he’s the biggest star on the show.

@FanSince09: “Hammels is Renley”

I know why he said this, but I like Hamels as the ambitious but largely benign contender for the throne. When it was clear that Westeros was going to descend into civil war, I was rooting for Renley to win and for Robb to continue as King in the North. Let’s do a few others, quickly.

  • Carlos Ruiz: Arya Stark. Just sort of generally small, entertaining and a bigger player than anyone around realizes.
  • Ryan Howard: Robb Stark. Immensely likable, might be tasked with taking on a bigger role than he’s capable of.
  • Placido Polanco: Littlefinger (in this case, his fingers are only little compared to his head)
  • Michael Martinez: Sansa Stark. I turn on every Phillies game hoping that Joffrey has finally lost his tenuous grasp on his sanity and beheaded Mini-Mart.
  • Jonathan Papelbon: Daenerys Targaryen. Please. Just go away and shut up about your goddamn dragons.
  • Jayson Werth as Khal Drogo. Come back to us, enormous bearded awesome man.
  • Jimmy Rollins: Jamie Lannister. The smooth talker. No word on J-Roll’s sister, however.
  • Chase Utley: Tyrion Lannister. Things just seem better when he’s around.

Oh, and if you haven’t listened to The National’s version of “The Rains of Castamere,” do that at your earliest convenience. It’s really good.

@Estebomb: “Is there any way to trap Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick in the secret government warehouse from Indiana Jones?”

Yes. I like this idea. In fact, I’ve found that watching a Kyle Kendrick start is much like opening the ark of the covenant–it’s about as unpleasant as being in a room full of Nazis and then having your face melted off. Which, coincidentally, is nowhere near as unpleasant as Temple of Doom.

I’ve found that the only solution is to close your eyes, and when you open them again you’ll be wearing an awesome hat and live happily ever after with the young Karen Allen. Which isn’t a bad way to go out at all.

Speaking of going out, I’ve got to dial up that time machine we were talking about and set up an appointment with 1981-vintage Karen Allen. The Crash Bag will return next week, assuming I’ve made it back to the present by then.

When Being Bad is Good

As the Phillies tumble end-over-end into the second half of the season (yes, I know, the All-Star Break isn’t the literal midway point, but by custom we start the second half today), they’re faced with an unfamiliar situation. The Phillies are out of it. Even with the second Wild Card spot is almost certainly out of reach, to say nothing of the division. Even considering that Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are  getting most the at-bats once earmarked for Ty Wigginton and Freddy Galvis (he of perhaps the most popular .266 wOBA of all time), and even considering that Roy Halladay is nearing his return, this deficit is too great to overcome.

This is beyond the point where a bench bat or a reliever can put them over the top. There are 16 games left for the Phillies before the trade deadline, and in order to even be at .500 come July 31, they need to go 15-1 over that stretch, something they haven’t done since September 2010. So even if they replicate the hottest stretch of a team that finished with the best record in baseball, the Phillies are still quite likely screwed. I’ll put that in stone. If I’m wrong, please dig this post up and wave it in my face, shouting “neener neener neener” all you like. I will be too deliriously happy to care.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, yes, it’s a bad thing that the Phillies aren’t going to make the playoffs. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the world and, in fact, this could be the wake-up call that helps the front office reevaluate the way it constructs a roster. It’s grasping at straws, I’ll grant you, but we need something to make ourselves feel better.

So here are some ways the Phillies’ first-half swoon could actually help the team.

It gives the Phillies more options on Cole Hamels

If the Phillies were, say a game or two out of first, trading Hamels would be out of the question. But with no playoff run at stake, they can entertain offers on their best pitcher this season. If anything, the injury to Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee‘s bizarre run of bad luck illustrate how important Hamels is to this team, and maybe that gives the Phillies an incentive to sign him. Or maybe just not having to rely on him this season gives the Phillies a chance to nab a top prospect from a team that could use a No. 1 starter to lean on. Either way, a trade (which was always a better option than taking a draft pick) is now on the table, and Ruben Amaro and his men will decide Hamels’ fate not on the basis of what’s best for the team for the next two months, but what’s best for the team in 2013 and beyond, which I like.

The draft

The Phillies are currently sitting at 37-50, a .425 winning percentage. Last season, a .425 winning percentage would have put the Phillies fourth in the draft order. Assuming some things even out and they do better in the second half than the first, they should still finish with a record worthy of a pick in the top 10. To give you an idea of how long it’s been since the Phillies picked that high: the last player they took in the first 10 picks was Gavin Floyd, No. 4 overall, in 2001. That’s great, because it means the Phillies have been winning a lot, but it’s also (apart from the team’s insistence on drafting toolsy high school players  early, rather than players who are actually, you know, good at baseball, then when they pan out, trading them for Hunter Pence) one of the reasons the farm system has suffered in recent years.

Having a top-10 pick, particularly in  what’s supposed to be a pretty weak 2013 draft class, is huge. Equally huge is the new CBA’s provision that doesn’t force a team to forfeit its first-round draft pick for signing a type-A free agent. The Phillies have sacrificed their first-round pick in three of the past four seasons, including last year, when they signed Jonathan Papelbon mere days before the new CBA was signed, making them the only team to lose its first-round pick. You want an example of asleep at the wheel? That’s a pretty good one.

Anyway, maybe the Phillies can spend a first-round pick on a player who turns into a major prospect for the first time since Kyle Drabek.

Sit back and take stock of what you’ve got

Okay, not everyone, but the Phillies can now dispassionately take stock of their roster. Is Shane Victorino really the answer going forward? Is Hunter Pence worth more in a trade than he is on the field? Maybe signing players to expensive, long-term contracts on the decline phase of their career means you’re going to have a lot of money locked up in guys that 1) are hurt a lot and 2) aren’t as effective as they once were, even when they’re healthy. Maybe that’s a reason not to throw money at Josh Hamilton. Maybe the team won’t score many runs if no one’s on base in front of Ryan Howard.

I don’t think that Ruben Amaro and his staff will completely rethink their philosophy after half a bad season on the heels of five or six really good ones, and nor should they. But hitting a speed bump is often a chance to re-evaluate one’s methods, and if we see positive organizational change and a commitment to reloading come out of this year, suffering through one sub-.500 season will be well worth it.

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