Please Don’t Trade For Chase Headley

We don’t disagree with each other much here at Crashburn Alley. It’s nice most of the time, because we get along much better and agreeing with each other makes us feel smart. I bring this up because, for the first time in ages, I don’t agree with something Bill said.

Earlier today, our master and commander argued that, now that Cole Hamels has been re-signed, the Phillies should turn their attention to third base. Placido Polanco ticks four boxes–old, injury-prone, a free-agent-to-be and of declining effectiveness–that don’t make him an enticing prospect going forward. The Phillies don’t have an in-house option coming up through the minors or currently on the major league roster (Ty Wigginton can hit some but is scarcely better in the field than you or I, and Mike Fontenot, while a capable fifth infielder, isn’t really good enough at anything to warrant 600 plate appearances).

So with no incumbent and no credible heir in the organization, the Phillies will almost certainly have to look outside the organization for a solution  at third, and, friends, it does not look good.

I think Bill is completely right about all that. I just don’t want that external solution to be Chase Headley.

We’re in something of a dead period for offensive production among infielders, and third base was hit particularly hard. In the past five years, some of the best young third basemen (Ryan Braun and Alex Gordon) couldn’t hack it defensively and moved to the outfield. Others (Pedro Alvarez and Brett Lawrie) are undergoing growing pains. Alex Rodriguez is getting older (and odder), and the top tier (Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright and Evan Longoria) have alternately had trouble staying on the field.

Which makes someone like Headley immensely valuable. He’s a switch hitter who posted a .374 OBP last year and a .361 mark so far this season, which would have been second on the Phillies this season. He’s solid defensively, posting an 8.4 UZR/150 for his career at third base, and he’s on the right side of 30 with two more years of arbitration left.

So why wouldn’t the Phillies want him? He’d be a massive upgrade over Polanco and a valuable contributor to a lineup that could surely use his bat. In a vacuum, I’d just as soon the Phillies have Headley as anyone. But we don’t live in a vacuum, and to trade for Headley would represent the same kind of mistake the Phillies made in trading for Hunter Pence a year ago, and in re-signing Ryan Howard in 2010: paying a superstar’s price for a good player.

Headley, as Bill said, is about a 3-WAR player. That’s a solid starter. But that number is based in part on massive swings in his UZR, from 16.5 in 2009 to -2.9 last year. I’m confident that Headley can hack it at third, but not that he’s an excellent or even a good defender. This UZR fluctuation has had the same effect on Headley’s career fWAR that BABIP has had on Hunter Pence’s offensive production: when it’s up it’s up, and when it’s down it’s down. But let’s stipulate that when it’s only halfway up, it’s neither up nor down. Headley is a 3-WAR player.

If that’s the case, what would the Phillies pay for Headley? A lot. The Padres can wait to trade Headley, and because the third base offerings are so bad leaguewide, the Phillies are one of perhaps a dozen teams with designs on a playoff spot in the next 18 months and a dire need for a third baseman. It’s a seller’s market, and even if it were wise to part with multiple top prospects (most likely two or more of Larry Greene, Trevor May, Jesse Biddle or more) for Headley, the Phillies would be hard-pressed to match the offers of teams with deeper farm systems. I like Headley’s game, but is it really worth it for the Phillies to gut a weak farm system for, essentially, a good regular? I’ve seen this movie. It doesn’t end well. Someone will pay an insane price for Headley, and I would just as soon it not be the Phillies.

But let’s say they traded for Headley anyway. He’s 28 years old, and in line for two sizable arbitration paydays. That’s only young and cheap when compared to the rest of the Phillies. Headley is entering what is likely the last couple years of his prime and could cost in excess of $15 million for those last two years. Any Headley trade would best be paired with an immediate contract extension to buy out those remaining arbitration years and maybe a year or two of free agency, or else he, like Pence, will soon become very expensive and leave.

So my objection to Headley is not so much an objection with his play, but with how much it would cost in prospects to acquire him and how much it would cost in cash to keep him.

Finally, if the Phillies trade for Headley, say, tomorrow, and hang on to Pence and Shane Victorino, they’ll have the frattiest lineup of all time. They could, on days where Carlos Ruiz rests, field a starting nine of Shane, Chase, Chase, Ryan, Hunter, Jimmy, Laynce, Erik and Cole. That’s not a baseball team. That’s next fall’s rush class at the Wake Forest chapter of Sig Ep. They’d have to change everyone’s walk-up music to “Crazy Game of Poker” by O.A.R. and change the uniform to a pink polo shirt, khaki shorts and boat shoes. They’d have to outlaw any beer other than Natty Light at the CBP concessions stands. But the tailgating would probably be a little better-organized and we’d get t-shirts with big pictures and pithy slogans on the back for every game. So maybe fielding a team of frat boys wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Probably not important from a baseball perspective, but worth noting nonetheless.

Anyway, Bill’s right–the Phillies need a third baseman going forward. It just shouldn’t be Chase Headley.

With Hamels Deal Done, Phils Must Turn Eyes to Third Base

Getting Cole Hamels signed to a contract extension was far and away the Phillies’ #1 issue and had been for over a year. It was a long and tedious process, and everyone can now breathe a long, exasperated sigh of relief now that it’s done. But the Phillies’ work is far from over as the trading deadline will be upon us in less than a week, and reports have them actively shopping many players including Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, Ty Wigginton, Cliff Lee, Hunter Pence, and even Jimmy Rollins. The two hottest rumors at the moment have included Victorino: one suggests the Phillies wanted to ship him to the Cincinnati Reds for reliever Logan Ondrusek, and another had Victorino going to the Los Angeles Dodgers for reliever Josh Lindblom.

Relief pitching should be dead last on the Phillies’ itinerary now, especially those two names. Ondrusek is a poor man’s Kyle Kendrick, while Lindblom has had tremendous trouble keeping baseballs in the field of play. Instead, the Phillies should be staring intently at third base on their 2013 depth chart. Third baseman Placido Polanco has a $5.5 million mutual option for 2013, but it is unlikely to be picked up even though he has outproduced the $18 million he will have been paid over three years. Polanco will be 37 next year, has put up a measly .628 OPS at the hot corner this year, and has had tremendous difficulty keeping a clean bill of health. The Phillies simply can’t risk gambling on him for another year.

There is a problem, though: the free agent market for third basemen is barren. Potential free agents (ignoring those with options) include Geoff Blum, Miguel Cairo, Maicer Izturis, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Scott Rolen, and Mark Teahen. None of those names should pique the Phillies’ interest. There are, however, two third basemen that are available now via trade that should make the Phillies salivate: Chase Headley and prospect Mike Olt.

Headley is an underrated, switch-hitting third baseman for the San Diego Padres. As if the first name wasn’t enough, Headley is a lot like the third base version of Chase Utley in that he does a lot of everything very well. He hits (career .330 wOBA; .344 this year), fields (fourth among MLB 3B in UZR/150 from 2009-12 at 9.0), runs (50-for-63 stealing bases, 79%). Best of all, he can even play the outfield as he’s logged over 1,695 innings there over his Major League career, compared to the 3,471 he has played at third base. FanGraphs puts him at 12.7 WAR over the last four seasons (over 3.1 on average), putting him in the top-ten most valuable third basemen in the last four years.

Why would the Padres want to get rid of Headley? He earned $3.475 million in his second year of arbitration-eligibility this past off-season and his salary will only escalate in his next two years. Since 2009, the Padres have operated with an Opening Day payroll between $37 and $55 million, so they have incentive to capitalize on Headley’s value now before having to commit too much money to him. Since Headley would be under team control for two more years at a very barren position, the Padres would be able to get a lot of value for him, and that’s exactly what they’re doing according to most reports.

The other name to keep track of is Mike Olt, the exciting third base prospect in the Texas Rangers’ system, currently at Double-A Frisco. To date, he has 26 home runs in 386 plate appearances and a .978 OPS. Olt was the Rangers’ #4 prospect entering the season according to Baseball America and is drawing a ton of interest as the Rangers look to add a top-tier starting pitcher, such as Zack Greinke, for another run at the World Series. Lone Star Ball, the Rangers blog for SB Nation, had this to say about Olt in their pre-season scouting report:

The concern with a lot of power-hitting third basemen is that they aren’t going to be able to handle the hot corner long term and will have to move across the diamond to first base…Mark McGwire, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell, and Mark Teixeira, among others, started their careers as third basemen before getting shifted.

That’s not a concern with Olt, however. He played shortstop as a freshman at UConn, and while reports on his defense vary, just about every observer has him as no worse than average at the position, and he generally gets an above-average grade for his defense, with most pegging him as an above-average defender and some suggesting he could be Gold Glove caliber at the hot corner. Third base has traditionally been a difficult position for major league teams to fill, and a plus defender who can hit has a lot of value.

Offensively, Olt doesn’t profile to hit for a high average — he’s not a burner (his speed has been described as “fringe-average”), and he strikes out a lot, so he’s someone you figure isn’t likely to be more than a .260-.270 hitter in the majors, even if things break right for him. However, because Olt hits for power and draws walks, he doesn’t have to be a high-average hitter to be a quality offensive player.

Due to the Rangers’ specific needs and the recent extending of Hamels, the only Phillies pitcher who makes sense for the Rangers is Cliff Lee. There is no consensus yet about the availability of Lee, but there is at least some indication that the Phillies would listen to offers. The Phillies should insist that any trade with the Rangers involving Lee must include Olt. While Olt wouldn’t give them an immediate answer for 2013 — he would likely start with Triple-A Lehigh Valley — the Phillies would be satisfied with a long-term option at third base. In the meantime, they could sign a cheap veteran, pick up Ty Wigginton’s $4 million option, or go with Mike Fontenot in his final year of arbitration-eligibility.

As mentioned, third base is a position of great scarcity these days. Since 2010, only five third basemen (including Headley) have posted 10 or more combined WAR, per FanGraphs. The only positions with fewer players are catcher (four) and shortstop (three). If the Phillies can adequately address their needs here, they can set themselves up for another sustained run of post-season success for years to come. This is the biggest issue for the Phillies right now and it should be getting a majority of their attention as the July 31 deadline draws closer.

Hamels, Phillies Agree to 6-Year, $144 Million Extension

A contract extension seemed inevitable as negotiations between Cole Hamels and the Phillies picked up steam in the last week, and it finally reached a conclusion late last night at about the same time the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers came to terms on a Hanley Ramirez trade. With a week separating the Phillies from the trading deadline, they were running out of time to decide what to do with their 28-year-old ace. In the end, though, everything went as expected: the Phillies made sure the most important part of their future will be around through at least 2018, and Hamels negotiated a contract in the C.C. Sabathia-Johan Santana-Matt Cain stratosphere.

Assuming Hamels’ contract isn’t obscenely back-loaded — we don’t know the payment distribution yet — he will become the fourth Phillie to earn $20 million or more in 2013, joining Cliff Lee ($25 million), Roy Halladay, and Ryan Howard ($20 million each). The luxury tax threshold will remain at $178 million, which means that, at an average annual value of $93 million, the Phillies will have over 50 percent of their payroll tied up to those four players. With the ability to trade any or all of Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, and Placido Polanco, the Phillies will have plenty of holes to fill for 2013 and they’ll need to get creative trying to fit the other 21 players under the remaining $90 million or so before hitting the luxury tax.

Other than that, the Phillies should feel very good about this contract. It is true that such lengthy, expensive deals to pitchers are risky, but Hamels is about as safe a bet as you can make with a pitcher. He has a very clean injury history, with just three trips to the disabled list in his career and only one since 2008 (August 13-29, 2011; shoulder inflammation). His skill set isn’t one that will deteriorate over time as his fastball-change combination relies not on peak velocity but on the velocity differential between the two pitches. Additionally, Hamels has excellent control (career 6% walk rate) and has a naturally-suppressed BABIP (career .280).

The rate of Hamels’ deterioration will heavily influence the success or failure of this contract. At 28 years old, we assume he still has plenty of good years ahead of him, but it is clearly not a guarantee. Hamels could suffer a freak injury that abruptly ends his career, or suffer a minor one that nags at him and accelerates the rate at which he declines. No, it’s not likely, but still something that could happen and it is assumed risk when handing out lengthy, expensive contracts. Baseball Prospectus, in their ten-year forecast, projects Hamels at 3.4 WARP on average through 2017 and 2.7 in 2018. It should be noted that Hamels was worth, on average, about 3.4 WARP from 2007-11, so they don’t see him eroding very much at all over the years.

It’s easy to see why most won’t project Hamels to decline very rapidly at all. The most obvious reason is that the contract starts with his age 29 season and ends with his age 34 season. By comparison, Ryan Howard‘s five-year, $125 million deal started in his age 32 season and will end in his age 36 season. Another reason is that Hamels has been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball going back to 2007. There are only nine other pitchers who have thrown more than Hamels’ 1,159 and two-thirds innings and 176 starts since 2007. But Hamels has also been consistently elite, posting an ERA between 2.79 and 3.39 in every season aside from his fluky-bad 2009. His xFIP has ranged from 3.02 to 3.63 and his SIERA from 3.03 to 3.66.

While at the same time being very reliable, Hamels has also made noticeable improvements. In 2010, when he added a cut fastball and improved his curve, he set a career high strikeout rate (25%). The next season, he set a career-low walk rate (5%), a career-best K/BB (4.4), and spiked his ground ball rate (52%). Who knows what tricks Hamels will pull out in the future, but we know for a fact that he is capable of evolution, which will only make his aging process even more elegant.

This contract extension is arguably the best move of GM Ruben Amaro’s career and one that will be met with near-universal praise. Phillies fans should be thrilled that Hamels will continue to don red pinstripes through at least 2018, continuing his legacy, and the Phillies will be in a prime position to attempt to compete again as soon as 2013. In a time when the Phillies are sellers for the first time since 2006, today is a very good day for the Phillies and their fans. Cole Hamels will be around for a long, long time.

.gifs from Last Night

Last night was a good one for Phillies fans: their favorite baseball team came from behind to win for the second night in a row and Cole Hamels was signed to a six-year, $144 million contract extension. Aside from the comeback, though, last night’s game was very interesting.

Cliff Lee had a mediocre start, allowing four home runs in seven innings. One of those home runs was hit by Ryan Braun, who decided to wink at someone for some reason.

And the Phanatic threw himself into racing hot dogs for some reason.

But the best part was when Cliff Lee decided to play games with Martin Maldonado at third base.

Then, this happened:

A few innings later, the Phillies would score six runs on four hits and four walks in one inning against Brewers relievers Jose Veras, Manny Parra, and Kameron Loe. Baseball is a funny game.

True Love and a Hamels Extension

According to Ken Rosenthal, Rumor Geyser, the Phillies and Cole Hamels are about to sign a 6-year contract extension  worth “more than” $137.5 million. (UPDATE: The official number is $144 million). In addition, Rosenthal predicts Hamels’ contract extension will set in motion “a series of trades to help the club not only reduce payroll, but also retool.” These could be heady days, my friends.

I’m not going to lie–I’ve been advocating, with my head, that the Phillies should trade Hamels, but now that he has (reportedly) been locked-up long-term, I’ll admit that I wept openly when Rosenthal broke the news.

We’ll have more analysis as the deal becomes official, but for now, enjoy a re-creation of the final negotiation between Hamels and Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.

Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr.: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and the thing is, I want to re-sign you.
Cole Hamels: What?
Amaro: I want to re-sign you.
Hamels: How do you expect me to respond to this?
Amaro: How about you want to resign with me too?
Hamels: How about I’m leaving!
Amaro: Doesn’t what I said mean anything to you?
Hamels: I’m sorry, Ruben. I know it’s near the trade deadline. I know you need starting pitching. But you just can’t show up here, tell me you want to re-sign me and expect that to make everything all right. It doesn’t work this way.
Amaro: Well how does it work?
Hamels: I don’t know, but not this way.
Amaro: Well how about this way: I love that you can get the better of both left-handed and right-handed batters. I love that you won us a World Series. I love that you hit a home run off Matt Cain. I love that after I spend a season with you I can still see your change-up in the air. And I love that you’re the person I want to pitch Game 7 of the World Series for us. And it’s not because I need pitching, and it’s not because it’s the trade deadline. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your career with someone, you want the rest of your career to start as soon as possible.
(“Auld Lang Syne” begins playing in background)
Hamels: 
You see? That is just like you, Ruben–you say things like that and you make it impossible for me to sign with the Dodgers! And I want to sign with the Dodgers, Ruben! I really want to sign with the Dodgers….(signs contract)
Amaro: What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. “Should old band contracts be forgot?” Does that mean that we should forget old bad contracts or that if we happen to forget them we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot them?
Hamels: Well maybe it means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about great pitchers.

Someone hold me.