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.

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19 comments

  1. Thomes Homies

    July 25, 2012 05:12 PM

    I think any trade involving Cliff Lee will have to occur with a corresponding move to pick up another pitcher. Outside of the solid three of Halladay, Hamels, Worley, there’s Kendrick? There aren’t exactly any prospects knocking at the door at SP either.

    That being said, I’d be okay with trading Pence for a starter to throw into the mix and installing Dom Brown in RF effective immediately.

    Also, I have no idea what Pence or Lee are worth in a trade so feel free to tell me I’m wrong.

  2. Ryan

    July 25, 2012 05:48 PM

    I think it would be silly to sell Lee while his value is down right now. If anything, trade Pence for prospects and turn around and use them in a deal to get Headley. Install Dom Brown in RF. We have now improved on two positions.

  3. LTG

    July 25, 2012 05:53 PM

    As far as Lee’s value goes, the Rangers are on record as saying they prefer Lee to Hamels. I gather that the perception in Philly is that Lee’s value is down but I don’t think that the rest of the MLB world thinks that.

  4. LTG

    July 25, 2012 05:55 PM

    And I’d rather get Headley if we can (and I doubt it even more now that Alex Rodriguez is on the shelf) since we have an Olt-like prospect in low-A now. Getting Headley without giving up Lee would go a long way to making the Phillies division-winning contenders next year.

  5. Bro Cheeks

    July 25, 2012 05:55 PM

    Halladay only has two years left after this and possibly only one if his option doesn’t vest. It’s likely he’ll recover and be the guy he’s always been but with that said I think it’s too risky to trade Lee.

    Also if they had trading Lee in mind when they re-signed Hamels then the signing was a mistake since Lee has been better pitcher than Hamels over the last 5 seasons.

  6. LTG

    July 25, 2012 06:05 PM

    Bro,

    Hamels = 28 years old (29 on 12/27)
    Lee = 33 years old (34 on 8/30)

    See, people get older, and after a certain point their bodies fail to regenerate as they once did. This aging process causes athletes skill’s to diminish as they move away from 30 and toward 40. So, while Lee was the better pitcher, he probably isn’t now (tho it is close) and won’t be in the foreseeable future.

    (Too much snark?)

  7. Bro Cheeks

    July 25, 2012 06:49 PM

    LTG,

    Thanks for the science lesson.

    Hamels has been better than Lee this season which has consisted of close to 120 IP each. Since 2008 its not that close, Lee has been measurably better (26.3 to 19.7 bWAR). If you include Lee’s ’06 & ’07 years Hamels closes the WAR gap considerably but it’s fair to say Lee figured something out after 2007 and is a completely different pitcher since.

    I think there’s an argument to be made for paying Lee through his age 37 season rather than Hamels through his age 35 season given their past performance. Human Biology be damned.

  8. NavyJoe

    July 25, 2012 07:14 PM

    Is WAR really the best measure of pitchers? If you go by xFIP, Lee is slightly better, 3.21 vs 3.35. Halliday (1), Lee (4), and Hamels (10) are all up there.

  9. LTG

    July 25, 2012 07:38 PM

    Bro,

    Have you looked at pitcher aging curves?

    And to say there is an argument is not yet to make it. Why will Lee not decline as even the best pitchers do? Glavine, Smoltz, and Maddux were all in decline by the time they were Lee’s age.

  10. LTG

    July 25, 2012 07:41 PM

    And to add to NavyJoe’s point, SIERA likes Hamels (3.40) slightly better than Lee (3.45) since 2007.

  11. hk

    July 25, 2012 08:09 PM

    I’m with Ryan, I’d love to see a three-way deal with SD and a contender where Pence goes to the contender, prospects go to SD and Headley comes here.

  12. T. Martin

    July 25, 2012 11:20 PM

    The other reason getting Headley makes so much sen$e is with him being cost-controlled through arbitration thru 2014 the Phils have Utley likely coming off the books after next year and Rollins after 2014. So at the same time Headley will be in line for a nice raise (assuming he continues to produce like his numbers away from Petco suggest) the Phils will be freeing up money. I’ve been extolling Headley’s virtues for over a year now. He makes more sense than anybody for the Phils to keep the championship window open.

    And I’m squarely in the same camp as Ryan and HK that now is the time to trade Hunter for 2-3 good prospects.

  13. T. Martin

    July 25, 2012 11:22 PM

    Oh and we need a reliever, like Houston Street or Brandon League for the 8th inning.

    so to recap…
    1) sign Hamels long term (check)
    2) trade Pence
    3) get Headley
    4) add an arm to the bullpen

  14. Cutter

    July 26, 2012 08:05 AM

    Why are people convinced that putting Dom Brown in RF is going to improve anything except the payroll?

    He hasn’t been able to stay healthy or productive at AAA this season. Why should we expect this to change at the majors?

  15. hk

    July 26, 2012 09:34 AM

    Cutter,

    Maybe the Phils will keep Pence and pay him ~$13M next year and maybe they’ll also spend ~$12M to fill CF (with Shane or someone else) next year. However, I believe that “people” who like me are calling for Dom Brown to start next year are doing so based on the expectation that the team needs some payroll relief. If that premise is correct, since Brown is the most advanced prospect in the system, trading Pence for a nice return and turning RF over to Dom seems like the best way to free up payroll to use to fill the 3B, CF and set-up reliever positions with (hopefully) players to provide more than the likes of Wigginton and Qualls provided this year. If the team intends to have a payroll of ~$200M next year, that is another story.

  16. Phillie697

    July 26, 2012 10:58 AM

    3-way trades are about as rare in MLB as the Loch Ness Monster, and quite frankly, Phillies don’t have what it takes to get Headley, short of trading Dom, if Padres even want Dom. I rate our chances at getting Headley somewhere between 10-15%, i.e. not very likely. All this talk about trading Pence for prospects to get Headley… Stop being a fan of the Phillies, and ask yourself, who is more valuable, and why do you possibly think the haul we get for Pence, assuming we can trade him, would be enough to get Headley? There are probably 10-15 teams out there who would rather have Headley than Pence.

    @LTG, starting to become like me in your arguments :P

  17. CRPhan

    July 26, 2012 03:45 PM

    Everyone is focussing on Pence, but why trade Pence over Victorino? Pence is slightly younger and stats tell me he has been more consistent overall this year than Shane, especially the clutch situations. Love Shane, but I expected more hustle from him in a renewal year.

  18. hk

    July 26, 2012 03:53 PM

    CRPhan,

    Because of Pence’s poor defense and because he plays a less important defensive position, both fWAR and bWAR say that Victorino > Pence. Further, since Pence is under team control for one more year, he will return more than Shane will be the team that trades for him gets him for 8 months, not 2. Finally, teams in need of offense (i.e. the Dodgers) may over-value Pence relative to Shane because his offensive production is greater. Those are the reasons to trade Pence over Victorino.

  19. LTG

    July 26, 2012 10:09 PM

    Just this once, Phillie. I’m no Harvey Dent.

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