What would a Phillies off-season be if they weren’t constantly linked to old, expensive free agents? MLB Trade Rumors, citing ESPN’s Buster Olney, reports that the Phillies have expressed interest in outfielders Josh Hamilton and Cody Ross, two veteran outfielders each seeking a multi-year deal. A month ago, I examined the market for center fielders. On Hamilton, I wrote:
With Hamilton, the Phillies would likely need to commit at least five years and nine figures for a player that will be 32 years old in May and tends to miss time due to questionable health issues. […] In the past, Hamilton has also had issues with drugs, alcohol, and religion. Hamilton may lead all center fielders in wOBA since 2008 at .387, but he has plenty of other issues that should scream “somebody else’s problem” at the Phillies.
Cody Ross would come at a considerably cheaper price compared to Hamilton, but the Phillies would still need to commit a lot of money and years to a 32-year-old. MLBTR lists the asking price for Ross at three years, $25 million. Phillies fans already have incentive to dislike Ross, but he is a slightly above-average hitter with sub-par defense, spending a majority of the past two seasons in the outfield corners.
In honor of Veterans Day, let’s take a brief stroll back in time to examine how the Phillies have fared when signing free agent veterans to multi-year contracts. Note that re-signings (such as Jimmy Rollins and Jose Contreras) were excluded.
- December 16, 2008: 37-year-old Raul Ibanez, OF (3 years, $31.5 million)
Ibanez had a white-hot first half of 2009, authoring a 1.027 OPS before suffering a groin injury on June 17 (shortly after his 37th birthday). He returned a month later on July 11, but wasn’t the same. From his return to the end of the season, his OPS was a meager .711. Regardless, he finished the season with an aggregate .378 wOBA, a career-high and the sixth consecutive time he’d posted a wOBA of .345 or better. It was downhill from there, as his wOBA declined to .343 in 2010 and .306 in 2011, the final year of his deal.
Factoring in his incredibly poor defense in left field, Baseball Reference had him barely breaking even in his three years with the Phillies, at 0.6 Wins Above Replacement. It wasn’t as if Ibanez’s failure was a shocker. Friend of the blog Eric Seidman (@EricSeidman) criticized the deal as soon as it happened, as did many others. Seidman called the contract “unequivocally poor.”
- December 1, 2009: 33-year-old Brian Schneider, C (2 years, $2.75 million)
The Schneider signing was seemingly innocuous and he was productive in 147 PA as the back-up to Carlos Ruiz in 2010. However, things quickly soured in 2011 as he barely finished with an OPS above .500 while missing time in May and June due to a thigh injury. Despite the bad showing, the Phillies brought Schneider back on a one-year deal in 2012 with similar results. The 35-year-old catcher finished with a .637 OPS and missed a total of 65 games due to a right ankle sprain and that same thigh injury.
When Schneider went down, Erik Kratz came up from Triple-A Lehigh Valley and did for the prorated Major League minimum salary what Schneider never did: hit. Although his production was certainly an outlier for a journeyman, another organizational staple such as Dane Sardinha could have done for a fraction of the cost. The Schneider signing didn’t hamstring the Phillies, but it was more or less unnecessary. Veteran back-up catchers are nearly as overrated as veteran middle relievers.
- December 3, 2009: 34-year-old Placido Polanco, 3B (3 years, $18 million)
Although the end of this contract was brutal — Polanco missed 35 percent of his games in 2011-12 with an aggregate .657 OPS — Polanco paid for himself when he was on the field as one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. The other free agent options available to the Phillies at the time included Adrian Beltre (would’ve been nice) and Chone Figgins (phew!). Beltre was coming off of a poor season with the Seattle Mariners, so he ended up settling for a one-year, $10 million deal with the Boston Red Sox, then parlayed that into a five-year, $80 million deal with the Texas Rangers. At the time, however, Beltre was seeking a four-year deal, which was why the Phillies backed off.
Despite hitting poorly and missing a lot of time due to injuries, Polanco lived up to his relatively cheap deal. It is easy to play Monday morning quarterback and say the Phillies should have signed Beltre, but they failed for reasons other than their third baseman over the last three years.
- December 31, 2009: 32-year-old Danys Baez, RP (2 years, $5.25 million)
The Baez signing is one of the most frustrating despite its relative cheapness. (When asking if I missed anyone for this list, Michael Baumann replied to me in an email, “I got to Danys Baez and almost threw my computer against the wall.” I’m guessing in the style of The Room.) He was awful over 47.2 innings in 2010, but the Phillies never sought to cut him or reduce his workload. He finished with a 5.48 ERA. Bound to him for another year, Baez returned in 2011 in even worse form. On July 16, Baez allowed four runs in one inning, bumping his ERA up to 6.25 and the Phillies finally cut him.
As a Phillie, Baez posted a 5.81 ERA in 83.2 innings. At -1.47, he had the fifth-worst WPA/LI (context-neutral wins) among all relievers in 2010-11, trailing only John Grabow, Chris Resop, Jeff Fulchino, and Chad Qualls. Baez is perhaps the best example of why one should never sign a veteran relief pitcher to a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract, especially if he isn’t going to be used in high-leverage situations.
- December 14, 2010: 32-year-old Cliff Lee, SP (5 years, $120 million)
Lee broke the Phillies’ long-standing policy of refusing to commit more than three years to any pitcher. The year prior, the Phillies had inked fellow starter Roy Halladay to a three-year, $60 million deal. If any pitcher was to have the rules broken for him, one would have thought Halladay would be the benefactor, but the right-hander willingly left money on the proverbial table to stay in Philadelphia.
With Halladay’s blessing, the Phillies broke their own rules, giving Lee a massive contract, nearly equaling the extension given to first baseman Ryan Howard. In the two seasons since signing the deal, Lee has been quite good. He finished third in NL Cy Young balloting in 2011, posting a 2.40 ERA (a career-low) while posting career-highs in innings pitched and strikeouts. This past season, Lee endured some first-half struggles that earned him widespread criticism from Phillies fans, but he finished the season as a down-ballot Cy Young dark horse with a 3.16 ERA and a league-leading 7.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
The Lee deal was certainly risky, but given his track record and the Phillies’ position after the 2010 season, it was not a bad decision by any means even though the contract ends after his age-36 season. Lee still has several good years left ahead of him at the very least if he can avoid the dreaded injury bug that has plagued the Phillies’ old roster in recent years.
- November 14, 2011: 31-year-old Jonathan Papelbon, RP (4 years, $50 million)
Papelbon was very, very good for the Phillies in 2012 despite some memorable failures (Jordany Valdespin, anyone?). However, the four-year, $50 million deal was the richest ever for a reliever and it came on the heels of the end of the Brad Lidge era. After Lidge’s perfect season in 2008, the Phillies signed him to a three-year, $37.5 million deal, betting on more of the same in the future. In those three years, Lidge pitched a grand total of 123.2 innings with a 4.73 ERA, missing time at various points due to a knee, elbow, and shoulder injuries.
The Papelbon contract is incredibly risky because the Phillies ante so much for so little reward — Papelbon’s 70 innings pitched in 2012 represented less than five percent of the Phillies’ total innings pitched. By comparison, his $11 million salary put him in the same echelon as Jimmy Rollins, whose 699 PA represented more than 11 percent of the team’s total PA taken. Like Lidge, Papelbon has a clean bill of health through his age-31 season, but even that is no guarantee.
- December 9, 2011: 31-year-old Laynce Nix, OF (2 years, $2.5 million)
The Nix deal is relatively innocuous. At the time, I wrote, “it’s hard to react to this signing with anything more than a shoulder shrug.” Nix posted a .727 OPS in 127 PA, mostly filling in at first base for the injured Ryan Howard. Later in the season, he started some games in the outfield after Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence had been traded, but was not very productive. Nix will earn $1.35 million in the final year of his deal in 2013, which isn’t too bad as he provides the Phillies a left-handed power bat off the bench.
Overall, the Phillies broke even more or less, but the bulk of the success or failure still hinges on the remainder of Lee and Papelbon’s deals. The Phillies missed on most of the non-mammoth contracts aside from Polanco, and even some would argue to label the Polanco era a failure. It illustrates why hitching your wagon to an old player for more than one year isn’t always the best idea. Hopefully, the Phillies are more cautious in their endeavors and learn from their past mistakes.