Phillies Interested in Uehara, Berkman
The Phillies, in their search for a setup man, are asking around about Rangers righty Koji Uehara, whose $4 million salary in 2013 might be more than Texas is willing to pay.
Free agent Lance Berkman told Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle (as reported via twitter) that the Red Sox are one of four teams in “tire-kicking mode” on the 36-year-old free agent. Berkman, who was introduced as a volunteer assistant coach at Rice University (his alma mater), has said that he will make a decision later in the offseason about whether to retire or continue playing. According to Duarte, the Sox, Rays, Phillies and Astros have shown interest in him.
Let’s start with Koji Uehara. The Japanese reliever turns 38 years old in early April, so a multi-year deal is out of the question. He earned $4 million last year with the Texas Rangers, finishing with a 1.75 ERA and a 1.83 SIERA, thanks in large part to a strikeout-to-walk ratio in excess of 14. You read that right: for every one walk Uehara allowed, he struck out 14 batters. In fact, over his career spanning over 211 innings, he has averaged eight strikeouts for every one walk, an incredible ratio. A single-season double-digit strikeout-to-walk ratio has only been accomplished nine times, many of them in the last three years.
The combined leaderboard for the 2009-12 seasons is even more ridiculous.
Uehara is one of the few veteran relievers that should be on the Phillies’ radar. His defense-independent skills (lots of strikeouts, very few walks) make him a solid bet in 2013, and his age inhibits him from demanding a rich multi-year contract. A one-year deal in the $4-5 million range would be perfect and prevents the Phillies from wildly spending on other inferior, experienced arms.
Lance Berkman, another veteran free agent in his late 30’s, is just as interesting. He clearly has something left in the tank, as evidenced by his aggregate .378 wOBA over the past three seasons spanning 1,165 plate appearances. Over those three years, however, he has missed a lot of time with lower-half injuries. He needed surgery on his right knee last year after tearing his meniscus. Berkman wasn’t the same, posting a .675 OPS between his return after the injury, and his return to the disabled list in early September. There are two obvious questions: can Berkman stay on the field consistently going forward, and is he completely devoid of mobility?
The first question is important because it would impact the other personnel the Phillies acquire. If they see Berkman playing in the outfield as he did for 126 games in 2011, they would need a center fielder with a lot of range — say, Michael Bourn as opposed to Josh Hamilton. Additionally, the Phillies would need a contingency plan in the event Berkman misses a lot of time. Perhaps they utilize the John Mayberry/Nate Schierholtz platoon I have been harping about so much, or maybe they rely on Darin Ruf. The second question impacts where Berkman would play. If Berkman has been rendered immobile, then he can only play first base and come off of the bench as a pinch-hitter not unlike what Jim Thome did in 2012. Ryan Howard is still a question mark, so giving him scheduled days off, particularly against tough left-handed starting pitchers, would be a good idea.
Berkman turns 37 in January and will receive only one-year offers. He earned $12 million last year with the St. Louis Cardinals, but he will not command as much this off-season for obvious reasons. Although it is not a terribly expensive risk to allot — spitballin’ here — $5 million to a guy with All-Star-level offense when he has been able to stay on the field in recent years, he doesn’t really provide anything that the Phillies don’t already have. A Mayberry/Schierholtz platoon, when you factor in defense and base running, would very likely out-produce anything Berkman would do in the outfield, and using Ruf (or Mayberry) in the role Berkman would be used in as a 1B/PH is a cheaper, less risky play. Despite being a fan favorite and surprisingly productive at the age of 41, Thome was more of a nuisance than anything last year. Thome started in only three non-interleague games and took a grand total of 71 at-bats before being sent to the Baltimore Orioles at the end of June. Berkman could be more of a hassle since Howard is expected to be ready to go by spring training anyway.