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Phillies Sign “Players” to “Low-Risk” Deals

Have you ever thought, “man, Freddy Galvis is great. I wonder if there is a way to get his anemic bat but without his great defensive abilities?” It turns out that there is! And Ruben Amaro, Jr. has found it:

GIF courtesy of Brew Crew Ball

That’s Yuniesky Betancourt! He does that kind of thing a lot, because he’s really bad at fielding. He’s also bad at hitting, and baserunning. If you were the type that liked pithy summaries for things, you might say he is bad at baseball. Very bad at baseball. He is a bad baseball player. Teams often sign bad baseball players, often to minor league deals, which is what the Phillies have handed Betancourt. They do this because there is a certain institutional appreciation for players that have played at the major league level before, regardless of their actual performance while there. Supposedly there is some intrinsic value to having big league plate appearances under your belt, possibly because there is some certainty that your performance will probably not be worse than — well, some arbitrarily poor value. For teams with well-established lineups, there is not much harm in that besides fan frustration. Sure, the Yuniesky Betancourts might get the 80 to 100 plate appearances that some org player may have gotten in some kind of depth emergency, but how many net runs could that really cost you?

Yuniesky Betancourt will seek to test the limits of that question with the Phillies this season, in a lineup that is far from established. By all indications he is up to the challenge. He’s subtracted at least one win above replacement worth of value from his team in three of the last four seasons, by Baseball-Reference’s flavor of WAR. Last season, he managed that feat (-1.2 WAR) despite being given only 228 plate appearances in which to do so. In sum, from 2009-2012, Betancourt has been 5.6 wins worse than replacement. Sure, there are 12 qualified hitters with worse wOBAs than him over that time period, such as Gerald Laird, Pedro Feliz, and Paul Janish. But Betancourt has a worse on-base percentage than all of them, and has been inexplicably awarded more plate appearances. And (and!) his defense is well-represented by the above .gif. UZR isn’t really my bag, but if you’re into it, you’d be interested to know that only two players have accumulated a worse UZR/150 in that four year period than Betancourt’s -12.0 — Dexter Fowler (-13.1), and Jermaine Dye (-26.1).

But hey, it’s OK! It’s just a minor league deal. I say this all of the time. Who cares about minor league deals? This is comforting until you consider that the Phillies have at least 2 projected-everyday players that should be, at most, playing on minor league deals: the Youngs Michael and Delmon. And that the utility infielder depth chart on Charlie Manuel‘s desk currently reads “Freddy Galvis” and “y’know, like, Kevin Frandsen??” As with the Delmon Young contract, it’s time to stop pretending that Ruben Amaro signs “low-risk” contracts and it’s not a big deal. Because there is risk. There is the risk that Yuniesky Betancourt will get significant playing time on the major league squad (I’d bet my house on at least 50 plate appearances), and, like Delmon Young, will actively subtract value from a team that currently looks to be a long shot for the second wild card. There is also the risk (in my book, the certainty), that this deal further confirms our suspicions about Ruben Amaro, Jr.: that he does not know how to identify and acquire good baseball players. For the 2013 Phillies and their front office, there are no low-risk deals. We should have learned this by now.

Betancourt wasn’t the only laugher of an inking today. The Phillies also signed 2008 alumnus Chad Durbin to a $1.1 million dollar deal with incentives and a 2014 club option. The bullpen actually looks to be one of the highlights of 2013, so this isn’t necessarily much to gripe about. There are plenty of arms that figure to be good-to-elite in Papelbon, Adams, and Bastardo to take the lion’s share of important innings, whether or not Durbin is on the roster. But that’s the odd thing — Justin DeFratus, Jeremy Horst, Raul Valdes, and Philippe Aumont are available to sop up the remainder at minimum cost. It’s possible that no combination of them can be serviceable, but not probable. You can never have too much bullpen depth, but Chad Durbin is a strange kind of “depth” at $1.1 million, an amount clearly predicated just on the strength of a resurgent 2012. Maybe Durbin will again post a sub-.260 BABIP to do charity for his unfortunate walk rates (10.9% last season), but I wouldn’t count on it. The Phillies should sooner have left their chips with the young arms roulette wheel.

If the veteran-ness of the Youngs and Betancourt is somehow comforting to the stumbling, directionless front office that acquired them, Durbin will be doubly so. If you can’t identify the good players that can help you build a good baseball team, why not go with the names that get tossed around the most, the names that everyone has heard before? Even better, why not go and get the names you already know?