Can the Phillies Win the East in 2014?
Dan Szymborski ($) seems to think so. Szymborski’s argument for not counting out the Phils making a serious push to the top of the division hinges around payroll flexibility, acknowledging that Roy Halladay‘s money is off the books and a new television deal is on the horizon, so even though Ruben Amaro has made it clear he wishes to stay below the $189M luxury tax threshold, the safety net is almost in place.
But the amount of work left to do is sizable, and I think we all realize this. Having the resources to accomplish most (if not all) of it doesn’t seem like an outlandish thing to believe; as always, it’s a question of how the resources are allocated.
Cot’s currently pegs the Phillies as having $119.5M on their books for 2014, before accounting for Halladay’s buyout and arbitration raises for Kyle Kendrick, Antonio Bastardo, Ben Revere and (possibly) Kevin Frandsen and John Mayberry Jr., as well as Cuban import Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez’s take. So the payroll estimate probably falls in the $130-140M range, leaving a solid chunk of breathing room between it and the luxury tax ceiling.
The first leak of offseason news tied the Phillies to one of the top outfielders on the market: one of Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Curtis Granderson or Nelson Cruz. Each has his own specialty and price tag, with draft pick cost yet to be determined by qualifying offers. And while the outfield could certainly use the boost that any of those players would provide, the pitching staff is the area of more pressing need.
Even before Halladay’s departure became a given, his withering on the mound before our very eyes helped expose a lack of rotational depth. Maybe it’s a little unfair to say that, given the absurd depth of the 2010 and 2011 rotations, but with Halladay injured of ineffective, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels were the only reliable pieces. None of Kyle Kendrick, Jonathan Pettibone or the recently departed Tyler Cloyd pitched like more than No. 4-types; Gonzalez is an unknown commodity with known injury issues; Ethan Martin seems like his destiny lies in the bullpen. Right now, things only look rosy two of five days on the mound.
Speaking of the bullpen, where struggles were well-lit, things are a bit unsettled there, too. Jonathan Papelbon‘s huge, unmovable contract looms larger as his peripherals decrease and add more uncertainty to the relief corps in the process. Bastardo’s suspension was an annoyance, but at least he can be counted on to pitch well enough. Jake Diekman seemed like he was ready to become a legit Major Leaguer, too. After that, well, the parade of Luis Garcia and Zach Miner and J.C. Ramirez and Cesar Jimenez should tell you all you need to know: just like the rotation, there’s no depth.
The bullpen is where the most tightrope walking has to happen. Adding a free agent piece or two seems like a foregone conclusion, but there are only a finite number of options that, hopefully, will come at a palatable cost for their expected production. Take Indians reliever Joe Smith, who will be 30 on opening day 2014 and has 197 innings of 2.42 ERA and just 10 HR allowed to his name. Not flashy, but effective and not expected to command a closer’s role or bounty. If another lefty is on the shopping list, a number of intriguing southpaws are on the market: Matt Thornton, J.P. Howell and Boone Logan among them. Chances seem good that one hurler of each handedness could be added for less than, say, $10M for 2014.
Keeping that number down could mean the difference between the balls-out, headlong-into-going-for-it approach where the likes of Ellsbury and Masahiro Tanaka, the latest Japanese enticement, dwell. This is all before trades are even considered, too, though no one expects the Phillies’ current farm crop to land a player on the David Price or Giancarlo Stanton (were he even available) level.
It’s tough to be more finite this early in the offseason, but the 2013 Phillies looked like a club in need of more than one GUY to get them back over .500 and into playoff contention again. Not trading Lee kept them closer to achieving that goal at the cost of a higher-quality rebuild, but that’s a tough battle to win. In surveying the roster and available options, it seems the Phillies could definitely make significant strides of improvement over the winter and get back in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, but winning the division seems unlikely. The Braves could lose Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, but their pitching staff is still in far superior shape to the Phillies’, and the underachieving Nationals could stand to bounce back in ’14.
Getting into the playoffs at all seems possible still, but the forces in the now-deep NL Central like the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds, along with the Nats and a potential surprise team like the Diamondbacks, could prove formidable. I would bank on a better record in 2014 than ’13, currently based on nothing more than an expectation that Amaro will make a big move or two that will have a fair share of caveats but will provide fans with a better on-field product. I would not bank on a return to the top of the East, but the winter is long and there’s time aplenty for opinions to change.