A Vintage Approach to the Off-Season
Free agency is what makes every baseball off-season interesting. Envisioning your team signing the best player, then that player leading your team to the World Series behind an MVP award-winning season makes any baseball fan salivate. Phillies fans nearly lived it when GM Ruben Amaro signed Cliff Lee as a free agent after the 2010 season, meaning the Phillies would open the 2011 season with a starting rotation that included Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be; we all know how that season ended.
In the time since, we’ve endured rumors that involved the Phillies signing Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn, and Michael Cuddyer. This off-season is no different, as the Phillies are linked to many of the upper-tier players, mostly outfielders, such as Jacoby Ellsbury, Nelson Cruz, and Curtis Granderson.
With a TV deal on the horizon, it seems that now is an appropriate time to bring out the checkbook and add some new talent via free agency, even if that means crossing the luxury tax threshold ($189 million) – though the team has not given any indication it plans to actually do so. As they stand right now, they owe $119.5 million to seven players. They also have decisions to make on eight arbitration-eligible players, as well as the Major League minimum salaries for a handful of players. If the team is constrained either by the luxury tax threshold or its $160 million Opening Day payroll from 2013, then they only have the room for one or two big-ticket free agent signings.
The problem is that the Phillies finished at 73-89, 17 games out of the second Wild Card. And this was while they over-performed their expected W-L by seven games, so if you put stock into an expected record based on run differential, they were more like 24 games out of the second Wild Card. Even if you fall more on the optimistic side of projecting production from players in 2014, the Phillies have a lot of work to do to become a legitimate threat in the NL East again.
One avenue to explore is the possibility of bolstering the roster through trades, such as acquiring center fielder Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, who have four starting outfielders for three spots. This is more concerning than signing a free agent to a bad contract, as the Phillies still have one of the league’s weaker Minor League systems and it has only recently begun trending upwards. For example, Baseball America ranked Ethan Martin and Cesar Hernandez as the organization’s #7 and 8 prospects, respectively. Trading for Kemp would involve at least one of Maikel Franco (#1) or Jesse Biddle (#2) among others near the top, which would be repeating the same mistake that helped put the Phillies in their current hole (see: the Hunter Pence trade with the Astros).
If the Phillies are trying to compete in 2014, they are looking at using some combination of free agent signings and trades to make themselves nearly 20 games better. To put this in perspective, Chase Utley was the most valuable Phillies position player in 2013 at 3.5 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. To get themselves into realistic playoff contention, the Phillies would need to add about five more Utleys this off-season via new players and improved performances from current players on the roster.
In terms of probability, the money is heavily in favor of the Phillies finishing below .500 again in 2014 almost regardless of who they add this off-season. Thus, a big free agent signing – and remember, free agent contracts are best at the beginning and worst at the end – or trading for a marquee player would be a low-percentage gamble.
It would seem, then, that the best route to take for 2014 would be one of limited risk but potentially high upside. That is, signing players on the rebound and players whose stock has fallen recently. These players wouldn’t require contracts greater than two or three years in length and certainly wouldn’t command the type of money to put a clamp on your payroll early in the off-season, nor would they cost a second round draft pick as compensation (the Phillies have a protected first round pick).
This also means that Ben Revere keeps his spot in center field, because you’re unlikely to find a better center field candidate when you’re pawing through the bargain bin. So, the Phillies need a catcher, corner outfielder, two starting pitchers, and a bench.
Let’s look at our roster:
Starting Lineup (6, $53.75 million)
C – TBA
1B- Ryan Howard ($25 million)
2B – Chase Utley ($15 million)
SS – Jimmy Rollins ($11 million)
3B – Cody Asche (pre-arb, $500,000)
LF – Domonic Brown (pre-arb, $525,000)
CF – Ben Revere (arb-1, $1.5 million, proj.)
RF – TBA
Bench (3, $1.5 million)
C – Erik Kratz ($500,000)
IF – Freddy Galvis ($500,000)
IF – TBA
OF – TBA
OF – Darin Ruf ($500,000)
Starting Roation (3, $52.5 million)
SP – Cliff Lee ($25 million)
SP – Cole Hamels ($23.5 million)
SP – Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez ($4 million, AAV)
SP – TBA
SP – TBA
Bullpen (7, $24 million)
CL – Jonathan Papelbon ($13 million)
RP – Mike Adams ($7 million)
RP – Jake Diekman ($500,000)
RP – Antonio Bastardo (arb-2, $2 million, proj.)
RP – Justin De Fratus ($500,000)
RP – B.J. Rosenberg ($500,000)
RP – Jeremy Horst ($500,000)
Total: 19 players totaling $131.25 million. Eight spots remain, with $28.75 million left before last year’s $160 million Opening Day payroll, and $57.75 left before the $189 million luxury tax threshold.
I put Rosenberg and Horst at the back of the rotation, but the Phillies could realistically go with a number of other candidates at the same cost, or they could go for slightly more expensive options with higher upside via free agency. For now, we’ll focus on the other vacant spots. Also note that only two players eligible for arbitration were tendered contracts: Ben Revere and Antonio Bastardo. Additionally, I put $500,000 for all of the pre-arb players, but their actual salaries will likely differ by tens of thousands of dollars. Overall, not an important issue, as it will only make a difference of a couple hundred thousand dollars here or there.
Let’s start with the open starting catcher spot. The most likely scenario involves Ruiz coming back, likely on a two year deal totaling $14 million or so, as suggested by MLB Trade Rumors. The Phillies like Ruiz because they’re familiar with him and he has a great rapport with the pitching staff. Ruiz likes the Phillies because they’ll be willing to look beyond his age, injury history, and drug suspension, whereas other teams could use it as a bargaining wedge in negotiations.
If, for whatever reason, Ruiz can’t be had, the Phillies’ options become limited, especially if they abstain from jumping into the Brian McCann fiesta, which will likely end up with a four- or five-year deal approaching $100 million being signed. The only other left-handed-hitting catcher (aside from McCann) is A.J. Pierzynski, who made $7.5 million in 2013. Switch-hitters include Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Dioner Navarro, Koyie Hill, and Hector Gimenez. I don’t have much of an opinion on back-up catchers since they mean so very little in the long run. The difference between Erik Kratz, Cameron Rupp, and any of the veteran free agents out there is so small as to be meaningless.
Now, we’re looking for two starters at the back of the rotation. Here, we’re looking for short-term deals for players who have either taken a significant hit in value or are currently reestablishing their value.
Scott Kazmir comes to mind immediately. After leading the Rays to the World Series in 2008, Kazmir had trouble finding himself again. From 2009-11, he posted an aggregate 5.54 ERA with the Rays and then the Angels. He fell to the Independent League in 2012, playing with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League. He struggled even there. On a whim, the Cleveland Indians signed him to a Minor League for the 2013 season, giving him a base salary of $1 million if he made the Majors and an additional $1.75 million in incentives. Kazmir finished with a 4.04 ERA in 158 innings spanning 29 starts. He averaged better than a strikeout per inning pitched and nearly 3.5 strikeouts for every one walk.
158 innings of 4.00 ERA ball, following three arduous years filled with adversity, does not an ace make, so Kazmir is not exactly in a position of bargaining power. He can be had cheaply, but he will be helped by a handful of other teams who liked what they saw with the Indians. MLB Trade Rumors projects a two-year, $16 million contract for Kazmir. Depending on how much stock you place in defense-independent statistics, that is either right on the money for his value as shown in 2013, or it is a slight overpay.
There are two things that make this an attractive contract for the Phillies: one, the money is better spent on him than Kyle Kendrick (MLBTR projects a $6.6 million salary for Kendrick in his final year of arbitration eligibility); and two, if Kazmir performs well, the Phillies could turn him into a prospect or two by trading him if the team isn’t a serious playoff contender, or during the off-season once the 2014 post-season concludes.
Phil Hughes and Roy Halladay are two names that fit in here. For obvious reasons — Hughes never showing any of that upside at any point in the last four years, and Halladay completely falling apart last year – I’m skipping over them.
I’m looking at Josh Johnson. The former stalwart of the Marlins rotation hit the skids in his first year with the Blue Jays in 2013. He logged just 81.1 innings, posting a 6.20 ERA. He missed time between late April and early June with a right triceps injury, and more time between mid-August and the end of the season due to a strained right forearm. Since getting a regular job in 2006, he has logged 100 or more innings in just four of eight seasons.
MLB Trade Rumors projects a one-year, $8 million deal laden with incentives potentially adding another $4-6 million. If he has a bounce-back year, that’s awesome. If he falls apart again, the Phillies can give Pettibone, Morgan, or someone else a shot just like they did last year with Pettibone and Ethan Martin. And as with Kazmir, if Johnson performs well but the Phillies aren’t in contention, they could potentially flip him for a prospect at the trade deadline.
In this hypothetical, we have signed Kazmir and Johnson while non-tendering Kendrick. The Phillies will have Jonathan Pettibone as well as a healthy – or, at least, healthier – Adam Morgan waiting in Triple-A. The Zach Miner-like detritus can be had at a moment’s notice during the season as well, in case Pettibone and Morgan aren’t enough.
I penciled Galvis and Ruf in as bench players because both can be quite useful. In Galvis, the Phillies have a utility guy with plus-defense who can be used in an everyday role in the event of an injury. In Ruf, the Phillies have their right-handed power bat off the bench who can spell Ryan Howard at first base against a tough left-handed starter. We still need another capable infielder (particularly one who can play third base) and an outfielder (particularly one who can play center field).
I purposefully saved right field for next-to-last because we have already brought up Ruf. Rather than serving in a pure bench role, he could be used as part of a platoon in right field. Or left field, whichever. The Phillies can spend some money here since they wouldn’t be taking playing time away from a legitimate outfield prospect and they will have this corner outfield gap for several years down the road, so even a bad free agent contract would still serve some sort of useful purpose.
If you subscribe to the mindset that one’s salary should determine one’s playing time, then this suggestion may not sit well with you. But I would attempt to sign Curtis Granderson and use him in a platoon with Ruf in right field. Granderson is unlikely to accept the $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Yankees; rather, MLB Trade Rumors suggests a three-year, $45 million deal. In a platoon role, Granderson would take roughly 75 percent of the playing time in right field, which translates to 475-500 plate appearances.
Over his career, Granderson has posted an OPS 172 points higher against right-handers than left-handers. Ruf actually performed much better against right-handers than left-handers, but he had just 212 and 81 PA against each, respectively. After regressing those splits heavily towards the league average, Ruf is still a guy you want to expose to right-handed pitching as little as possible if your goal is to maximize his value.
As for the final two bench spots, I like taking a flier on Franklin Gutierrez. He’s a defensive wizard who has shown he can still hit when healthy (but he’s rarely been healthy). He’s right-handed and can take Ruf’s spot as part of the platoon in right field (either to start, or to replace Ruf if he doesn’t perform well), and he is capable of playing center field with plus-defense. Spitballing a contract, one year at $1 million with a chance to make an additional $2-4 million in incentives sounds right.
I’m not too concerned about the other infield spot – it can be anyone. Taking a flier on Rafael Furcal on an incentive-laden one-year deal would be interesting, similar to that of Gutierrez. I like the gamble.
To recap, here’s who we’ve added:
- Carlos Ruiz (C): two years, $14 million ($7 million AAV)
- Scott Kazmir (SP): two years, $16 million ($8 million AAV)
- Josh Johnson (SP): one year, $8 million (plus $4-6 million in incentives)
- Curtis Granderson (RF): three years, $45 million ($15 million AAV)
- Franklin Gutierrez (OF): one year, $1 million (plus $2-4 million in incentives)
- Rafael Furcal (IF): one year, $1 million (plus $2-4 million in incentives)
That’s six players at $40 million in base salary for 2014 with a chance for an additional $14 million. $40-52 million brings us to $172-185 million with rounding. If payroll needs to fit around $160 million, then you can sub out Josh Johnson for someone cheaper with less upside like Jeff Karstens. Or you can just plug in Pettibone.
Overall, this is a team that still likely finishes below .500, but if everything goes right – each of the signings pans out, Ryan Howard has a bounce-back season, Cody Asche becomes a solid regular, Domonic Brown makes more progress, Darin Ruf doesn’t regress, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez shows promise out of the rotation, Jonathan Papelbon doesn’t implode, all of the young arms in the bullpen prove useful, etc. – the Phillies could be threatening in the NL East.
I like this approach because only one deal longer than two years is doled out, and that is only for three years. The Phillies don’t sacrifice future payroll flexibility for low-percentage short-term gains. While the 50th percentile performance isn’t likely to represent a winner, there is more than enough upside for the Phillies to become a surprise contender, meaning that they aren’t just punting the 2014 season.
The Granderson deal ends in 2016, a pivot year for the Phillies. It marks the final year of the Ryan Howard contract, as well as Cliff Lee’s contract (unless the Phillies pick up his $27.5 million club option). Chase Utley has $15 million vesting options from 2016-18 with a $2 million buyout for 2016. Jonathan Papelbon has a vesting option for 2016. Other than that, the only money left on the books is Cole Hamels ($23.5 million through 2018). At this point, the Phillies will know where they stand with Maikel Franco, Jesse Biddle, and J.P. Crawford, among others. Domonic Brown will have succeeded or failed as an offensive threat. This new core could do for the Phillies what Hamels, Howard, Utley, and Rollins did for them in 2007. The worst thing to do would be to add another inflexible contract (e.g. four-plus years given this off-season) to an aging veteran who won’t provide nearly as much value down the road.
While adding Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and a handful of other free agents would be sexy, it wouldn’t be the most prudent use of resources, even if you’re counting on an influx of money from a TV deal. Poor decisions made in the past have led the Phillies to their current predicament; it would be unwise to double down and hope that you can erase some of those past mistakes with new decisions made in the same vein.
Remember, in 2006 after trading away Bobby Abreu, former GM Pat Gillick told the media, “It would probably be a stretch to think we’re going to be there [as a contender] in 2007. It’s going to be a little slower. I don’t want to mislead anyone.” The Phillies made the playoffs the next season, and won the World Series in 2008. They didn’t do it by signing the biggest free agents around; they did it with careful development of their Minor League talent and with low-risk, high-reward acquisitions (for example, Shane Victorino through the Rule-5 draft and Jayson Werth through free agency).