Running Down the Phillies’ 2014 Storylines
The Phillies, perhaps more than any other team, have a slew of players with those dreaded question marks hanging over them. Because of their collective age, propensity to get injured, and — for some — recent under-performance, the Phillies aren’t exactly anyone’s favorite to win the pennant. But it is a 162-game season and stranger things have happened.
With that said, let’s look at some of the important storylines facing the Phillies as they are set to begin their quest in 2014.
Obvious: Can he stay healthy? Howard says he’s going into spring training with the mindset that he’s going to play 162 games, per CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury. The road to hell is paved with the best intentions, they say. Howard has played in a total of 151 games over the last two seasons due to his recovery from his Achilles injury at the end of the 2011 post-season, and a torn meniscus last season. His power was significantly reduced, his plate discipline was worse, and his ability to hit left-handers evaporated. If Howard can indeed stay healthy for an entire season, though, it’s quite possible all of those problems go away and he makes at least a partial recovery, rediscovering the player he used to be.
On the other hand, if Howard continues to struggle or can’t stay healthy, manager Ryne Sandberg will have to give real consideration to the idea of platooning him at first base with Darin Ruf or John Mayberry. At the outset, Sandberg doesn’t seem too enamored with the idea, and neither does Howard, also per Salisbury.
After battling knee injuries for two years, Utley logged his most playing time and his best offensive production since 2009. He finished the year with an adjusted OPS of 125 in 131 games played. Like Howard, many still doubt Utley can handle the rigors of a 162-game season. PECOTA projects 539 plate appearances, which is about the same amount of playing time as he had this past season — in other words, even the projections don’t see him logging a full season.
Also of concern is Utley’s defense. He still ranks above-average, which is quite impressive for a 35-year-old second baseman, but he was a shadow of his former self — a deserving Gold Glove winner and arguably the best defensive second baseman in his five-year span of good health from 2005-09. According to both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, Utley has not only lost a bit of range, but he has been less sure-handed, committing more fielding errors last year (11) than he ever has in any one season in his career. If Utley’s defense sags further, even only slightly, he’ll have to make up for it in other ways and, frankly, it’s a tall task given his age and history of knee problems. Baseball Reference and FanGraphs rated him as a 3.5-4.0 win player last season, which still puts him in the conversation for top-five second basemen in baseball. We’re not talking about a replacement-level player, but he is the most important and most valuable position player on the team.
Another obvious one: how serious is his shoulder injury? Neither Hamels nor GM Ruben Amaro seemed concerned about it, according to Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com. But as Ryan Sommers noted on the day the news about Hamels’ shoulder broke, the team has a history of being less than forthright when it comes to injuries. This is, after all, the same organization that failed to administer a physical to Freddy Garcia after acquiring him in a trade, only to see his shoulder explode in spectacular fashion three months into the season. They say Hamels should only miss one or two starts once the regular season begins, but what if they’re wrong? The Phillies owe Hamels $118.5 million through 2018 (including his 2019 buyout), so it isn’t just this season everyone’s concerned about. Hamels is expected to lead the rotation long after Cliff Lee is gone.
If the Phillies are out of the playoff picture by the All-Star break, as many expect them to be, will they trade Lee? Lee has limited no-trade protection, but the left-hander through at least 2015 with a club option for 2016. Lee said he will retire after his contract expires. Thus, the clock is ticking for the Phillies, who are slowly but surely turning the calendar and ushering in a new generation of competitive baseball. Trading Lee in 2014, while he’s still healthy and productive, could land them an impact prospect or two which would set the team up well in the very near future. Even if it requires the Phillies eating a vast majority of his remaining $62.5 million, they should deeply consider moving Lee to a contender. On the other hand, the Phillies’ attendance has been sagging and Lee is one of the few guarantees left when you show up to the ballpark.
Is Burnett’s rebirth in Pittsburgh, after a nightmarish stay in the Bronx with the Yankees, a temporary change or sustainable? Burnett changed his pitch repertoire with the Pirates, focusing more on a two-seam fastball rather than a four-seamer, which resulted in more ground balls. But those ground balls were scooped up and converted into outs at the highest rate in baseball thanks to the Pirates’ Saber-savvy front office, which used analytics to shift the infield into positions most likely to field grounders. The Phillies, as we’re well aware, aren’t quite as fond of analytics as the Pirates. They shifted less than every other team in baseball, according to John Dewan. Additionally, Citizens Bank Park is much more hitter-friendly than PNC Park according to StatCorner. There’s a very real possibility that Burnett could keep everything exactly the same and he’d regress nonetheless based on factors completely out of his control, like the Phillies’ comparatively poorer infield defense and the higher rate at which fly balls escape over the outfield fence in Philly.
The Phillies will have a manager not named Charlie Manuel at the helm on Opening Day for the first time since 2004. Manuel was known as a laid-back, player-friendly manager. We don’t know much about Sandberg’s style, but he’s cut from the same cloth as Larry Bowa, who coincidentally is the team’s bench coach. Will a veteran-laden roster take to a new leader with a different style and perhaps a less forgiving atmosphere in the clubhouse? Will Sandberg make the same mistake Manuel did in relying too heavily on baseball orthodoxy?
After learning that the Phillies gave John Mayberry a guaranteed contract to avoid arbitration — uncommon; most players receive non-guaranteed contracts during these negotiations — it seemed like Ruf’s future was further cemented. As Mayberry and Ruf offer about the same net contributions, Mayberry with higher defensive upside and Ruf with higher offensive upside, it appears that Ruf will open up the 2013 season with Triple-A Lehigh Valley… perhaps barring an outstanding performance in spring training. It still remains possible that the Phillies trade Mayberry, but $1.6 million may be a bit too expensive for a replacement-level player.
Papelbon’s loss of velocity has been a hot topic of conversation since about June of last season. With the Red Sox, the right-hander lived high in the strike zone with a fastball that averaged 95 MPH. As a result, his strikeout rate ranged from 26 to 38 percent. In 2012, his first season with the Phillies, his fastball averaged under 94 MPH. His strikeout rate stayed at 32 percent, however. This past season, his fastball averaged 92 MPH and his strikeout rate fell to 22 percent. As I noted here, he wasn’t able to get away with pitches up in the strike zone nearly as often.
Papelbon is 33 years old. Pitchers that lose velocity don’t often gain it back in their mid-30′s. And he isn’t the kind of pitcher who can simply readjust to life without a mid-90′s fastball; he would practically have to reinvent himself. If Papelbon’s velocity continues to slide down, he may simply flame out. This would be bad not only from a performance standpoint, but it would make him practically untradeable. Papelbon is still owed $13 million in 2015 and has a $13 million vesting option that could theoretically activate in 2016 if the Phillies continue to send him out to the mound. Given how the closer market played out during the off-season, it may be very tough to move Papelbon for anything of value unless he starts throwing 95 again.
Diekman was one of the few Phillies who left you with nothing to complain or worry about during the 2013 season. He started off a bit rough, but ended up developing into one of their most dependable relievers in the final two months of the season. In August and September, Diekman posted a 1.64 ERA with 26 strikeouts and nine unintentional walks in 22 innings of work. Hitters looked uncomfortable trying to figure out if he was throwing his 96 MPH fastball or his 84 MPH slider. Diekman struggled with control issues throughout his Minor League career and in his first taste of the big leagues in 2012, but seemed to overcome them in a small sample of innings in the second half. If those improvements were real and not a mirage, there’s no reason why Diekman couldn’t develop into a reliable set-up man and, perhaps in the future, a closer.
Amaro controversially handed Ruiz, 35, a three-year, $26 million deal with a fourth-year club option to finish out his career in Philadelphia. Neither the money nor the years seemed to fit right with many and that feeling was made stronger when Jarrod Saltalamacchia — seven years Ruiz’s junior — signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Marlins. One need not be a Sabermagician to realize that the odds that a 35-year-old with a recent hamstring injury and plantar fasciitis will stay healthy and productive through 37 aren’t very good. Ruiz walked at the lowest rate of his career (five percent), his power tied for a five-year low (.100 ISO), and his ability to make solid contact suffered as well, as evidenced by his .291 BABIP, which was .308 to .339 in the prior three seasons.
If 2013 was the beginning of the end for Ruiz, then the Phillies are paying a future back-up catcher $26 million. Or they’ll be paying an unproductive starter $26 million, either way. But it’s also possible that it was a one-year blip and Ruiz can go back to being a top-ten catcher. Ruiz is just one of a host of older guys the Phillies are depending on to find the fountain of youth.
Rollins was similar to Ruiz in a lot of ways last season. He’s a 35-year-old coming off of the worst season of his career in which he saw a significant decline in power. After his wOBA ranged from .309 to to .325 in several injury-plagued seasons from 2009-12, Rollins’ wOBA last season was an awful .295. But just as alarmingly, Rollins’ defense graded out very poorly according to both defensive metrics and scouts. From 2010-12, UZR put Rollins at 6.6, 3.5, and 7.9. Last year, -2.7. DRS, from Baseball Reference, was 3, -7, -8. Then -15 last season.
If Rollins is struggling with the bat but playing relatively decent defense, he’s still a two-win player, which is average. But when he’s struggling on both ends, he’s replacement level and the Phillies would be better served to start Freddy Galvis in his stead. Rollins is a free agent after the season (unless his 2015 option vests), so the Phillies could attempt to have Rollins waive his no-trade clause and send him to a contender, but it’s unlikely they would be able to get anything more than salary relief and a bucket of baseballs.
Amaro quickly jumped into the free agent market, signing Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million deal in November. Byrd’s previous personal record in salary was $6.5 million with the Red Sox in 2012, so the Phillies were ostensibly giving Byrd a raise for his career year last season. Byrd, at the age of 35, posted a 138 adjusted OPS thanks in large part to an absolute explosion in power. He finished with a .220 ISO, well above his .145 average and vastly exceeding his .136, .119, and .035 marks in the prior three seasons.
Byrd is absolutely an upgrade over the garbage the Phillies had in right field (Delmon Young, John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, Ruf) last season. But many are skeptical he can reproduce his success in a second consecutive season at the age of 36, and you can’t really fault the skepticism.