Free Agent Pitching Targets for the Phillies
Despite having made several headlines in recent months as the front office has molted, the Phillies portend to have a relatively quiet off-season. Nearly all of their trade candidates have already been moved — Cole Hamels to Texas, Chase Utley to Los Angeles, Jonathan Papelbon to Washington. Many roster spots are now spoken for by younger, less-proven players and the next stage of the Phillies’ rebuilding process is to help these players develop into major league-caliber players.
It is enticing to pore over the list of free agents and envision many of them donning Phillies red pinstripes, but the David Prices, Zack Greinkes, and Jason Heywards of the world will be getting their contracts elsewhere. The Phillies, as has been common for them over the past couple of years, will be hunting for bargains — inexpensive, risk-free targets not to star, but instead to support their youth.
Starting pitching will be a particular target for the Phillies. The rotation was a liability during the 2015 regular season because the pitchers had trouble lasting beyond the fifth inning. That, in turn, created strain for the bullpen. Only three teams — the Reds, Diamondbacks, and Rockies — got fewer five-plus-inning starts than the Phillies’ 79, less than half their schedule. On the flip side, the Phillies were one of three teams with four relievers throwing 1,000 or more pitches along with the Reds and Pirates.
Heading into the 2016 season, the Phillies are looking for starters who satisfy each of four criteria: they are signed for only one year (non-guaranteed a bonus), are relatively cheap, have a reasonably clean bill of health, and have a history of being able to soak up innings. With this in mind, let’s run down the list of free agent starting pitchers and pick out a few that could be attractive to the Phillies. For the purposes of this exercise, we’re assuming that Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Adam Morgan are guaranteed rotation slots. Alec Asher likely starts the year at Triple-A, while David Buchanan and Severino Gonzalez (among others) will battle the handful of veterans the Phillies bring into camp for a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Buehrle had a disappointing end to his season as he yielded four or more runs in five of his final eight starts. At 198 innings after his 31st start in the Blue Jays’ 160th game, manager John Gibbons tried to get him to the 200-inning mark — which would have been his 15th consecutive 200-inning season — by starting him on short rest in Game 162, but he recorded only two outs while getting slammed for eight runs. In total, Buehrle finished the year with a solid 3.81 ERA. While the 36-year-old’s 11 percent strikeout rate was the lowest among qualified starters, his four percent walk rate was the third-lowest. He reached the sixth inning in all but six of his 32 starts.
The veteran Buehrle earned $19 million in 2015, the final year of a four-year, $58 million deal initially signed with the Marlins in December 2011. He was expected to announce his retirement, but a recent report suggested he still has interest in playing. No team will be willing to pay Buehrle more than a few million dollars considering his age, the way he declined in the second half, and a change of heart on retirement. It’s hard to imagine he would settle for a non-guaranteed contract, though, so the Phillies are likely looking at a situation in which they would have to offer him a one-year deal in the $5-7 million range. Considering that they’re only at $51 million guaranteed with a plethora of pre-arbitration players on the roster, the Phillies have plenty of wiggle room to spend a little superfluously on rotation depth, and Buehrle fits all of our aforementioned criteria.
Gee had, for six years, been the Mets’ version of Kyle Kendrick: a soft-tossing innings-eater who limits walks. He made 110 starts and four relief appearances, compiling a 4.03 ERA and a 4.25 FIP with 489 strikeouts and 216 walks over 679 1/3 innings. But, with the cavalry of young arms usurping all of the Mets’ rotation slots, Gee was outrighted to Triple-A, remaining in exile for the rest of the season. He’s now a free agent.
Gee doesn’t have much leverage as he had awful results (5.90 ERA) in a small sample of 39 2/3 innings during the 2015 season. The odds of the 29-year-old enticing a multi-year contract offer are slim, so he may be more interested in a “pillow contract” — a one-year deal during which a player hopes to perform well and reestablish his value on the open market. Third baseman Adrian Beltre famously did this after an awful 2009 with the Mariners, signing a one-year deal with the Red Sox. He bumped his adjusted OPS (OPS+) from 83 to 141, then signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Rangers.
Furthermore, Gee’s lack of leverage might also allow the Phillies to guarantee him a small amount of money but tack on a few innings-based incentives that would allow the right-hander to earn more money.
Guthrie has twice led the league in losses, but has really been a solid, dependable arm for nine seasons. Until this season, Guthrie had made at least 29 starts in each season dating back to 2008 and while his 4.24 ERA wasn’t the stuff of legend, it was more than acceptable at the back of a rotation. The 36-year-old, however, struggled immensely in 2015, posting a 5.65 ERA across 23 starts before the Royals sent him into the bullpen to be forgotten. They declined his 2016 option on Wednesday.
Guthrie’s stuff didn’t change all that much — he actually gained velocity on a couple of his pitches — but he was slightly less adept at missing bats and slightly less stingy on walking batters compared to the prior season. He’s relatively old, but the Phillies aren’t concerned about production; they’re just looking for a guy who can be counted upon to get through six innings every fifth day.
No, I’m not joking. Kendrick, as expected, had a nightmare of a time pitching for the Rockies in the pitcher-unfriendly confines of Coors Field, ending the 2015 season with a 6.32 ERA over 142 1/3 innings. That was on the heels of 4.70 and 4.61 ERA’s with the Phillies the previous two seasons. There was a small blip as Kendrick spent the entire month of August on the disabled list with inflammation in his right shoulder. He pitched decently in four of his six starts between his return from the DL through the end of the season — a low bar, but still.
Needless to say, the only people knocking on Kendrick’s door this winter will be Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, don’t be shocked if Kendrick has to settle for a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. That would make him even more attractive to the Phillies. He’s a known commodity who will require very little in the way of commitment and has a history of soaking up innings. Even if Kendrick doesn’t make the final cut heading into the regular season, just having him in spring camp would be beneficial to the younger players.
Lohse, like most of the free agent pitchers the Phillies will be looking at, had an awful 2015 campaign. His ERA ballooned to 6.31 after his 22nd start, and the Brewers promptly demoted him to mop-up duty in the bullpen. The right-hander is a free agent after completing his three-year, $33 million deal with the Brewers.
Lohse is still not too far separated from a great late-career run that spanned four seasons from 2011-14. His ERA’s went 3.39, 2.86, 3.35, and 3.54. (The Cardinals — specifically then-pitching coach Dave Duncan — had a lot to do with his turnaround, getting him to focus on limiting walks and inducing ground balls.) As a result, Lohse will likely be able to find guaranteed money on the open market, even if that means waiting until January. The Phillies may still want to consider him, as he recorded 18 or more outs in 12 of his 22 starts even while he was getting hit around. If Lohse is able to pitch at a 4.50 ERA level rather than at 5.85, he can probably get that 54 percent six-inning conversion rate into the 70’s.
Vogelsong, once a Kutztown University pitcher, is 38 years old and is coming off a year in which he racked up a 4.67 ERA over 22 starts and 11 relief appearances for the Giants. He averaged 5 1/3 innings per start, but that likely would have been higher if the Giants didn’t more or less double barrel his starts with Yusmeiro Petit behind him. He averaged above six innings in 2011-12 and close to six innings in 2014.
Vogelsong is actually a former Phillie. He signed with the Phillies on a minor league deal in January 2010, spending the first three months of the season and part of July at Triple-A Lehigh Valley before he was released. Despite sometimes getting lumped in with the likes of Brandon Moss and Jason Grilli in “should of kept” arguments, Vogelsong pitched poorly in his time with the organization and his release was certainly justified. At any rate, there’s likely no hard feelings about his brief time with the club.
Young was a big part of the Royals’ post-season success this past season, as they won both of his starts in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays and Game 4 of the World Series against the Mets. The oft-injured right-hander began the year in the bullpen as a mop-up guy, but moved into the rotation due to injuries and performed quite well. Young carried a 3.25 ERA with 66 strikeouts and 32 walks over 99 2/3 innings through the end of July, but the Royals opted to shift him back to the bullpen to give the aforementioned Guthrie a shot. Young moved back into the rotation for two starts at the end of the year, pitching five shutout innings against the Indians and 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the Twins, ultimately finishing with a 3.01 ERA.
Young is 36 years old and will be heading into his third season separated from surgery to deal with thoracic outlet syndrome. Players in their mid-to-late 30’s are always injury-prone, but given how he performed this year and in 2014 with the Mariners (3.65 ERA in 165 innings), it’s reasonable to say that his shoulder isn’t a red flag anymore; just a yellow one. Young has pitched well enough lately that he’ll draw some interest and won’t have to settle for a minor league deal. But because of his age and injury history, his salary won’t go any higher than a few million dollars on a one-year deal.