Evaluating the Phillies Outfield Options
UPDATE: The Phillies announced that they’ve claimed outfield defensive guru, Peter Bourjos, on waivers about two hours after I posted this. Bourjos is entering his final year of arbitration and adds very little on offense. Feel free to disregard everything below but read it anyway because, hey, everybody needs a baseball fix.
In what figures to be a relatively quiet offseason for the Phillies, there are still moves to be made to address their 2016 roster. So far they’ve begun to fill holes in their rotation through the acquisition of Jeremy Hellickson and they’ve loaded up on relief arms through three waiver wire claims (Dan Otero, A.J. Achter, and Michael Mariot) and a minor league contract for James Russell. They will still likely bring in another arm or two for rotation depth, but the one glaring hole remaining to be addressed is in the outfield.
As it stands the Phillies have four players listed as outfielders on their 40-man roster: two of their likely starters for 2016 (Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera), a converted third baseman with a murky future (Cody Asche), and a 22-year-old prospect (Roman Quinn) whose absolute earliest reasonable major league ETA is September 2016 . Added into the 2016 mix are two infielders with outfield experience: Darnell Sweeney and, dare I say it, Darin Ruf. It is likely the Darin Ruf Outfield Experiment is at a stage now which includes the following disclaimer: to be used in case of Roy-Oswalt-to-the-outfield emergencies only. Consequently, without a major league acquisition this winter, the Phillies commit themselves to an untenable situation where the starting outfield is Asche-Herrera-Altherr and the backups are Sweeney and Ruf. A move is inevitable, so what are the options?
The Elite Acquisition
The most obvious and perhaps most unlikely option is to sign one of the top-tier outfield free agents: Alex Gordon, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, or Yoenis Cespedes. These players are likely to get five- to eight-year deals (or more in the case of Heyward) with average annual values (AAV) somewhere in the $18M-$25M range.
- Gordon provides stellar defense in left field, has 20-homer power, gets on-base at a good clip and is likely to be the cheapest of the four. But he’s likely to be the cheapest because he’ll be 32 years old next season. I see no way he fits into the Phillies future plans.
- Cespedes is coming off a career year, has excellent 25-30 homer pop, can “play” center field in addition to left, and is the only one of the four without draft pick compensation attached. But he posts abysmal on-base rates (.309 OBP in the three years since his breakout rookie campaign) and, like Gordon, his contract will begin with him on the wrong side of 30. Although Cespedes feels like a player the last administration would’ve been all over, I can’t imagine MacPhail and Klentak pursuing him.
- Upton is interesting in large part because he’ll be just 28 years old next season and has been a solid player in the league for seven years already. He does a little of everything offensively: good speed, 25-30 homers, and decent batting average (career .260 hitter). His defense is unremarkable, but with an offensive profile that strong, does it matter? If the Phillies rebuild was a year or two further along, a free agent like Upton would have a ton of appeal, but committing 5-7 years and $20+M/year to a player who turns 30 during the 2017 season is a tough sell right now.
- Heyward is the guy. He’s just 26 years old, less than a year older than Cody Asche. I’ve already written 2,000 words about why he’s the ideal free agent fit for the Phillies right now so I’ll leave it at this: he’s very good, he provides stability to a franchise with a massive dearth of it, the Phillies have truckloads of salary room, and players of his caliber with his youth virtually never hit the free agent market. Of course those are also reasons why Heyward is a stellar fit for many teams and there has been absolutely no indication to date that the Phillies intend to pursue him.
Mid-Tier Free Agents
There are a few free agent outfielders who figure to receive three to four year deals with AAV in a comparatively reasonable $8M to $12M range: Dexter Fowler, Austin Jackson, Gerardo Parra, Denard Span. The only way making a commitment of three or more years to a non-elite player at this stage in their rebuild would make sense is if their internal evaluations of their emerging young outfielders — Herrera, Altherr, Quinn, and Nick Williams — is atrocious. There’s absolutely no indication this is the case and even if it were, there’s virtually no reason not to wait another year and see what develops internally.
One- or Two-Year Deals
Adding a bottom tier free agent or a player looking to rebuild value on a one-year deal is a much more interesting option which ought to be of particular interest if they believe both Williams and Quinn are at least a year away from starting in the majors. A few players who are likely to be available on one- or two-year deals in the $4M-$7M AAV range: left-handed platoon bats Alejandro De Aza, David Murphy, and Matt Joyce; aging speedsters Rajai Davis and Shane Victorino; Alex Rios and Will Venable who are looking to rebound after two straight bad years; and, my personal favorite, Steve Pearce.
With the right-handed Altherr’s emergence as an every day option and Ruf’s ineptitude with outfield defense, the Phillies lack an obvious platoon partner for the available lefty platoon bats. Davis has been a decent player in Detroit and, as a right-hander, could share time with Asche but Father Time is often unkind to players who rely on speed and Davis is already 35 years old.
The two players listed who stand out are Alex Rios and Steve Pearce. The once productive Rios has struggled the past two seasons as his power completely nose-dived. He sports a .157 career isolated power (ISO), but registered an ISO of just .118 and .099 in the last two years respectively. He might simply be done, but if there’s anything left in the tank the right-hander could share time with Asche and try to rebuild value in a park known for dingers.
I’ve mentioned Pearce before because he is also a first baseman and I believe he can fill the much needed role of temporary Ryan Howard replacement. He could spend the first half of the season in the outfield splitting time with Asche as a bridge to Nick Williams and then, potentially, slide to first base if the Phillies elect to move Howard.
Depth/Bench Free Agents
No, I haven’t forgotten Jeff Francoeur. The Phillies spent last season raving about what Francoeur brought to the clubhouse and, despite a negative WAR, his production at the plate (.258/.286/.433, 93 wRC+) was more than passable for a fourth outfielder. If the Phillies are truly only interested in adding temporary placeholders, Francoeur could certainly the bill as a fill-in until Williams is ready. Other players who could be available on minimal contracts that may be of interest: former Rutgers University ballplayer David DeJesus, superutility man Sean Rodriguez, platoon right-handed batter Justin Ruggiano, and the guy who hit a grand slam off Joe Blanton in his first major league at-bat, Daniel Nava.
The player rumored to be available by trade of most interest to the Phillies is the Marlins 25-year-old outfielder Marcell Ozuna who has four remaining years of team control. When the Ozuna rumors first began to heat up, Bill Baer wrote about whether he was a potential fit for Philadelphia. I’ve always been impressed by Ozuna if only because when he’s played against Philadelphia he’s looked like a future Hall of Famer (181 PA, .321/.370/.494) and his age certainly fits in with the Phillies timeline. Even though his career stat line is significantly less impressive (1372 PA, 265/.311/.416) than his vs. PHL line, if the price drops low enough he could potentially be an interesting fit.
Recently Brad Johnson of MLB Trade Rumors took an in-depth look at possible outfield options the Phillies may consider with their first overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft next week. He predicts that they will select either outfielder Jabari Blash, a power-hitting 26-year-old in the Mariners organization, or Tyler Goeddel, a more well-rounded 23-year-old hitter out of the Rays organization. With the Phillies most recent Rule 5 success Odubel Herrera still fresh in mind, it’s important to note that it’s extremely rare to add a notably productive player through the Rule 5 draft. Unless the Phillies absolutely love one of the outfielders available, I expect them to select a pitcher instead of a position player because, in a season when they are likely to need space for in-season roster additions like J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, and Andrew Knapp, I believe they will value flexibility on the positional side of the roster.
I would absolutely love to see the Phillies bring in Heyward but I just can’t see it actually happening. Bringing back Jeff Francoeur or someone similar continues to look like the easiest and most likely path to filling a roster gap while the emerging young core continues to emerge.