The Phillies announced this evening that they will tender contracts to Antonio Bastardo, Kyle Kendrick, John Mayberry Jr. and Ben Revere, and signed utility infielder Kevin Frandsen to a one-year, $900 thousand deal with incentives.
If there’s one thing the Phillies aren’t short on in the organization, it’s middle infielders. From Chase Utley to Jimmy Rollins to Cesar Hernandez to Freddy Galvis to (if you grin and bear it) Kevin Frandsen, that’s a handful of players under control in 2014 that can, feasibly, play up the middle.
The only problem, of course, is that only one of those guys is a viable Major League player right now.
- Frandsen has come up with a big hit from time-to-time, but is 4-for-36 in August and leaves something to be desired on defense.
- Galvis has a .626 Major League OPS in 364 PA; a .617 career Minor League OPS
- Hernandez has missed the vast majority of the past month with a wrist injury and will get more looks in center field when he returns
And fine, so three bench guys are playing like bench guys. Their problems and presence on a roster mean relatively little when compared to the struggles of the man expected to be the starting shortstop through next season.
Sometimes, being a fan is difficult. Usually, the most arduous times come simply from losing, but there seems to be a special, intense pang of despondency attached to the difficulty associated with watching a once mighty team crumble from within and without. Nationally, Philadelphia – the team and city alike – were never darlings, but I didn’t care; major-city sports teams always get plenty of attention, but rarely any non-partisan admiration.
So there’s no pity to be expected from the continued devolution of what was once a squad called the Philadelphia Phillies. No one who isn’t connected to the team in some way will feel badly for this string of events. They likely delight in it. And so be it; they’re entitled to react as they please. All that being said:
What the hell happened here?
In a sense, things have been going backward since the parade down Broad Street on Halloween 2008 ended. In 2009, the Phillies returned to the World Series, but were bested. In 2010, they bowed out a round earlier. In 2011, they were on the wrong end of one of the better postseason pitching duels in history in the NLDS. In 2012, they didn’t even have the chance.
And now, here we sit, spectators to the composing of another bizarre chapter in one of the strangest rebuilding parables ever told: the 2012-13 offseason. The roster has been transformed, through age as well as acquisition, into one that harnesses but a sliver of its former potency.
The progression of the Phils’ team slugging since 2007 reads as follows: .458, .438, .447, .413, .395, .400. The progression of the Phils’ team OBP since 2007 reads as follows: .354, .332, .334, .332, .323, .317. That is…um…not encouraging. But at least the problem is fairly easily identifiable: to complement an aging, papier mache core, corresponding moves had to be made. With, presumably, a sizable amount of budget room and a decent crop of free agent outfielders to choose from, the Phillies decided to hang onto their 16th overall pick and not sign a Michael Bourn or Josh Hamilton or Nick Swisher (although Hamilton’s eventual price of 5/$125M is out of the reasonable price range anyway).
Instead, the Phillies, having added the controversial and not-that-good Delmon Young to their bounty, now possess a bushel of nine outfielders on their 40-man roster, of whom six have seen Major League action:
- Domonic Brown: the former top prospect who’s had to battle nagging injuries and inconsistent playing time. Hit .235/.316/.396 in 212 PA in 2012.
- John Mayberry Jr.: made a fan favorite with a white-hot finish to 2011. Hit .245/.301/.395 in 479 PA in 2012
- Laynce Nix: given a two-year deal before 2012, he’s currently the most expensive outfielder on the roster. Hit .246/.315/.412 in 127 PA in 2012.
- Ben Revere: cost a depth starter in Vance Worley and well-regarded prospect in Trevor May to acquire. Defensive specialist. Hit .294/.333/.342 in 553 PA in 2012.
- Darin Ruf: the powerful, flash-in-the-pan never-prospect who might have a career as a bench bat. Hit .333/.351/.727 in a certainly sufficient 37 PA sample in 2012.
- Delmon Young: the former No. 1 overall pick with character, weight and baseball ability issues. Hit .267/.296/.411 in 608 PA in 2012.
On the infield side of things, the Phillies sent two relievers to Texas and assumed $6M of responsibility for Michael Young, who contributed a .277/.312/.370 line in 651 PA for the Rangers. This is to say nothing of Rule 5 draftee Ender Inciarte, who almost certainly faces waivers and an offer back to the Diamondbacks at some point this spring.
These are borderline penny-pinching moves, brought on by a combination of paying top dollar for top talent (Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee), unnecessary top dollar for for very good or not-so-top talent (Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon) and an emptying of the farm for deals ranging from great (Halladay) to acceptable (Roy Oswalt) to just bad (Pence). It would be another thing entirely if the majority of these moves were made with sound baseball logic at their foundation, but the reality facing us here is that’s simply not the case. It is those second- and third-category moves that make this more frustrating than it needs to be, rather than an acceptable placement in the cycle of rebuilding -> contention and back again.
Now, here we sit, fewer than two years removed from a 102-win season, having to rely on a likely dual-platoon, five-outfielder system, an aging infield that provides no certainty of full-season health and questionable depth in the rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench.
These cobwebs are tough to peel off. It feels as though the club has arrived at or near the place many of us feared it would arrive as the risky and head-scratching moves began to pile up: on the doorstep of relegation to “also-ran” status with a shaky outlook for a return to “elite” status within the next three years. The playoff hopes of this team as currently constructed rely on too many low-probability bouncebacks from too many players than should have been necessary. And far too many to be a viable plan. The 2011 season has never seemed further away.
I write this before a single game is played in 2013. I write this before these players can be given a chance to prove me wrong. As with most of my negative notions, I hope to eventually be proven wrong. But I also write this under cloud cover that feels thicker than any I can remember for years back.
And you may ask yourself, well, how did we get here?
A major free agent domino has fallen, sportsfans, as former Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton has agreed to terms with the Native American Warriors of Atlanta on a five-year, $75.25 million contract, the richest free-agent deal in franchise history. Upton was my dream choice for the Phillies if they went the free agent route with a center fielder, and while the 28-year-old is hardly a bargain at $15 million a year, there’s great potential for him to be worth that and more.
Upton, as you all probably know now, has great speed and is a good defender, with power that comes and goes. He should easily be an offensive upgrade over Michael Bourn (who we can probably assume is on his way out now), while losing a little bit with the glove and one bases. But that’s only because Bourn is one of the best defenders and baserunners in the game. With Martin Prado, Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons in the fold, Upton should continue to keep the Braves’ team defense on a “sick nasty” level. And given the way Braves fans treated Heyward, an extremely talented player who underachieved due to nothing more than injury, I’m sure that Upton’s reputation for not exhibiting Brett Lawrie-esque levels of insane, self-destructive on-field intensity and showy effort will go over EXTREMELY WELL in Atlanta.
But anyway, while Bourn to Upton is something of a lateral move for Atlanta, most interesting is its effect on the rest of the market. Not only are the Phillies in need of an upgrade over John Mayberry, but the Nationals acknowledge that while Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth are good athletes and very good defensive corner outfielders, neither is the long-term answer in center field.
“Watch out for #phillies to surprise everyone and sign Hamilton,” said one prominent agent. A scout told me the same thing.
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) November 29, 2012
To which I say:
First of all, I don’t think I have to tell you why signing Hamilton is a bad idea, but in case you’ve been asleep, here’s a primer: he’s a very good player, but he’s going to earn a lot of money going forward, and his skills and physical history suggest that the sands of time will erode him in a particularly dramatic way. Phillies fans, of all people, should know better than to want Hamilton after watching Ryan Howard crumble like Lot’s wife escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah. But these are the same folks who lived through the Hunter Pence trade and still think it’s a good idea for the Phillies to mortgage Boardwalk and Park Place to trade for Chase Headley. Like the Lotus-eaters, we trundle through life just kind of sleepily ignorant of all the turmoil that surrounds us.
There’s a possibility that all 30 major league teams will feel this way, realize that Hamilton can’t stay healthy, has terrible plate discipline and most likely will not be able to play center field much longer, and the market will evaporate, leaving him in much the same situation Edwin Jackson and Ryan Madson found themselves in last year. So if January rolls around and Hamilton can be had for, say, three years at $20-ish million per, then maybe we talk. But this:
@thegoodphight Hamilton-if you can do 5 yrs, $125 million. Otherwise, I wouldn’t go big (more than $10million/yr over 4 yrs) for Upton/Bourn
— Patrick J. Murphy (@PatrickMurphyPA) November 26, 2012
That’s the kind of out-of-touch, glib disregard for financial prudence that one could only expect from someone who managed to get himself elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. An answer so cravenly, Harrison Bergeron-y populist that it makes clear, as if one wore a sign of neon lights on one’s head, and did a dance, smiling broadly and clicking your castanets, like some sort of sick, dystopian Carmen Miranda-in-Tron, that you pay only cursory attention to the state of the world as it is. A combination of ignorance and delusion that makes me wonder how in the hell this guy only lasted one term, because voters usually eat that kind of thing up.
Anyway, that’s the kind of contract that I’d like Josh Hamilton to get from another team.
As far as the impact of Upton’s signing on the rest of the market, I can’t say, because I don’t have any information. Which doesn’t stop some people from flinging around unsourced rumors like confetti. Because a scout and an agent think Hamilton ends up in Philly? Well, that and 17,000 credits will get you from Tatooine to Alderaan without any Imperial entanglements. Which, if I recall correctly, is the real trick, isn’t it?
A scout and an agent, presumably not Hamilton’s agent…so that’s two people who know a lot about baseball but have zero input in any process that would bring the Phillies and Hamilton together. That might as well be James Bond and the main character from To Kill a Mockingbird for all the good that does. If Bill and I say Josh Hamilton is going to Baltimore, or to Panera Bread for breakfast tomorrow, or to Mallorca for a nice offseason getaway with his wife, what then? We’re two guys who know a lot about baseball and have zero input in Hamilton’s professional future, would you believe us?
The point is not that what Crasnick said isn’t true, or that he’s even necessarily being irresponsible for reporting it. I’m just saying that it’s nothing more than what all of us are doing–speculating. So don’t believe everything you read on the internet.
There was a time last season when Shane Victorino was having more than just a good season; he was a legitimate MVP candidate. The argument can probably be made that, until a rough, ragged September diminished his season numbers, Victorino’s chances were way better than non-zero at taking the award. A centerfielder hitting .314/.389/.551 as late as August 23 certainly merits that consideration, even though a .179/.257/.321 line from thereon sabotaged those hopes and Shane finished 13th in the voting.
Regardless, it seemed like Victorino had tapped into something latent, a subterranean vein of offensive skill that outclassed what he had previously been known for or expected to produce. Much like John Mayberry Jr.’s second half last year, there were plenty of reasons to think Victorino could carry this newfound production into his walk year and help hold down the fort as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley made their way back.
Suffice to say that hasn’t happened.
Victorino enters game action Saturday with a rather paltry .252/.319/.399 slash line to his name, his .718 OPS good for a 95 OPS+ but feeling like a disappointment in the shadow of 2011′s promise. In his six prior full seasons in Philadelphia, Shane has never slugged lower than .414, and his average SLG has been even higher at .443. Shane’s calling card remains his prowess as a right-handed bat; his .333/.389/.652 split against southpaws is right in line with what we’ve come to expect, but those gaudy figures come in just 72 of Shane’s 306 PA. You can begin to brace yourselves, than, for his current split as a lefty: .226/.299/.322.
The concept of Shane struggling from the left side is nothing new. His career splits feature a gulf of more than .140 in OPS between left and right, although that’s obviously dwarfed by this season’s .400-plus-point spread.
To the right, we see a comparison of Shane’s SLG on balls in play, first from the 2011 regular season (top) and the 2012 season-to-date (bottom). What pops out immediately is that the heart of the plate is actually one of Shane’s coldest zones so far this season. Pitches belt-high and in, as well as those over the middle and down, still seem to let Shane drive the ball with some authority, but a vast and unsettling portion of the plate is that troubling royal blue.
Swinging and missing isn’t the problem – Shane’s whiff rate on pitches in the strike zone is down from 9.3 percent in 2011 to 7.3 percent so far this season, and his chase rate has seen only a very modest increase, from 30.1 percent to 31.2 percent.
On raw numbers, little seems to have changed in terms of approach for Victorino, but the results are obviously lacking. The .050-point drop in BABIP from the previous year seems tied in to a similar drop in well-hit average.
Another area of interest is the outer edge of the plate, away from Victorino. In the past, Shane had been able to slap pitches away to left or left-center. Ten of Shane’s 42 extra-base hits last season as a lefty went left of center. The rate has increased this year, but the volume isn’t there: four of 12 have been earned going the other way, and only one of those was down the line.
To the left, we see a comparison of Shane’s extra-base hit locations. Now, we’re comparing a full season with not-quite-half a season, so 2012 will obviously look barren in comparison. But something resembling a trend seems to be appearing, at least to my eye. Is the lack of hits the other way ties to a diminished amount of plate coverage? Weaker contact on pitches farther away? Good leftfield play? Or some combination of all of the above?
No matter the precise symptoms – I’m not here to offer a diagnosis or provide an answer – it seems the thing to look for in Shane moving forward is an uptick in hard-hit balls the other way when he’s batting left-handed. Batting righty remains no issue at all, but if Shane is to rebuild the value he had stored up with his excellent 5/6ths of a season in 2011, it seems that would be one thing that needs to return.
Think of this as something allegorical to Ryan Howard’s opposite-field power. Where you’d expect Howard to hit pitches deeper in the zone out to left when he’s going right, so it seems Victorino doing the same for extra singles or doubles would potentially be a sign of better things to come.
While watching Kyle Kendrick come in with a two-run lead and go walk-double-double-hit-by-pitch against a Mets lineup reminiscent of….you know what, I’m not even going to bother.
But we witnessed Kyle Kendrick, the Michael Bay of Phillies pitchers (keeps getting work without really ever having done anything substantively good, his appearance attended by explosions and disaster, and makes a lot of money), hitting Lucas Duda with a pitch to force in a run in a situation with a 4.30 leverage index (he posted a -0.66 WPA tonight, btw, the worst mark by a Phillies reliever since Ryan Madson blew a four-run lead in the ninth inning against the Nationals on August 19 of last year). Kendrick stood on the mound with the comportment of a man who’d like nothing more than to dig a hole in the infield and escape through the catacombs.
And yet Charlie Manuel sent him out for a second inning. Then replaced him with Jose Contreras, who hasn’t been effective in two years, and the runs continued to pour in.
I was reminded of this iconic scene from the 1993 movie Gettysburg, where a commander’s inaction eventually costs his side the battle.
Now, Charlie Manuel probably had a good reason to leave Kendrick in, but nevertheless, I’ve rewritten that scene in honor of tonight’s events.
Gen. Ruben Amaro, Jr.: General Lee.
Maj. Gen. Cliff Lee: Sir, I most respectfully request another assignment.
Amaro: Do please go on, General.
Lee: The man is a disgrace! Sir, have you been listening at all to… to what the aides have been telling you? Ask General Halladay or General Blanton. Ask them. We could’ve taken that game! God in His wisdom knows we *should’ve* taken it! There was no one there, no there at all, and it commanded the series.
[he sighs] Lee: General Manuel saw it. I mean, he was with us! Me and Halladay and Blanton, all standing there in the dark like fat, great idiots with that bloody damned bullpen empty!
[he stops] Lee: I beg your pardon, General.
[Amaro nods] Lee: That bloody damned bullpen was empty as his bloody damned head! We all saw it, as God is my witness! We were all there. I said to him, “General Manuel, we have *got* to take that game.” General Bowa would not have stopped like this, with the Mets on the run and there was plenty of light left on a game like that! Well, God help us, I… I don’t know wh… I don’t know why I…
[he stops] Amaro: Do please continue, General.
Lee: Yes, sir. Sir… I said to him, General Manuel, these words. I said to him, “Sir, give me one Papelbon and I will take that game.” And he said nothing. He just stood there, he stared at me. I said, “General Manuel, give me one Qualls and I will take that hill.” I was becoming disturbed, sir. And General Manuel put his arms behind him and blinked. So I said, General, give me one *Bastardo* and I will take that hill.” And he said *nothing*! He just stood there! I threw down my glove, down on the ground in front of him!
[he stops and regains his composure] Lee: We… we could’ve done it, sir. A blind man should’ve seen it. Now they’re working up there. You can hear the axes of the Met troops. And so in the morning… many a good boy will die… taking that game.
We asked for Jonathan Papelbon in a non-save situation, and we got him. And instead of his usual excellence, we get a loss, courtesy of the first major league home run of the heroically named Jordany Valdespin. In light of our collective recent griping about how Charlie Manuel’s refusal to use his best reliever in the biggest situations, I think some comment on the issue is appropriate. I toyed with writing a serious response, some sort of reassurance that having Papelbon pitch was the right move, regardless of the result. But that would just come off as overly defensive.
I also thought about writing a sarcastic, OH YOU GUYS WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG response, dealing with a gut punch loss in best Crashburn tradition: with imperious sarcasm.
In the end, I’m just going to post the FanGraphs win probability chart (-.468 WPA for Sentimental Johnny, by the way):
And this GIF, which accurately captures the effect of that Valdespin homer on our collective psyche:
Strength through unity, unity through faith. And, as always, England prevails.
The Nats’ efforts to bolster fan attendance in the run up to this weekend’s first home series against the Phillies have been well-documented. It began in February, when the presale for individual game tickets was restricted to D.C., Maryland, and Virginia addresses only, and when COO Andy Feffer, along with other team officials, urged Nationals fans to “take back the park.” The notion has become a bit of a rallying cry for a team that could be entering a new era of competitiveness, one which may even have arrived earlier than anyone expected. Feffer and the team have offered further enticements, such as free tickets to future games with the purchase of tickets to this series. Mayor Vincent Gray gave the whole thing an official sheen by declaring this weekend “Natitude Weekend” and encouraging the locals to “show support of their hometown team.” It will likely not succeed to the extent that the organization is hoping, although they do claim some improvement in the proportion of in-area ticket sales so far.
Depressingly, and predictably, the reaction from Phillies fans and media has been equal parts bitter and condescending. By and large, the Twittersphere has been issuing a collective snort at the whole thing since it first arose. Noted perverted half-wit and habitual plagiarist Kyle Scott of the e-rag Crossing Broad has tweeted and posted endless whining on the topic, and has devoted whole posts to “The Takeover,” a 200 person bus trip (for a mere $120!) that will instantly become the most obnoxious thing happening on the planet for every second of its sweaty, Bud-Light-Lime-soaked existence.
What a shock.
Ed Rendell, trying to cling to relevance, also got in on the act. Various Philadelphia media members, including baseball writers and radio personalities (mostly on the Angelo Cataldi tier of the Insufferability Spectrum) have otherwise mocked or chided the Nats’ efforts. Superficially, the tone is haughty amusement, but there is a discernible undercurrent of surprise and indignation — how dare they. Universally, these responses lack any measure of self-awareness and pay no mind to present or historical context.
I’ve lived full-time in the Washington, D.C. area since 2005, and have attended a great many Nationals games. Both in the RFK days and since the new stadium was built, I’ve made a point of going to every Nationals/Phillies game that my schedule could feasibly accomodate, and many other Nationals home contests when the weather was fair and I hankered for live baseball. I had the pleasure of watching Ryan Zimmerman come into his own, Elijah Dukes doing . . . Elijah Dukes stuff, and Adam Dunn hitting the longest of long flies. I vividly remember, on a humid September night at RFK stadium in 2007, watching the Phillies beat the Nationals 7-6 on the strength of a Jimmy Rollins double, and then huddling around a friend’s blackberry as the crowd dispersed, tracking the Marlins’ 4 run comeback against the Mets in the 9th and 10th innings in Miami. The Phillies pulled within 1.5 games of the Mets that night, in a pennant race that inaugurated a new era of Phillies baseball.
After the new stadium was built, the atmosphere at Phillies/Nats games grew more adversarial, as Phillies fans realized that, in the numbers in which they traveled, and the numbers they already had in the DC area, they could create a home away from home — “CBP South,” as it came to be called by many. I can’t say that I didn’t get swept up in it, at least a little bit. It’s gratifying to see your team’s fans showing substantial support away from home, especially after many years of the Phillies being irrelevant to the NL East and to the league as a whole. But I had grown to like the Nationals as a team, along with their new, easily-accessible and cheap-to-attend stadium, and I found that, as the “CBP South” culture took hold, the atmosphere got uglier. It all came to an embarrassing head at the Nationals’ home opener in 2010, a Phillies game, where Phils fans again packed the stadium, bolstered by a few bus trips not unlike the one mentioned above. The Nationals’ Opening Day ceremony had all of the usual rituals. Except, as the Nationals’ roster was announced, and the players ran from the dugout to the first base line, Phillies fans chanted “SUCKS” after each name, and drowned out the music and announcements with booing in between.
They behaved similarly for the rest of the game. It was the most humiliated I ever remember feeling as a Phillies fan. Sitting next to me was a man in a weathered Nationals cap who had to be in his mid-70s, who regarded the whole thing with disbelief. I don’t know if he was a converted Orioles fan, a Senators fan from way back, or even an Expos fan, and it didn’t seem as if he wanted to talk about it to me, covered in Phillies gear from head to toe. I tried to make a show of how disgusted I was by the whole thing, but I don’t think I could’ve possibly done enough given what was happening. No future Phillies game at the park was quite as bad as that, but they weren’t that much better either.
This is the root of the “Our Park” movement by Nationals fans, and it’s disappointing that Phillies fans do not, or at least pretend not to, understand why it needs to happen. Fans of a team that have had as rough a go as the Nationals have since their inception need to pull as much enjoyment out of the little things as possible — individual player skills, fanfare, early-season hopes, and the simple joy of a ballpark atmosphere. To have the superior team’s fans flood the ballpark and make a big show of it — just because they can — momentarily ruins that experience. Nationals fans are no less fans of the game of baseball than Phillies fans (probably moreso, if we’re talking about the kind of people that make asses of themselves at Nationals Park), and they know — really, they know — that the Phillies have been the better team these last 7 years, that Citizens Bank is stuffed to the gills all of the time, and that Phillies fans are capable of operating a motor vehicle for two and a half hours on I-95 South. They know these things without a great red horde undertaking every effort to mock them in their own ballpark.
The natural rebuttal to this has been, roughly, “if they don’t like it, they should fill their own stadium.” And it’s true, the Nationals have struggled with attendance, finishing either 13th or 14th in the NL in each season since Nationals Park was built. But it’s easy for a Phillies fan to forget, nowadays, just how difficult it is to fill the stadium for a bad or even mediocre team. The Phillies had a similar run of attendance woes from 1997 to 2003, finishing 14th in attendance 4 times, 13th once, 12th once, and 10th once. True, these figures improved significantly when the Phillies got their new ballpark in 2004, but the team was getting better too; the Phillies averaged 77 wins per season from 1997-2003, and 86 wins per season from 2004-2006. I will happily watch a 100 loss Phillies team every day of the week, but it’s tough to blame fans for not filling the park to see some of the recent Nationals teams.
They did, of course, pack 40,315 people into the park for the June 8, 2010 debut of Stephen Strasburg, a preview of the future of their organization. I had the pleasure of attending, and the atmosphere rivaled any playoff game at Citizens’ Bank Park (particularly the most recent one I attended, game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, in which the crowd was conspicuously subdued). The crowd’s steady roar built with each strike, compounded by each time the radar gun showed triple digits, and the place exploded for each of Strasburg’s 14 strikeouts. Yes, Bryce Harper’s debut was not well-attended, but there is much less of a sense among Nationals fans and baseball fans as a whole that this was his true debut — he was placed on the roster with Ryan Zimmerman heading to the DL, and the consensus is that he’s not quite ready for the big leagues. If this 2012 Nationals team finishes on as high a level of competitiveness as they’re exhibiting now, I don’t think they’ll have any problem bringing people out in 2013.
I’m sure that this weekend, despite the Nationals’ efforts, is still going to be characterized by a dominant Phillies fan presence, and that ignoble bus trip will leave some kind of embarrassing mark on the whole thing. Nationals fandom and media may grow angrier, and that might escalate matters. But any Phillies fan who takes the smallest moment for some introspection should not be surprised or bothered by the Our Park movement. Because it is their park, and because Phillies fans remember what it’s like to see a nine guys who are probably going to lose take the field every day. The “Takeover” and all similar fan and media responses will only validate the rest of the country’s low opinion of the Philadelphia fandom. And, in case you haven’t checked the trendlines recently, the time to show grace in victory may be running out.
Earlier today, Ryan Lawrence posted his best guess at the Phillies’ opening day roster. Everything about the offense, including the starting lineup, looks pretty grim:
(I took out Lou Montanez and subbed in David Herndon, as Lawrence was planning for 6 relievers instead of 7 only because a fifth starter won’t be needed until April.)
Last season, the pitching staff allowed 529 runs, which is very good. Historically good, in fact. If you put every team since 1947 in the same 4.5 runs per game environment, the 2011 Phillies staff ranks 18th out of 1550 post-integration pitching staffs in runs allowed. And that’s without a park adjustment; 14 of the teams ahead of the Phillies had pitcher-friendly park factors on their side. The brightest beacon of hope for 2012 is that the pitching staff will still be extremely good, but it probably won’t be as good as it was last season. The simplest reason is that it is very difficult, even in the more pitcher-friendly environment of late, to allow as few as 529 runs. Beyond that, there are a few candidates for regression, like Cole Hamels and Vance Worley.
If you take the ZiPS projections for the pitching staff that Lawrence came up with and adjust it to fill, say, 1450 innings (this is about what most teams needed last year), you get a runs allowed total of 606. On the one hand, ZiPS is probably a bit bearish with regards to some of the best pitchers on the staff, but, on the other, we’re assuming no injuries or bad fortune will take their toll. So 606 is a reasonable enough estimate. Assume, furthermore, that the National League run environment will be the same as it was last year: 4.13 runs per game. With these two numbers, we can use the Pythagenpat formula to get a picture of what is needed from the Phillies offense in 2012 (click for large):
The upshot is, in a tougher NL East, the Phillies need to score around 730 runs to be in the 95 win ballpark and be reasonably certain of winning the division. Keep in mind: last season they scored 713 runs, and, thanks to an inordinate amount of success with runners in scoring position, that total was probably higher than their team OPS of .717 portended. Without delving deeply into hitter projections, the opening day offense predicted by Ryan Lawrence above is not nearly as good as the sum contributions that the Phillies got last season. Per Fangraphs, Ryan Howard produced 92 weighted runs created last season, and has not yet even resumed baseball activities since the setback with his surgery wound; his ETA right now is indeterminate, as is his 2012 effectiveness. Chase Utley, missing to begin 2011, produced 61 weighted runs created. He returned on May 23rd last season, and I think most people would count that as an optimistic projection for 2012 given the tone of the updates we’re being given on him.
This is to say nothing of the potential for regression facing John Mayberry, Jr., the likely ineffectiveness of Ty Wigginton, and the fact that Juan Pierre, who by wRC+ was the 10th worst qualified hitter in baseball last season, is penciled in as a bench contributor. The offense above is likely to score significantly less runs than in 2011, which could put the Phillies in the 92 win range or worse. Particularly now that two wildcard spots are available, this will probably still be enough to make the playoffs. But with the substantial improvements made by the Marlins and the Nationals, and with the Braves still being a contender, the division is by no means the guarantee that it was in the last two seasons. The Phillies, who know the sting of a short series so very well, may be facing a single game win-or-go-home proposition if they don’t look outside the organization for reinforcement.
This afternoon, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, the Phillies have avoided arbitration with RHP Kyle Kendrick by signing him to a one-year, $3.585 million contract that seems structured specifically to irritate people who write about such things by making us type out the dollar value to the thousand-dollar place.
As the news broke, my Twitter feed was dominated by reactions to the Kendrick signing, ranging from resignation, to fear, to what I assume is a potshot at Darren Rovell, to mocking incredulity, to more mocking incredulity, to unbridled snark, to a dose of placid rationality with an unflattering comparison. For a while, my window to the internet was almost entirely dominated by Kyle Kendrick, with a little bit of France Football‘s Philippe Auclair musing about the political legitimacy of credit rating systems.
The point is, no one seems to really like that the Phillies re-signed Kyle Kendrick.
So what of Kendrick and his contract? Well, Bill wrote earlier this afternoon in big friendly letters, “Don’t Panic,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Kendrick, an extremely durable swingman who never walks anyone and goes from the rotation to the bullpen to Lehigh Valley without ever uttering a word of complaint, is more valuable a piece than we might realize. Perhaps no team relies more on (or expects more from, at any rate) its starting rotation than the Phillies do, so having a Kendrick to plug in for 15 starts might come in handy if one or the other of Joe Blanton‘s elbow or Vance Worley‘s two-seamer prove to be less reliable than expected. If nothing else, we know that Kendrick can come in and pitch slightly-better-than-replacement-level ball for six innings or so on very little notice.
I probably wouldn’t be making this argument if not for the 2011 Red Sox, who, I would argue, missed out on the playoffs last year for want of a pitcher like Kendrick. While the Red Sox went into the season with a projected rotation of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka. That group included the reigning AL ERA champion (Buchholz), one of the four or five best young left-handed starters under 30 (Lester), two guys who, while wildly overpaid, were expected to at least be mediocre (Lester and Dice-K), and Josh Beckett. Not a bad group, on the whole.
Well, in the blink of an eye, Buchholz and Matsuzaka were out for the season, Beckett missed a couple starts (though he went on to post the best season of his career, by ERA+ and bWAR), and Lackey suffered what I’ve come to call the Alex Fernandez Injury. In Game 2 of the 1997 NLCS against Atlanta, Marlins pitcher Alex Fernandez blew out his arm but stayed out on the mound at least an inning after it became clear that someone had set off a grenade inside his elbow. After being horrified and fascinated by this incident, I’ve thought of Fernandez every time I’ve watched a pitcher do his elbow, then try to get by 81-mph arrows in the vain hope of the velocity, movement, or location coming back.
While the Marlins yanked Ferndandez after 2 2/3 innings, the Red Sox trotted Lackey back out there for another two months or so with the inside of his elbow resembling nothing so much as the mangled inner workings of the Cylon Raider that Starbuck fixed up in that episode of Battlestar Galactica. So the Red Sox traded for Eric Bedard, who was hurt and ineffective. Then they found themselves in the stretch run with only two effective, healthy pitchers: Beckett and Lester. The other three spots in the rotation went to the injured Lackey, the aged Tim Wakefield, and the ineffective Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland. In 1949, the Red Sox reeled off an 11-game winning streak over the last two weeks of the season by going to a two-man rotation–over the last 20 games of the season, the Red Sox only won two games that where neither Mel Parnell nor Ellis Kinder recorded a win or a save. When Beckett and Lester were unable to duplicate that success, the Red Sox were screwed.
The presence of Kendrick, who almost certainly won’t be able to duplicate his 3.22 ERA of last season, makes such a disaster profoundly unlikely for the Phillies in the coming year. Now, is $3.6 million too much to pay for a pitcher with a career 4.65 xFIP? Probably, but not disastrously so. He’s almost certain to come down from his excellent 2011, unless his BABIP stays at .261. But with the cost of a marginal win hovering somewhere north of $5 million for this season, Kendrick doesn’t have to be particularly good to justify his contract–about 2/3 of a win will do nicely, and even if he comes up a bit short, overspending by $1 million or so on Kendrick isn’t a disaster for a team whose utter contempt for prudent stewardship of its monetary resources is made clear by the contracts extended to Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, and Jonathan Papelbon, while Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Madson merited little more attention than a panhandler at the PATCO stop at 8th and Market.
And there’s the old adage about there being no such thing as a bad one-year contract.
All in all, there’s a lot to like about this deal: short duration, relatively low cost and expectations, and it fills a need. All in all, Kyle Kendrick is like a slightly overpriced spare tire–kind of irritating if you don’t need him, but absolutely essential if you do. If you want to feel good about the Phillies, you can stop reading now.
Today, MLB Trade Rumors noted that the price has come down for the top starting pitchers remaining in the free agent market, including Roy Oswalt, who, it is said, would accept a one-year, $8 million contract. Hiroki Kuroda could be had for $10-11 million. I’ve always liked Kuroda, but his age and his price probably eliminate the Phillies from contention. Of course, if the Phillies hadn’t signed Joe Blanton, Jonathan Papelbon, and Kendrick to deals no one was crazy about when they were signed, they’d have room on their payroll for Kuroda, Madson, and probably one other pitcher. But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
But let’s compare how the three have done, in terms of fWAR, since Kuroda joined the National League in 2008.
As you can see, Oswalt and Kuroda, each in a relative down year, were each somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 times more valuable than Kendrick was. Of course, Kuroda threw a little less than twice as many innings than Kendrick, so let’s say that Kuroda was six times more valuable than Kendrick, per inning pitched, and set aside the intrinsic value that innings pitched have. Oswalt threw about 20 percent more innings than Kendrick, so let’s call him ten times more valuable in 2011.
This is what drives me absolutely busalooey about the way the Phillies do business. They tendered Kyle Kendrick for arbitration, knowing that he’d be in for a multi-million-dollar payday, when better options were out there. Kendrick had a good 2011, buoyed by unsustainably low batted ball numbers. For reference, Happ posted a .261 BABIP, a 4.43 xFIP, and a 2.93 ERA in 2009. In 2011, Happ’s BABIP returned to a relatively normal .297, and his xFIP rose slightly, to 4.59, but his ERA was 5.35. Amazing what a little bit of luck can do to you.
But the Phillies, because of ontological blindness, naivete, or sheer force of their intractably reactionary institutional philosophy, have once again spent $3.6 million on a pitcher with a career low 4.04 xFIP, when $8 million would have nabbed them a pitcher with a career high 3.97 xFIP, or $10 million would have landed them a pitcher with a career high 3.89 xFIP. Imagine shopping for beer like this. Signing Kendrick to this contract with Oswalt and Kuroda where they are in the market is like going to Canal’s, passing the 24-pack of Sam Adams for $12, then passing the Great Lakes variety 24-pack for $15, then deciding you’d rather spend six bucks on two pounders of Beast Light. Those are not the actions of an informed shopper. I know this and I just spent 20 minutes on Google and three minutes tooling around in Excel. The Phillies are an organization worth half a billion dollars or more, with hundreds of full-time employees. How can they not be aware of this?
In a vacuum, re-signing Kendrick is a nice, if slightly pricey insurance policy. Given that the Phillies appear willing to sign Cole Hamels to a one-year deal rather than locking him up long-term (what possible purpose this could serve is a mystery to me), keeping Kendrick on at this price is hardly the most actively harmful personnel decision the Phillies have made this week. And I’ll grant you, that by price, age, and role, Oswalt and Kuroda aren’t completely fair comparisons to Kendrick. But the Phillies have so gravely miscalculated the value of starting pitchers this offseason that if NASA were so off-base, they’d have sent Apollo 11 straight into the center of the Earth.
So did the Phillies do well to re-sign Kendrick? It depends on how you look at it.