Hamels Kicks Off Farewell Tour with $15 Million Contract

The Phillies have signed LHP Cole Hamels to a one-year, $15 million deal, avoiding a final year of arbitration with one of their aces. In the short term, this is fine. Hamels was among the best pitchers in baseball last year, and $15 million is more or less in line with what he was going to make in arbitration, and at any rate, makes him something of a minor bargain.

This news, however, does warrant jumping off a cliff, because indications look good that one of two things will happen to Hamels: 1) He’ll re-sign with the Phillies next year for one of the richest contracts ever given to a pitcher or 2) He’ll sign with the Yankees for one of the richest contracts ever given to a pitcher. What appears almost impossible now is that he’ll sign for something along the lines of the 5 years and $85 million the Angels gave Jered Weaver last summer, or the 5 years and $77.5 million they gave C.J. Wilson last month.

In the winter of 2008, Sabathia was entering his age-28 season, a left-hander who had posted a career 120 ERA+ over 1,659 1/3 innings. Up to that point, he’d posted a K/BB ratio of 2.66 and accumulated 33 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. Hamels, in the winter of 2012, will be entering in age-29 season, and if he slides back to his career averages, he’ll have posted a 128 ERA+ and a 3.74 K/BB ratio over a little less than 1,400 innings, good for about 27 WAR in half a season less than Sabathia. When Weaver signed with the Angels in August, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, among others, suggested that Weaver’s deal would make a good starting point for a Hamels extension. Now, after a breakout season, and with another year’s worth of uncertainty resolved, Hamels could easily make half again what Weaver made in overall value. With another season like 2011, when he posted a WHIP under 1 and struck out more than four times as many batters as he walked, Hamels will raise his price to the point where Weaver’s contract will look like Evan Longoria‘s. Even in a strong pitching market, bidding could start at Cliff Lee‘s 6-year, $147.5 million deal and end up looking like Sabathia’s 7-year, $161 million contract from the 2008/09 offseason, adjusted for inflation.

Of course, there’s nothing to be done about this now–the time to act was after 2009, when Hamels’ public perception was at an all-time low, but his peripheral stats remained unchanged, or after 2010, when Hamels was once again the front-line starter who was voted MVP of the World Series at age 24, but before he turned into the kind of molten lava-flinging cartoon superhero he was in 2011.

Locking up top homegrown talent long-term has become almost a reflex action for Major League Baseball’s smarter franchises. The Rays signed Longoria in 2008 to a contract that allows them to pay, on average, less than $4 million per year for one of the game’s best two-way players until the end of the 2016 season. James Shields will cost the Rays an absolute maximum of $44 million between 2008 and 2014, and this offseason, they signed rookie starter Matt Moore to a 5-year, $14 million contract that could run to eight years for $40 million.

The key to those contracts is signing players with great potential early. The longer a team waits to sign a player, the more certainty exists over his value. So a team like the Rays can approach Longoria or Moore before either has established himself as a quality major league player and offer to lock them up to a long-term extension with multiple team options. If Longoria had flamed out, he’d have cost the Rays less than 3/4 of what Ryan Howard will make this year, but instead, the Rays have locked up a perennial all-star third baseman for roughly the same annual salary as Kyle Kendrick. Likewise, Moore, who has thrown only 9 1/3 regular season innings in the majors, is projected to become one of the top left-handed pitchers in the game, comparable to Hamels, David Price, and their like. If he blows out his arm in April and never pitches again, the Rays have lost less than what Cole Hamels will make this year. If he fulfills his potential, they’ve picked up a bargain–an ace lefty for about a fourth, give or take, of his market value.

The Rays, as you know, are characterized by their extreme relative poverty, so their reliance on signing players long-term and early is extreme. The Phillies can afford to be more conservative, but they’ve overshot the mark with Hamels. The advantage to signing young homegrown players long-term is that they can be had for less than what the free market would dictate, and for a term that would end before the decline phase woes that make teams gunshy about thirtysomething free agents like Jayson Werth and Albert Pujols. This is what the Phillies did with Chase Utley before the 2007 season, and what the Cardinals did with Pujols when they extended him in 2004. Those were instances of teams locking up players after they’d become franchise players, but before they demanded to be paid as such.

The Phillies have missed that opportunity with Hamels, and this $15 million deal is evidence of that. As Longoria, Shields, Moore, Utley, Weaver, and Pujols all showed is that young players are willing to sacrifice earning potential for financial security. As their quality becomes evident, their value goes up. Now, there Hamels has no uncertainty for the Phillies to buy out. He knows he’s a star, he knows he can make nine figures over six years if he wants to, and he has no incentive to take a discount for the Phillies to give him long-term security. If they’d tried to sign him a year or two ago–or even five months ago–he might have, and failing to pounce on that opportunity will likely cost the Phillies somewhere on the order of $40 to 60 million, if it doesn’t cost them Hamels himself.

So as far as the one-year arbitration buyout is concerned, that’s fine. Hamels is well worth front-line starter money, and he’s making a little bit less than that, so he represents, as I’ve said, a minor bargain. But when all is said and done, that this contract is only for one year and not for six could very well lead to Hamels playing out the best years of his career in pinstripes of a different color, and that could cause the Phillies’ run of dominance to unravel quite a bit more rapidly than it might have otherwise.

A Halfhearted Defense of the Kyle Kendrick Contract

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.

HOWEVER.

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.

The Video Game Phillies

I’m a little bit of a sports video game loser, not because I’m bad at them (I’m not) or because spending as much time as I do playing NHL or FIFA makes you a loser (it does), but because when I buy a new video game, the first thing I do is take my favorite team and rebuild it in such a manner as befits my own beliefs and biases. So, for instance, taking Arsenal in FIFA 12 and getting rid of Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, and Nicklas Bendtner to finance, in part, the acquisition of a running buddy for Robin van Persie (Fernando Llorente) and a box-to-box midfield destroyer to fill the near-decade-long gaping void left by Patrick Vieira (Yann M’Vila). Or taking over the Flyers and trading away the albatross contracts of Bryzgalov, Pronger, and Hartnell to make room for Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, and Luke Schenn. But no one cares about your video game stories, so I’ll stop.

It’s always been fun to live in this world of fantasy because things always seem to work out in video games, but playing out the thought exercise hasn’t been as fun with the Phillies of late because, well, over the past five seasons they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball. They’ve had the best record in MLB two years running, and they’ve won five division titles on the trot. Only one other team (the Yankees) even has an active streak of three straight playoff appearances. So going in and blowing up a team that’s won 292 games since 2009 seems a little greedy. Y’all know all of this already, but it’s nice to spell it all out like that while we still can.

Nevertheless, like most fans, I’ve lusted for players on other teams as a matter of habit, and to that effect I wrote several hundred words on my irrational but all-consuming man-love for then-Royals pitcher Jeff Francis last winter. This winter, because pro baseball doesn’t start for three months and because, as a Virginia Tech fan by birth and South Carolina fan by education, my college football season ended last night and college basketball ranks somewhere below cricket on my sporting radar, I’m so bored that I’m willing to try the thought experiment out with the Phillies. What follows is a list of players that, if I lived in a fantasy world where I ran the Phillies, I’d try to acquire if they could be had and the price was right, for no reason other than I love them.

Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Boston Red Sox

I have never wanted a sports transaction as much as I wanted the Phillies to draft Bradley this past year. Let’s put this in perspective. I can tell you where I was, what chair I was sitting in, and which way my phone was oriented, and the person I was composing a tweet to when the Phillies took Larry Greene with the 39th overall pick in June, then watched the Red Sox scoop up Bradley with the next pick. Jackie Bradley was the MVP of the 2010 College World Series, a five-tool outfielder who would (at the time) have fit in between very nicely between Dom Brown and Jonathan Singleton in the Phillies’ outfield around 2013 or so. Bradley was widely regarded as a top-15 pick before a wrist injury cost him most of his junior year, and while he struggled to stay on the field his last year at college, he posted a .368/.473/.587 slash line in 67 games as a sophomore for the  national champions, and as a freshman he put up a .349/.431/.537 in 63 games.

Though he’s only 5-11 and 180 pounds, Bradley makes the most of his physical attributes with a sharp lefty swing, good speed, and outstanding baseball intelligence. This interview with David Laurila of FanGraphs, published in November, made me want to put my head through the wall: a guy with tools and an almost academically thoughtful approach to hitting? Of course the Phillies passed on him.

Bradley is regarded as a good baserunner and a center fielder who not only possesses the speed and arm to make plays, but the ability to read balls off the bat. And, by all accounts, he’s a great guy whose public reputation and Twitter profile persuade me to put him just below Hunter Pence, but in the neighborhood of Cliff Lee on the List of Guys Who Are Easy to Root For.

While Bradley doesn’t really have a single elite tool, and might not have more than doubles power at the major league level, his on-base ability, speed, and personality, combined with my massive Gamecock homerism, makes Bradley the No. 1 trade priority for my hypothetical video game Phillies.

Jaff Decker, OF San Diego Padres

Decker, like Bradley, is a left-handed outfielder born in 1990 who puts up insane on-base numbers (16.5% walk rate in AA last year) and has a little bit of speed. This might not surprise people in Bradley’s case, because he’s built like a basestealer. Decker, however, looks like Vance Worley ate Joe Blanton. Despite this, he’s stolen 40 bases in four minor-league seasons, and while the Padres have seen short, fat guys put up seasons with a .400 OBP and 20 stolen bases before, Decker’s true potential is probably somewhere more in the neighborhood of Nick Swisher than Tony Gwynn. Still, his plate discipline numbers conjure up images of Bobby Abreu and his name conjures up images of a bounty hunter from Star Wars. I want Decker in my hypothetical future outfield as well.

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas Rangers

I’ve tried to avoid established major league stars so far, because it doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity to go on the internet and say that if you were running the Phillies in a video game, you’d trade for Clayton Kershaw and Evan Longoria. But Beltre is different, perhaps the only active player whose Hall of Fame case is better than Chase Utley‘s but will wind up, when all is said and done, with fewer advocates for his enshrinement. Beltre, in 2004, posted one of the best seasons ever for a third baseman, then went off to sign a five-year deal with the Mariners, where he was widely regarded as a disappointment. Of course, what mainstream writers chalked up to  some sort of moral failing on Beltre’s part was more likely a product of 1) it being really hard to put up good power numbers as a righty in Safeco, particularly when your team sucks and 2) the understandable dropoff from 2004 to 2005, considering that Beltre’s 2004 was one of the five best seasons ever for a third baseman.

After an outstanding 2010 with Boston and a very good 2011 with Texas, Beltre stands with more career bWAR than two of the nine current Hall of Fame third basemen, and going into his age-33 season, coming off the second-and third-best seasons of his career, Beltre is in a position to make a run at Scott Rolen for the title of best third baseman of this generation. Of course, everyone knows about Beltre’s hitting–he has a reputation as an impatient hitter with power, whose career .329 OBP and nine 20-home run seasons speak to that fact, but Beltre is quietly one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, a notch below Rolen in his prime or Evan Longoria now, but still worth between one and two wins for his glove alone. Not knowing what to expect from Placido Polanco going forward, and with no young third baseman on the horizon, video game me would make a move for Beltre.

Ben Zobrist, UTIL, Tampa Bay Rays

If Beltre is underrated, I’m not sure what to call Zobrist. In 2009, FanGraphs rated Zobrist as the most valuable position player in the Ameircan League, which was probably a fluke of the ratings system. However, he can play almost literally every position on the diamond, hit anywhere in the lineup, and he posted a 131 wRC+ last year. I’d foresee using Zobrist, a switch hitter who, like Shane Victorino, hits lefties better than righties, at first base instead of Ryan Howard against left-handed starting pitchers a couple times a week, then to spell Chase Utley at second once a week to keep his rapidly deteriorating body in better shape, then in left field, third or shortstop as necessary–essentially, exactly the same way Joe Maddon used him in 2009 and 2010, giving him six starts a week at four different defensive positions. Zobrist’s bat and glove are valuable enough on their own, but that value is compounded by the fact that those assets can be used anywhere on the diamond.

Brandon League, RHP, Seattle Mariners

I know, I know, never ever spend money on relief pitchers, and with Papelbon and Tony No-Dad already in the fold, it’s not like the Phillies, or even a hypothetical Phillies team, is in a position where they need to break that rule. However, League has a killer splitter (my favorite pitch in the game) and a blistering fastball, which make him not only a rather effective relief pitcher but an entertaining one as well. Plus he wears glasses and is all tatted up, so imagine a combination of Ryan Madson, Vance Worley, and Dennis Rodman and you’re beginning to get the picture.

I know that none of these trades will happen anytime soon, though every day that passes without Jackie Bradley, Jr. getting traded to the Phillies is a day that makes me want to curl up in bed and weep the embittered tears of a sorority girl who just found out her boyfriend got that fat slut from Chi O pregnant, while drinking wine coolers and watching A Walk to Remember. On her birthday. The night before a final that she (wipes tears from her cheeks) needs to get a good grade on to pass this class or else my parents aren’t going to let me study abroad in Barcelona next year.

But I’ve come to terms with all that.

The point is that if I were dictator of the world, these five guys would be Phillies. Given the weather and lack of otherwise compelling sports to watch and talk about, sometimes it’s healthy to indulge in such fantasies as these. Feel free to leave your additions in the comments.

 

A Closer Look at Jon Papelbon

Well, yesterday was fun, huh? It seems like giving out a huge contract or making a(t least one) blockbuster trade is a rite of passage for every offseason under the Ruben Amaro Jr. reign.

The latest addition to this big, happy family is none other than long-time Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, he of the intense pitcher-face, long pauses between pitches and often exuberant reactions to saves. He’s also a pretty darn good pitcher. Sure, giving four guaranteed years and $50 million – I’m still in the stage where I wince while typing that – to any reliever that isn’t prime Mariano Rivera is sure to raise as many questions as it does eyebrows.

For now, though, we’ll put that aside to check out some of the things that have made Papelbon so effective.

Papelbon rebounded from a shaky 2010 to post another solid season in ’11 with great peripherals. He’ll only pitch 60-70 innings a season, but rest assured that those innings will be good ones. Papelbon finished his fifth consecutive season of logging 10-plus strikeouts per nine, but what makes him more than just a simple power pitcher is that he actually commands his stuff; not only that, he loves to challenge hitters and still has the stuff to blow by them.

In 2011, Papelbon lived in the upper part of the zone, as shown to the right. The vast majority of the pitches from the belt to the letters were fastballs, and seeing as his average fastball was 95 mph, it’s a bit easier to see how he can overmatch hitters.

There’s interplay with Papelbon’s stuff, too. You can have a fastball that touches the mid-90s and still get knocked around (ask Danys Baez) but you need secondary stuff to make it effective. And vice versa: offspeed and breaking pitches can be ignored or sat on if the hitter knows there’s an ineffective fastball backing it up (ask 2009-11 Brad Lidge). With Papelbon, the mid-90s fastball is supported by an excellent splitter, a pitch that drastically changes the batter’s eye level and throws off timing.

Again, bear in mind how often Papelbon hits the upper part of the zone with the heater, than take a look at the map to the left.

The splitter was a pitch Papelbon was eschewing in favor of more heaters, as there was talk of the pitch possibly leaving his shoulder sore. The splitter is a notoriously taxing pitch. Really, with that fastball to lean on, it’s no surprise he was still effective, but when the splitter is a prominent part of the arsenal, Papelbon is that much more dangerous.

The slider is still something of a work in progress. One of the big reasons why Papelbon wasn’t converted into a starter – as he was for the majority of his time in the minors – was the lack of an effective third pitch. As a reliever, two plus pitches can definitely be enough, but if Papelbon can continue to demonstrate an effective slider in 2012 and beyond, he should remain very, very effective for a while. Perhaps, as it improves, he can even use it against left-handed batters (from 2010-11, Papelbon threw his slider to lefties only three percent of the time) and be a three-pitch guy to all hitters.

While 2010 was likely considered his worst year – even though, relatively speaking, it wasn’t all that bad – a big rebound in 2011 almost certainly played a big part in the Phillies front office seeing Papelbon as worthy of four guaranteed years and a lot of money. Via Inside Edge, here’s a comparison of a few next-level categories for Papelbon between 2010 and 2011.

click here for a larger, more readable version

Fastball command was improved, as was efficiency and the amount of hitters’ counts that ended up resulting in outs. What really jumps out at me, though, are the “Dominance” and “Overall Effectiveness” sections. Papelbon was good in both areas in 2010, to be sure, but the numbers go off the charts in ’11.

What all of this amounts to is a fine relief pitcher who should accumulate plenty of quality outs. Whether he’s worth the kind of money he’ll be paid will almost certainly be in question for the life of the deal, but there’s little denying that the Phils have added a fine piece to their relief corps.

A Closer Look at Michael Cuddyer

With the Phillies reportedly in serious pursuit of free agent Michael Cuddyer, I find myself caught in something of a time warp whenever I hear him mentioned. I still play MVP 2005 every once in a while. To me, even as the rosters get more dated with each passing year, it’s still a nearly infinitely replayable game.

I bring this up because, whenever I would play with my good buddy Baumann from Phillies Nation, Cuddyer would always have the biggest impact on the game. He’d make diving plays at third base. Come up with a solid double to drive home Lew Ford. You know, 2005-type things.

Of course, the Michael Cuddyer of 2011-12 bears no resemblance to Fake Michael Cuddyer from ’05. Since the end of that ’05 season, Cuddyer has logged all of 107 innings at third base (all in 2010) and spent most of his time in the outfield and at first base. He doesn’t seem like a logical fit to supplant Placido Polanco, so we’ll move forward assuming that a potential signing of Cuddyer would mean time in the corner outfield spots and at first. He’s spent some time (read: very little) at second base, too, but with one of Wilson Valdez and Michael Martinez expected on the roster come Opening Day, there’s already a more viable backup option there.

Cuddyer handles lefties very well. His .311/.403/.589 slash in 176 PA against them last year is Victorino-esque, and his career OPS is more than .100 points higher against lefties than righties. That isn’t to say he’s unplayable against right-handers; he’s just especially dangerous against southpaws. And that’s an antidote to something Phils fans had heard about for a couple of seasons now: how the club and everyday lineup is too lefty-heavy. And really, the complaints aren’t exactly unfounded as it relates to LHB performance vs. LHP.

A look at Cuddyer’s In Play Slug heatmap (right) against lefties in 2011 shows some decent plate coverage. The cold spot down and in is a little surprising to see from a RHB against a lefty, but the strong showing in the heart and on the outer edge – from the top to the bottom of the zone, too – does compensate. Cuddyer also seems to fare better on pitchers in the lower portion than anything at the letters and up.

The drawback to that, naturally, is that Cuddyer can find the high pitches a bit too appetizing. Inside Edge reports Cuddyer as having a chase rate on pitches up and out of the zone near 50 percent, a weakness pitchers are sure to target with two strikes during the season. Pitches in on the hands also tend to draw Cuddyer’s attention often. It will be interesting to see how long his hands have the speed to turn on pitches in, especially if his next contract carries him through his age 35 season.

Cuddyer is also a candidate for the infrequently-used right-handed Ted Williams shift. When he puts the ball in play to the outfield, he’s pretty equal-opportunity. Most of his home runs tend to be pulled, but he’s not dependent on left field for hits past the infield.

Ground balls, on the other hand, are a bit of a different story. The Inside Edge spray chart (left) shows that, on balls in play since the start of 2010, Cuddyer pulls the ball a great deal. Now, this might not make a difference, again considering how little the right-handed shift is used. Either way, Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright (maybe?) and Chipper Jones should be on their toes if/when Cuddyer comes to the plate.

What we have in Michael Cuddyeris a nice player; a guy who plays some different positions (none particularly well defensively) who appears appetizing to the Phillies for a variety of reasons, none of which should be confused for being the best player available. He would be a nice addition at the right price – as any player would – but to me, Cuddyer makes the most sense on a two-year deal. A three-year deal to Raul Ibanez ended on a rather sour note, Placido Polanco looks to be slowing as he enters his third year and Joe Blanton has a nerve issue in his pitching arm as his third year approaches. Three-year deals for Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino, plus the recently expired Ryan Madson, look to provide counterbalance. But those latter four were all at least three years younger than Cuddyer is currently when they signed. Apples and oranges, etc.

Would Cuddyer be a good fit for this Phillies club? I tend to think so on the surface. He’s no star player, but he does represent an upgrade from Raul Ibanez on both sides of the ball. The thing I’m struggling with is Domonic Brown’s eventual place in all of this. Signing Cuddyer to a multi-year contract – paired with Hunter Pence’s two remaining years of team control – leaves no place for Brown this season. Now, Ruben Amaro has stated that he wants Brown to basically spend the whole year in Triple-A, so that may be a moot point for ’12. Moving forward, though, what’s the plan? Does Cuddyer become your third baseman after Polanco’s deal expires, with Brown finally slotting in a corner outfield spot? Another wrinkle to the saga of the once-top prospect being curiously handled. It will be interesting to see how Cuddyer’s potential addition affects Brown’s future in Philadelphia; a future that seems muddier every week.

Ryan Madson’s Free Agency

Previous update (October 24, 2011):

  • The Nationals may be interested in signing Madson: source.

Paul’s Take: Hm. Where have we heard this one before? An impending Phillies free agent being lured to the nation’s capital on the promise of a career payday? Well, it seems Ryan Madson may be the next such Philly player, joining Jayson Werth, to consider fleeing south. Madson has emerged as one of baseball’s better relievers over the past few seasons – 204 strikeouts in 191 innings since the start of 2009, and an even 4:1 K:BB ratio – but the Phils may have used their Get Out of Jail Free card with Madson’s agent, Scott Boras, when they signed him to a three-year deal before that ’09 season. That deal bought out two free agent years, and Madson may be itching to see what he may have missed out on earlier.

Ryan’s Take: I’m already wondering whether it is worth signing a reliever to Madson’s actual market value. If the Nationals are going to rerun the 2010 offseason and top that value by 30% or more, I’ll be bidding another bittersweet farewell. Madson, by all accounts, loves pitching in Philadelphia, but it sounds so far as if the offers he’ll be seeing this winter will be impossible to turn down. Amaro’s recent comments about looking outside the organization for a veteran reliever portend a serious overpay on the part of the Phillies. Bill was absolutely right when he wrote that the Phillies would do well to be thrifty in assembling the 2012 bullpen, given all we know about relievers and the market for them. Madson’s possible departure, while a definite loss, gives them an opportunity to re-allocate money to other areas of need, and presently, if you believe Amaro’s media face, the Phillies may squander that opportunity entirely.

Bill’s Take: Not much that I can add here. Regular readers of the blog know how much of a Madson fan I am, but I don’t want to keep him at a Boras price. Even if the Phillies raise payroll a bit, I think they would have  hard time adequately plugging every hole while committing, let’s say, $12 million for Madson starting next season. I also have no qualms about going into 2012 with Antonio Bastardo or Jose Contreras as the closer. The one downside I see to passing over Madson is that Amaro said he wants to get a veteran closer from outside the organization. When I hear that, I think of Heath Bell and cringe.

Phillies Should Utilize A Thrift Store Bullpen

The bullpen has seemingly always been a problem for the Phillies. Whether it was the 1980 bullpen that barely made it to the finish line, the 1993 ‘pen, that imploded, or the revolving door bullpen the Phillies implemented between 1995 and present, there has never been that one constant. Sure, Billy Wagner was good for the two years that he was here, Brad Lidge had that perfect season, and Ryan Madson came out of nowhere to become one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, but the latter two are gone after this season having only been key cogs in the Phillies’ bullpen dating back to 2007 (’08 for Lidge).

With the off-season comes a plethora of unsolicited advice from fans and media types alike. The focus has mostly been on the shortstop position, and rightly so, but the Phillies have a bullpen in flux that cannot be ignored. The Phillies went into the season with the back of the bullpen including Madson and Lidge, as well as Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero, and Danys Baez. Prior to September call-ups, that changed to Madson, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, and Lidge; Contreras threw only 14 innings over the course of the season while Romero and Baez were both booted from the roster.

For the most part, the evolution of the bullpen was completely unexpected. No one saw Bastardo being as dominant as he was, nor did anyone expect Stutes to pitch in so many high-leverage situations. That is par for the course for most teams when it comes to the bullpen: they are all just rolling dice. After the 2011 regular season, less than half of the teams in the National League stayed within 0.20 of their bullpen ERA the previous season. Equally as many teams (seven) shifted by a half run of ERA or more.

Team 2011 ERA 2010 ERA DIFF
ARI 3.71 5.74 -2.03
CHC 3.51 4.72 -1.21
MIL 3.32 4.48 -1.16
PIT 3.76 4.57 -0.81
FLA 3.44 4.01 -0.57
PHI 3.45 4.02 -0.57
CIN 3.55 3.97 -0.42
LAD 3.92 4.07 -0.15
WSN 3.20 3.35 -0.15
ATL 3.03 3.11 -0.08
COL 3.91 3.99 -0.08
HOU 4.49 4.49 0.00
STL 3.73 3.73 0.00
SFG 3.04 2.99 0.05
SDP 3.05 2.81 0.24
NYM 4.33 3.59 0.74

Relievers are notoriously hard to predict, particularly because the sample sizes are too small. Madson finished the year with 60.2 innings pitched. Roy Halladay, on the other hand, surpassed that total after his eighth start on May 10. Needless to say, Halladay’s first eight starts of the season hold very little predictive value. It feels like relievers’ stats should stabilize quicker, but they don’t; they are just as prone to the randomness of the universe as any other player.

Unless the price is right and you are dealing with Mariano Rivera-types who are eerily consistent from year to year (Madson would fall into this category), it seems the best strategy is to spend as little money as possible on the bullpen and hope for the best by utilizing pitchers with good defense-independent skills. Of the 58 relievers that threw 50+ innings and posted an ERA lower than 3.00 during the 2011 regular season, only eight of them (14%) had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.0 or lower. Five of those eight had a ground ball rate at 50 percent or higher (six if the threshold is lowered to 49 percent).

The Phillies have five arms that could be key contributors to the bullpen that are not yet arbitration eligible: Bastardo, Stutes, David Herndon, Michael Schwimer, and Justin De Fratus. Meanwhile, Jose Contreras will still be around in the final year of his two-year contract, earning $2.5 million. With the five youngsters at a cheap price (let’s say $450,000 apiece) and Contreras, the Phillies could run with a bullpen costing them around $5 million. As a result, the Phillies would have much more freedom to address their other needs.

The Phillies should say no to Heath Bell, to Jonathan Papelbon, to Jose Valverde and any other expensive relievers out there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like GM Ruben Amaro is going to, per Bob Brookover:

Amaro said that even if the Phillies do not re-sign Madson, they plan on going outside the organization for an experienced closer. Whether it’s Madson or somebody else with experience at the role, it’s likely to cost at least $10 million […]

The contract, to whomever it may be, has the potential to be just as hamstringing as the Raul Ibanez contract. If the Phillies play it smart, they’ll walk past the department stores and shop at Goodwill. Then they may give themselves enough room to adequately plug the shortstop hole, sign Cole Hamels to a contract extension, address third base and left field, and find a new bench corps.

Placido Polanco and the Third Base Situation

Last updated: 10/13, 12:30 p.m.

  • Charlie Manuel ponders an upgrade at the hot corner: source.

Paul’s Take: Third base for the Phillies is something like the goaltender position for the Flyers. Back in the day, there was a stalwart at the position, but recent years have found little stability or above-average production. Placido Polanco, signed before the 2010 season, has been hurt and producing offense more typically found in middle infield positions. As Aaron Gleeman mentions over at Hardball Talk, Polanco’s .702 OPS is 20th among third basemen since the start of 2010. Polly is owed $6.25M in 2012, and he’ll almost assuredly remain the starter when healthy.
What might behoove Amaro would be a search for a quality backup. The Phils missed out on acquiring guys like Wilson Betemit who, while not a superstar, did provide the Tigers with 15 extra-base hits in 40 games after being acquired. Polanco had 19 extra-base hits all season.

Ryan’s Take: The Phillies have a lot on their shopping list right now, including some pieces that probably take a higher priority than a position where there is already an established starter. To his credit, Polanco provided excellent defense even while playing hurt in 2011. But, facing possible offensive regression by Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, and with Ryan Howard’s 2012 effectiveness in serious doubt, that might not be enough on it’s own. Normally I would accept him retaining the full-time job as a foregone conclusion, but to hear a manager as fiercely loyal as Charlie Manuel even mentioning an “upgrade” makes me wonder if falling short of the NLCS this season may have put him in a more pragmatic state of mind. Considering that Polanco posted a .364 wOBA last year against left-handed pitching, compared to just .281 against right-handers, might a platoon be in order?

The 2011-12 Compendium

This is the main page for the Compendium of the 2011-12 offseason. Bookmark this post for a collection of links to various posts on the different issues and storylines surrounding the Phils, plus the opinions and analysis of the Crashburn Alley staff. This post will be updated as the individual posts update. Bear with us in the early going; we’ll try to keep everything organized and filled with content, but the offseason is young.

A more detailed description of what the Compendium is after the jump:

Continue reading…

Jimmy Rollins’s Contract Status

Last updated: 10/24, 9:15 a.m.

  • Five years is probably too much for Phils, Scutaro an option?: source. – 10/24

Paul’s Take: Marco Scutaro would certainly be an offensive upgrade from the replacement suitors we know in Wilson Valdez and (gulp) Michael Martinez. Scutaro wasn’t necessarily a factor of Fenway Park, either, as his road OPS is comparable to his home split; it was even higher than his home OPS this year. Scutaro won’t fulfill the needs of people fixated on the decrease in age, but on a one-year deal, he would seem a suitable replacement. At this point, to me, he seems a more suitable replacement for 2012 than Freddy Galvis.

Paul’s Take: While I don’t think he’s going to get five years, I have little doubt that he means business and won’t hesitate to sign elsewhere if the price is right. Hey, this is his last big contract, after all. I don’t think it would be wise to give Jimmy – with a .316 OBP since ’09 – five years. Three makes more sense, given his defense should be worth it.
Some advanced metrics have Rollins showing signs of declining range, partially as a result of injuries and partially, perhaps, as a result of age. It’s difficult to discern between the two right now. Phillies fans are aware of Rollins’s stout defensive abilities, to be sure, but there doesn’t seem to be reason to think a healthy Rollins isn’t still a valuable commodity, even with a slowing bat.

Bill’s Take: I’m with Paul. I’m comfortable giving Rollins three years, even with an option for a fourth, but I get uncomfortable guaranteeing four or more years to a player of Rollins’ caliber. Don’t get me wrong, I find Rollins to be very valuable especially given his position, but he is no Troy Tulowitzki. I do, however, grimace at the thought of going year-to-year with one of the many crummy free agent shortstops around or, worse yet, relying on an unproven Freddy Galvis, who has just one potentially-fluky season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley under his belt. Rollins talked about five years, but that’s what he should do — it’s Negotiating 101. I have a hard time seeing him getting five guaranteed years, and for the Phillies’ sake, I hope I’m right about that.