The Latest on the Phillies’ Offseason

The Phillies were close to acquiring reliever Wilton Lopez from the Houston Astros last week, but it fell through. CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury on the deal that never was:

Talks had progressed to the stage where Lopez traveled to Philadelphia for a physical exam on Wednesday. The deal fell apart some time after that. Phillies officials do not comment on trades until they are completed and this one was never completed.

Lopez had elbow problems at midseason in 2012. The Phillies have been very diligent in checking out a player’s health ever since they acquired pitcher Freddy Garcia from the Chicago White Sox in Dec. 2006.

You have to applaud the Phillies for doing their homework on Lopez. The right-hander would have been a great addition to the back of the bullpen, but it wouldn’t have mattered if his elbow portends to be a problem going forward.

Elsewhere, the San Francisco Giants and center fielder Angel Pagan agreed to a four-year, $40 million deal earlier today. Another CF drops off the market for the Phillies, who are looking at Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, and Shane Victorino from the free agent pool.

The Phillies are investigating trading with the Colorado Rockies for Dexter Fowler, however, reports Ken Rosenthal:

twitter.com/Ken_Rosenthal/status/275736701207470080

Fowler has some serious home/road splits. Last season, he posted a .422 wOBA at Coors Field, but just .319 away from home. Over his career, those marks are .384 and .312, respectively. I worry that Fowler’s splits are legitimate because Coors Field has a very spacious outfield. The following two charts show the location of Fowler’s hits both home and away. There is a noticeable difference. (click to enlarge)

Note the few hits in the gaps at home. Outfielders could be shifting further away from center field due to Coors Field’s spacious outfield. Additionally, there are more hits down the right field line, particularly of the extra base variety. In Colorado, it is 350 feet down the right field line compared to 330 at Citizens Bank Park, which makes legging out doubles and triples a lot easier.

The spread was actually more pronounced in 2011:

You can see the difference quite clearly by comparing his BABIP on fly balls at home and on the road as well:

FB BABIP Home Away
2009 .319 .313
2010 .234 .094
2011 .220 .140
2012 .264 .102

As Fowler typically hits around 60 fly balls in each split, the difference between the two amounts to nearly ten hits, or slightly less than ten percent of his typical season total.

The Rockies are searching for pitching help, so one would have to think a deal would include Vance Worley or Tyler Cloyd, a reliever, and perhaps a prospect as well.

At ESPN Sweet Spot, I outlined five things the Phillies should do to ensure a successful 2013. I mentioned preferring the now-taken Angel Pagan to Shane Victorino because the former Phillies center fielder has had drastic right-left splits lately:

twitter.com/CrashburnAlley/status/273947116987101184

With the options drying up though, there are no perfect candidates. With Michael Bourn, the Phillies will likely overpay in terms of guaranteed years, total salary, or both. With Josh Hamilton, the Phillies will be rolling the dice with not only the contract but with Hamilton’s production as well. Fowler and Victorino both have some questionable splits.

Jim Salisbury reported that the Phillies are interested in Texas Rangers jack-of-all-trades Michael Young. The 36-year-old is owed $16 million in the last year of his contract. He spent most of last season as a 1B/DH but did play third base regularly as recently as 2010. However, he has his own drastic platoon splits, posting an aggregate .369 wOBA against lefties since the start of 2010 compared to .317 against right-handers. The Phillies already have a right-handed bat in Kevin Frandsen, and Young is coming off of a season in which he was baseball’s second-least valuable player.

Player WAR/pos Year Age Tm
Jeff Francoeur -2.7 2012 28 KCR
Michael Young -2.4 2012 35 TEX
Greg Dobbs -2.1 2012 33 MIA
Joe Mather -2.0 2012 29 CHC
Ryan Raburn -2.0 2012 31 DET
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/3/2012.

There’s nothing wrong with checking in, though. The Phillies wouldn’t be doing their job if they were only focusing on the relative cream of the crop. That being said, Young would provide almost zero benefit to the Phillies.

B.J. Upton Signs With Braves

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.

Not that the market lacks for options. Angel Pagan is still out there as a free agent, as are younger players like Denard Span and Dexter Fowler (potentially) via trade, but then there’s this:

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:


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.

Greinke, Hamilton, Mental Health, Masculinity and Dignity

I know it’s been literally months since I’ve written anything even remotely serious here, but I just want to warn you up front that, unlike most of the stuff I write here, this isn’t going to be funny. Or perhaps this is a better way to put it: this isn’t going to attempt to be funny. I don’t want to presume to speak for Bill or the other guys with this post, but this needs to be said.

In a vacuum, the two best players on the free agent market right now are Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton. Each has won a major award (Greinke the Cy Young in 2009 and Hamilton the MVP in 2010), and each has spent his free-agency years putting up remarkable stats, both traditional and advanced. Each should, most likely, receive a nine-figure contract to play baseball for the better part of the next decade, and good for both of them.

But this free agent class is interesting. Not only because, while it’s relatively deep, it lacks the top-end star power of recent years, but because its two crown jewels, Hamilton and Greinke, are known almost as much for their off-field difficulties as for their on-field prowess.

And about a month into the offseason, I have been truly shocked by how little we’ve heard about the former. It might be a function of my being very careful what bits of the public sports debate I expose myself to, but I’ve been incredibly pleased by how little we’ve heard about Greinke’s anxiety disorder and Hamilton’s battle with drugs and alcohol.

In case you’ve been on the moon since 2005 or so, here’s how the story goes. Josh Hamilton was drafted No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in 1999 out of a North Carolina high school. He was viewed at the time as a franchise-defining prospect, possessed of obvious athleticism, a tremendous throwing arm and generational power. He was spoken of at the time in the same awed tones we currently use for guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton. But his minor league career was derailed around the turn of the century by drug and alcohol abuse, forcing him to leave the game for three years to seek help. In 2007, the Cincinnati Reds, having acquired Hamilton through the Rule V draft, gave him 337 major-league plate appearances, and Hamilton made the most of them, posting a .292/.368/.554 slash line and netting them Edinson Volquez in a trade that offseason. Since then, Hamilton has made the All-Star team every year, and in 2010, at age 29, he led the American league in batting average and slugging percentage to win the MVP award.

Hamilton’s skills with the bat have been consistently coupled, in the public eye, with discussion about his addiction. Part of this is by Hamilton’s own choice, and considering what he overcame and what he’s accomplished since, he ought to be open about his faith and his recovery. He serves as a role model for those struggling with addiction, a symbol of hope for those who want to overcome it and seek help by going to alcohol and drug rehabs.

Greinke’s story is similar in some ways. Drafted No. 6 overall in 2002, the famed “Moneyball” draft, where he went ahead of Scott Kazmir, Jeff Francis, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain, Greinke was a prodigy, making 24 big-league starts in his age-20 season. But he imploded in 2005 and missed most of the 2006 season trying to manage social anxiety disorder and depression. By 2009, he was back, to the tune of, by Baseball Reference’s account, a 10.1-WAR season. Since then, he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball.

So two happy endings, right? Most of you are intimately familiar with the details of these stories, but how we discuss mental illness in sports has a significant bearing on how we discuss it as a society. Don’t believe me? Our political media, for instance, borrows much from sports media, from a troubling strain of anti-intellectualism and innumeracy to the struggle to find meaning in minutiae. So how we talk about and think about Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton has an impact on how we think not only about other public figures, but more importantly, about each other.

I’ve been a strident opponent of the Phillies signing Josh Hamilton this offseason. His age, relative to the length of contract he’s likely to receive, scares me. As do his declining defensive utility in center field, his reliance on contact skills rather than plate discipline and his troubling injury history, which stands to get worse, not better, as his body ages. You know what doesn’t scare me? His history with drugs. Hamilton has made a lot of public noise about the great pains he’s taken to remain clean (with rumors of intermittent, though isolated, relapses) since his return to baseball. He’s struggling with a disease, one identified as such by the National Institutes of Health, and one which afflicts 23 million Americans. With proper caution and supervision, which Hamilton seems eager to take advantage of, he poses, in a vacuum, no more risk to a would-be employer than you or I.

The issue is whether he gets that caution, supervision and treatment. And to that I’ll say, the more we stigmatize addicts and alcoholics in our society, the less likely they are to get what they need to stay clean. Staying sober is a choice, but the way we treat addicts as a society speaks to the way we deal with societal inequalities of all kinds. There’s a common strain of thought in modern political culture, that there’s a 1-to-1 relationship between personal failings and moral weakness. And while the most intelligent and hardest-working often do rise to the top, success and virtue are not as well-linked as we’d like to think.

Certainly Hamilton made bad choices, for which he has paid the price. But we’re better off if we help those who struggle with addiction or any kind of obstacle, particularly if they, like Hamilton was, are willing to accept that help and realize their full potential. And for that, in spite of how he got there in the first place, Hamilton deserves…well, maybe not any special respect or admiration, but at least the courtesy of being judged for what he is now, not as a punchline.

So if you’re going to talk about Josh Hamilton’s addiction as part of the calculus that determines his value as a ballplayer, I don’t have any problem with that. I’m probably more willing to give him  a pass than some people, and that’s fine. But don’t use it as a blanket condemnation–factor it in as part of an informed discussion about his overall value. Because while Josh Hamilton is not only a baseball player, neither is he only a recovering drug addict.

***

But I’ve buried the lede somewhat, because this is really about Zack Greinke. And even then, it’s not really about just him either. This is about Joey Votto as well. And Olympic sprinter Derrick Adkins. And Royce White.

A couple weeks ago, White, a rookie forward for the Houston Rockets, spoke out against the Rockets because he felt they weren’t adequately helping him deal with his anxiety disorder. White’s case has since turned into a messy battle of he-said-she-said, but the public discussion around the issue has remained the same–that White can somehow just get over his problem.

And that insinuation, in the moment, made my blood fucking boil. It’s been a while since I’ve been legitimately vision-closing-in, heart racing, blood-run-cold angry about a sports story, but this one did it. And it’s an outgrowth of the same kind of ill-informed, Eisenhower-era, rub-some-dirt-on-it nonsense that tells us that Greinke “can’t handle the pressure” or “wouldn’t do well in a place like New York or Boston or Philly.” The kind of nonsense that gets “head case” thrown around like it’s some kind of psychological term of art.

This is entirely speculation, but I can’t believe the current composition of coaches and analysts helps. Those ranks are filled largely not with professional administrators and experts, but professional athletes and people trained to get information from professional athletes. So when Royce White goes AWOL, or Zack Greinke goes on the 60-day DL to get therapy, we don’t hear from an M.D. who’s spent his adult life as a neurologist or a counselor. We hear from someone with a B.A. in journalism from Mizzou or Syracuse or Northwestern, or someone with 250 career home runs who looks good in pinstripes, either one of which has spent his adult life in a locker room, being washed over with a professional athletic culture that was had a barbaric conception of masculinity when it was created generations ago.

Considering the prevalence of depression and anxiety in American culture, it scares the shit out of me that we’re routinely entrusting the future of potentially vulnerable young people to men like Billy Gillispie, Jerry Kill and Mike Leach. Because at best, college and professional coaches are ill-qualified to help a young man deal with mental illness, but at worst, they are martinets and bullies with a set of expectations straight out of the Parris Island scenes in Full Metal Jacket. 

As tempting as it is to view athletes dispassionately as lines on a statistical or financial ledger, as we often do, sometimes they turn into what they are in real life: young men in their early-to-mid-20s who often have uncertain futures and have been trained from the cradle not to show any outward signs of weakness. And when that atmosphere contacts one of the 8-to-12 percent of Americans who will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives, or the 7-to-13 percent who will do the same with social anxiety disorder, the combination is toxic and dangerous.

I don’t consider Greinke’s struggles with mental illness as part of his baseball portfolio, because I’m not a psychiatrist, so I can’t speak intelligently on the subject. I can speak intelligently on that situation I described above: dealing with depression as a guy in his early 20s, uncertain future, lifelong discouragement from seeking help. It’s not fun. Even in relatively mild cases, it’s hard to sleep, hard to deal with panic attacks that come without a pattern or warning. It’s hard to wake up in the morning and get out of bed, and when you do, it’s hard to come up with a reason to deal with the source of your anxiety.

And being told that asking for help is a sign of mental weakness, or brands you as a head case, or a complainer, or somehow defective is hardly a compelling incentive to get the medication or therapy you need, or to at least know what’s wrong with you so that, through your own awareness you can overcome it on your own. It’s a shame, too, because for many people, the difference between being able to function and considering taking one’s own life is a prescription, or an hour a week with a shrink, or at the very least, the support of friends and family. Just as with addiction, the stigma against mental illness makes life immeasurably harder on those who could be treated and saved with relatively little effort.

The worst part is that people who spout the “well just get over it” or “head case” lunacy, or even in some cases, just joke about it, are negatively impacting the lives of those around them. Because I guarantee that you know someone for whom depression and/or anxiety is a major struggle. It’s that common, and the gulf between treated and not cannot be overstated.

That’s why I was so encouraged by the maturity of discourse around Greinke by the time he reached free agency. That’s why, for me, the best thing to happen in baseball this season wasn’t Mike Trout’s unbelievable season, or the Giants’ remarkable run to the playoffs, or the Phillies resigning Cole Hamels. It was that when Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff went on the disabled list with anxiety in April, the media reaction was one of overwhelming support.

That’s why this isn’t really about Zack Greinke or Royce White. I’m not worried about them so much. What I am worried about is this: there’s some college junior sitting in the dark somewhere who gets panic attacks or can’t be bothered to go to class, but is scared to death that people might think he’s crazy or weak if he sees a therapist. That’s what this is about, because we deal with mental illness in young men, as a society, with nothing short of criminal neglect. And the more athletes come forward and address this issue publicly, as something to be dealt with but not ashamed of, the more helpful we’ll be as a society. I am emboldened to write to you now because this summer, several writers I look up to talked openly about their struggles with anxiety and/or depression. And the more maturely we discuss Zack Greinke’s history, or Joey Votto’s, or Royce White, the more young men who struggle with mental illness can do the same.

Veterans Day

What would a Phillies off-season be if they weren’t constantly linked to old, expensive free agents? MLB Trade Rumors, citing ESPN’s Buster Olney, reports that the Phillies have expressed interest in outfielders Josh Hamilton and Cody Ross, two veteran outfielders each seeking a multi-year deal. A month ago, I examined the market for center fielders. On Hamilton, I wrote:

With Hamilton, the Phillies would likely need to commit at least five years and nine figures for a player that will be 32 years old in May and tends to miss time due to questionable health issues. […] In the past, Hamilton has also had issues with drugs, alcohol, and religion. Hamilton may lead all center fielders in wOBA since 2008 at .387, but he has plenty of other issues that should scream “somebody else’s problem” at the Phillies.

Cody Ross would come at a considerably cheaper price compared to Hamilton, but the Phillies would still need to commit a lot of money and years to a 32-year-old. MLBTR lists the asking price for Ross at three years, $25 million. Phillies fans already have incentive to dislike Ross, but he is a slightly above-average hitter with sub-par defense, spending a majority of the past two seasons in the outfield corners.

In honor of Veterans Day, let’s take a brief stroll back in time to examine how the Phillies have fared when signing free agent veterans to multi-year contracts. Note that re-signings (such as Jimmy Rollins and Jose Contreras) were excluded.

  • December 16, 2008: 37-year-old Raul Ibanez, OF (3 years, $31.5 million)

Ibanez had a white-hot first half of 2009, authoring a 1.027 OPS before suffering a groin injury on June 17 (shortly after his 37th birthday). He returned a month later on July 11, but wasn’t the same. From his return to the end of the season, his OPS was a meager .711. Regardless, he finished the season with an aggregate .378 wOBA, a career-high and the sixth consecutive time he’d posted a wOBA of .345 or better. It was downhill from there, as his wOBA declined to .343 in 2010 and .306 in 2011, the final year of his deal.

Factoring in his incredibly poor defense in left field, Baseball Reference had him barely breaking even in his three years with the Phillies, at 0.6 Wins Above Replacement. It wasn’t as if Ibanez’s failure was a shocker. Friend of the blog Eric Seidman (@EricSeidman) criticized the deal as soon as it happened, as did many others. Seidman called the contract “unequivocally poor.”

  • December 1, 2009: 33-year-old Brian Schneider, C (2 years, $2.75 million)

The Schneider signing was seemingly innocuous and he was productive in 147 PA as the back-up to Carlos Ruiz in 2010. However, things quickly soured in 2011 as he barely finished with an OPS above .500 while missing time in May and June due to a thigh injury. Despite the bad showing, the Phillies brought Schneider back on a one-year deal in 2012 with similar results. The 35-year-old catcher finished with a .637 OPS and missed a total of 65 games due to a right ankle sprain and that same thigh injury.

When Schneider went down, Erik Kratz came up from Triple-A Lehigh Valley and did for the prorated Major League minimum salary what Schneider never did: hit. Although his production was certainly an outlier for a journeyman, another organizational staple such as Dane Sardinha could have done for a fraction of the cost. The Schneider signing didn’t hamstring the Phillies, but it was more or less unnecessary. Veteran back-up catchers are nearly as overrated as veteran middle relievers.

Although the end of this contract was brutal — Polanco missed 35 percent of his games in 2011-12 with an aggregate .657 OPS — Polanco paid for himself when he was on the field as one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. The other free agent options available to the Phillies at the time included Adrian Beltre (would’ve been nice) and Chone Figgins (phew!). Beltre was coming off of a poor season with the Seattle Mariners, so he ended up settling for a one-year, $10 million deal with the Boston Red Sox, then parlayed that into a five-year, $80 million deal with the Texas Rangers. At the time, however, Beltre was seeking a four-year deal, which was why the Phillies backed off.

Despite hitting poorly and missing a lot of time due to injuries, Polanco lived up to his relatively cheap deal. It is easy to play Monday morning quarterback and say the Phillies should have signed Beltre, but they failed for reasons other than their third baseman over the last three years.

  • December 31, 2009: 32-year-old Danys Baez, RP (2 years, $5.25 million)

The Baez signing is one of the most frustrating despite its relative cheapness. (When asking if I missed anyone for this list, Michael Baumann replied to me in an email, “I got to Danys Baez and almost threw my computer against the wall.” I’m guessing in the style of The Room.) He was awful over 47.2 innings in 2010, but the Phillies never sought to cut him or reduce his workload. He finished with a 5.48 ERA. Bound to him for another year, Baez returned in 2011 in even worse form. On July 16, Baez allowed four runs in one inning, bumping his ERA up to 6.25 and the Phillies finally cut him.

As a Phillie, Baez posted a 5.81 ERA in 83.2 innings. At -1.47, he had the fifth-worst WPA/LI (context-neutral wins) among all relievers in 2010-11, trailing only John Grabow, Chris Resop, Jeff Fulchino, and Chad Qualls. Baez is perhaps the best example of why one should never sign a veteran relief pitcher to a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract, especially if he isn’t going to be used in high-leverage situations.

  • December 14, 2010: 32-year-old Cliff Lee, SP (5 years, $120 million)

Lee broke the Phillies’ long-standing policy of refusing to commit more than three years to any pitcher. The year prior, the Phillies had inked fellow starter Roy Halladay to a three-year, $60 million deal. If any pitcher was to have the rules broken for him, one would have thought Halladay would be the benefactor, but the right-hander willingly left money on the proverbial table to stay in Philadelphia.

With Halladay’s blessing, the Phillies broke their own rules, giving Lee a massive contract, nearly equaling the extension given to first baseman Ryan Howard. In the two seasons since signing the deal, Lee has been quite good. He finished third in NL Cy Young balloting in 2011, posting a 2.40 ERA (a career-low) while posting career-highs in innings pitched and strikeouts. This past season, Lee endured some first-half struggles that earned him widespread criticism from Phillies fans, but he finished the season as a down-ballot Cy Young dark horse with a 3.16 ERA and a league-leading 7.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

The Lee deal was certainly risky, but given his track record and the Phillies’ position after the 2010 season, it was not a bad decision by any means even though the contract ends after his age-36 season. Lee still has several good years left ahead of him at the very least if he can avoid the dreaded injury bug that has plagued the Phillies’ old roster in recent years.

Papelbon was very, very good for the Phillies in 2012 despite some memorable failures (Jordany Valdespin, anyone?). However, the four-year, $50 million deal was the richest ever for a reliever and it came on the heels of the end of the Brad Lidge era. After Lidge’s perfect season in 2008, the Phillies signed him to a three-year, $37.5 million deal, betting on more of the same in the future. In those three years, Lidge pitched a grand total of 123.2 innings with a 4.73 ERA, missing time at various points due to a knee, elbow, and shoulder injuries.

The Papelbon contract is incredibly risky because the Phillies ante so much for so little reward — Papelbon’s 70 innings pitched in 2012 represented less than five percent of the Phillies’ total innings pitched. By comparison, his $11 million salary put him in the same echelon as Jimmy Rollins, whose 699 PA represented more than 11 percent of the team’s total PA taken. Like Lidge, Papelbon has a clean bill of health through his age-31 season, but even that is no guarantee.

  • December 9, 2011: 31-year-old Laynce Nix, OF (2 years, $2.5 million)

The Nix deal is relatively innocuous. At the time, I wrote, “it’s hard to react to this signing with anything more than a shoulder shrug.” Nix posted a .727 OPS in 127 PA, mostly filling in at first base for the injured Ryan Howard. Later in the season, he started some games in the outfield after Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence had been traded, but was not very productive. Nix will earn $1.35 million in the final year of his deal in 2013, which isn’t too bad as he provides the Phillies a left-handed power bat off the bench.

Overall, the Phillies broke even more or less, but the bulk of the success or failure still hinges on the remainder of Lee and Papelbon’s deals. The Phillies missed on most of the non-mammoth contracts aside from Polanco, and even some would argue to label the Polanco era a failure. It illustrates why hitching your wagon to an old player for more than one year isn’t always the best idea. Hopefully, the Phillies are more cautious in their endeavors and learn from their past mistakes.

The Pros and Cons of Kevin Youkilis

CBSSports.com‘s Jon Heyman thinks free agent third baseman Kevin Youkilis could be a fit for the Phillies:

twitter.com/JonHeymanCBS/status/266395354545672192

As the saying goes, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Youkilis looks incredible with the beer goggles of the barren third base market, despite posting the worst offensive numbers of his career at the age of 33. Once a fixture of the successful Boston Red Sox teams of the mid- and late-aughts, Youkilis has been a shell of his former self, playing in 122 or fewer games in each of the last three seasons while in an offensive freefall, his weighted on-base average going from an elite .419 in 2010 to .366 and .328 in the last two seasons.

Even a .328 wOBA, though, is above the league average for third basemen and would represent a significant offensive upgrade over what the Phillies have had dating back to the Scott Rolen years.

Year PHI 3B NL AVG 3B
2003 .279 .317
2004 .329 .333
2005 .285 .330
2006 .292 .347
2007 .303 .338
2008 .306 .338
2009 .302 .331
2010 .305 .323
2011 .283 .304
2012 .309 .327

However, Youkilis presents the same risk to the Phillies as Polanco did. Both players have played in exactly 344 games since 2010 and their injury histories, if printed out, could become the leading cause of deforestation. Since 2010, Youkilis has had issues with: his right knee, groin, lower back, right elbow, right ankle, right thumb, left ankle, left hip, left thumb, left foot, left thigh, abdomen, and his left forearm. Many of those were recurring issues as well. The veteran, who turns 34 in March, is the living, breathing, baseball version of Home Improvement’s Tim Taylor — at least as much as Polanco is.

When the Phillies consider bringing in Youkilis, they have to account for the very real possibility that he will miss 30 percent of the season or more as he has done in the last three seasons. Even if we are really optimistic and give Youkilis credit for still being an average player on an everyday basis, the Phillies would be forced to use a replacement-level player in his absence.

Youkilis earned $12 million and was set to earn $13 million in 2013 if the Chicago White Sox hadn’t bought out the remainder of his contract, while the Phillies declined Polanco’s $5.5 million option. If the Phillies were to sign Youkilis for at or around what Polanco was set to earn, they would be implicitly saying that Youkilis is a better bet to be an average-ish player and that his cratering in 2012 was more a fluke than anything else.

When he was on the field in 2012, Youkilis was a shadow of his former self. His walk rate plummeted to a career-low ten percent (which is still relatively good, however), his strikeout rate nearly tied a career high at just over 21 percent, and his .174 isolated power was his lowest since 2007. Throughout his career, Youkilis had been a BABIP-reliant player, posting an aggregate .336 mark between 2006-10, the 25th-highest among all qualified MLB hitters in that span of time. His BABIP dropped to .296 and .268 in the last two seasons, an indication that he is making worse contact with pitches.

In particular, his performance against fastballs has waned, especially on inside pitches. The following heat maps illustrate his transformation into a predator of the outer-third of the strike zone.

This is indicative of a player whose bat speed has hit the skids. You don’t have to think very hard to remember a player in the same shoes recently — Scott Rolen in Cincinnati. He finished 2010 with a .369 wOBA, but injuries and old age relegated him to a .294 wOBA in 269 plate appearances in 2011, and a .314 wOBA in 330 plate appearances in 2012. Specifically, Rolen’s performance against “hard” pitches went from .362 in 2010 to .291 in 2011 and .311 in 2012. This is the fate that awaits Youkilis.

If Youkilis can be had for a few millions of dollars on a one- or two-year deal, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but the bearded warrior is in the free agent market looking for what could be the last contract of his career. GM Ruben Amaro did give Raul Ibanez an ill-advised, three-year $31.5 million contract after the 2008 season, so there is precedent for this kind of overvaluation of free agent veterans. Realistically, the Phillies are as likely to get equivalent production out of a third base platoon involving Kevin Frandsen and, say, Eric Chavez, without tying themselves up to an unmovable contract.

There are plenty of sirens in the free agent sea, beckoning wayward GM’s with their songs of clubhouse presence and experience. Youkilis is one of them, along with Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn. A disciplined GM can guide his ship dutifully past the allure, avoiding the inevitable shipwreck that will define future seasons.

The Pros and Cons of B.J. Upton

By far the most frequent question I have been asked on the ol’ Interwebs lately pertains to free agent center fielder B.J. Upton. He has been linked prominently to the Phillies already this early in the off-season, and it makes sense. The Phillies need a center fielder, have some money to spend, and B.J. Upton is a center fielder who would like to receive money. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports shone some light on some of the recent hires the Phillies have made and their relationship to the potential signing of Upton:

Bart Braun, previously a special assignment scout with the Rays, joined the Phillies last month as a special assistant to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.

Steve Henderson, the Rays’ hitting coach from 2006 to ’09, will fill the same role for the Phillies after spending the past three years with the club as a minor-league coordinator.

The moves did not go unnoticed by the Upton camp, and in the words of one player agent, “there are no coincidences in baseball.”

It just makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? It’s hard to ignore all of the signs, but in the end, it does come down to Upton’s expectations and the Phillies’ willingness to meet them. Would Upton forgo a fifth guaranteed year to come to Philadelphia and be around some familiar faces? Would the Phillies guarantee that fifth year and go up to around $80 million total to bring in a top-tier free agent? Obviously, we will find out as the off-season progresses as a lot will depend on which teams jump out first and which players budge from their expectations the most.

Should the Phillies snag Upton, they would be getting an enigma of a baseball player. He started his career on fire, posting a .384 on-base percentage and a .166 isolated power in 2007-08 combined. He cratered in 2009, and since then, he has been sub-par in the batting average and on-base departments. In 2012, his walk rate plummeted to a career-low seven percent, down from 11 percent in the previous two seasons. He became overly aggressive at the plate in attempt to hit for power, and it worked somewhat — he finished the year with a career-high 28 home runs and a .208 ISO, nearly a career-best. However, overall, it was the second-worst offensive season of his career going by weighted on-base average (wOBA).

David Golebiewski highlighted Upton’s struggles at Baseball Analytics in August:

His in-zone swing rate against soft pitches has declined to 61%. Upton’s chase rate, meanwhile, has climbed to 34%. With such poor pitch recognition, Upton’s slugging just .238 against soft stuff. Jordan Schafer, Michael Bourn, Jemile Weeks, Carlos Pena and Brandon Crawford are the only qualified batters to show less punch against breaking and off-speed offerings.

The good news is that Upton’s decision-making at the plate is a fixable problem. The Phillies brought in batting coach Steve Henderson from the Rays along with Wally Joyner and Ryne Sandberg, two guys who know a thing or two about a thing or two. The Phillies as an organization seem to have stressed good strike zone judgment as their 17.7 percent strikeout rate in 2012 was tied for the fourth-lowest in the Majors. They had the fifth-lowest rate in 2011 and the sixth-lowest rate in 2010 as well.

Upton, like shortstop Jimmy Rollins, has been chided for his perceived lack of hustle, earning scorn from manager Joe Maddon and third baseman Evan Longoria. The latter incident escalated into a heated dugout argument. While it’s obvious that the complaints about hustle have racist undertones, it is still something to consider. Would Upton have the ability to stay calm, cool, and collected when beat writers, radio loudmouths, and irate fans call for his head when he doesn’t run out a ground ball in a meaningless May game? Would Upton even want to come to a city that so vociferously reacts to anything but constant max effort?

The last negative thing to consider about an Upton signing would be the pick the Phillies surrender. The Rays, as expected, extended a $13.3 million qualifying offer to the center fielder, which means that the Phillies surrender their first round pick according to the new collective bargaining agreement. Giving up draft picks certainly hasn’t stopped the Phillies in the past, but with a mediocre Minor League system, they may become reticent to strip it any further, especially when similar, cheaper options that won’t force the Phillies to surrender a pick — such as Angel Pagan — will be available.

With the negatives out of the way, let’s look at the positives. Upton is 28 years old. That fact alone is huge. For obvious reasons, it is way less risky to sign a player in his late 20’s to a long-term contract. Consider the five-year deal the Phillies gave Ryan Howard. They agreed to the deal two years before he was eligible for free agency and the first year of the deal started in his age-32 season. A five-year deal between the Phillies and Upton would end in his age-32 season. I don’t need to tell you that the expected performances of age 28-32 players is significantly better than age 32-36 players, nor that the former set of players suffers debilitating injuries at a lower rate. Signing any player to a long-term deal is a gamble, but it is much less so for younger players.

On the field, Upton has all the tools to be a premier player. Below is a list of all of the players who hit at least 100 home runs and stole at least 200 bases dating back to 2007 (min. 3,000 plate appearances).

Rk Player HR SB PA From To Age
1 B.J. Upton 113 217 3697 2007 2012 22-27
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 11/5/2012.

Yup. That’s it. If we lower the stolen base threshold to 150, Rollins and Hanley Ramirez enter the picture. Players who can hit for power and run extremely well are few and far between, and Upton does both very, very well. According to Baseball Prospectus, the only players to have been more productive stealing bases in 2012 were Everth Cabrera, Mike Trout, Ben Revere, and Coco Crisp. Additionally, Upton’s .206 ISO last season was seventh-best among all MLB outfielders, just ahead of Bryce Harper.

Defensively, Upton can obviously cover some ground. Defensive metrics disagree on his value as Baseball Reference’s Total Zone grades him as a below-average defender in each of the last three seasons, while FanGraphs UZR grades him as an above-average defender in every season except 2007 and ’12. I caught up with ubiquitous writer and Rays fan Jason Collette (@JasonCollette), who has watched Upton up close and personal lo these many years. His scouting report on Upton’s defense:

[He is] much better going back on balls than he is coming up on them. Tends to play more of them on a bounce than he does to dive forward on them. Side to side, he’s above average. His biggest problem out there are his throws. His arm is not terribly accurate but he takes unrealistic chances at runners from time to time allowing the trail runner to advance an extra base. Off the top of my head, I want to say he did that at least 10 times this season. He’s better than “Gold Glove winner” Adam Jones in everything except playing balls in front of him.

R.J. Anderson (@r_j_anderson), a Rays fan and writer for Baseball Prospectus like Collette, passed along this blog post with a quote on a scout’s take on fielding range:

“I look at who has the best range in the game and I count down from there. BJ Upton has the best range in center in the majors. His reads are flawless, speed incredible. When I see a guy going after a ball, I say, ‘is he as good as BJ Upton?’ Nope. He ain’t an 80 then.”

Upton’s athleticism covers up for some of his decision-making shortcomings, but the gap between the two will have to close as Upton ages and his physical prowess wanes. If Upton doesn’t improve in that area, he would eventually have to move to a corner.

In the big picture, Upton represents an interesting issue to the Phillies. Where would he fit in the lineup? His low average and on-base percentage should preclude him from hitting higher in the batting order, but he hit in the upper-third of the Rays’ lineup in 119 of his 146 games in 2012. Hitting Upton lower in the order, particularly fourth to break up the left-handed Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, would cause the Phillies to lose the value of his speed. Hitting him lower than fifth would cause him to lose too many plate appearances — Phillies #6 hitters took 75 fewer trips to the plate than #1 hitters last season.

Unless the clamor for Upton quiets down significantly, Upton is expected to take home a hefty, lengthy contract that would pay him like an All-Star-caliber player. The Phillies would be hoping that the 28-year-old still has a ceiling to ascend to, rather than having already plateaued. Upton is enough of an enigma that he could realistically do either, and as a result, the Phillies would be taking a bigger leap of faith with him than they have with any of their previous free agent signings in recent times. But for a team that saw its five-year reign atop the NL East ended in 2012, it may be a necessity to exact revenge against the Washington Nationals, who will not enter the 2013 season any worse for the wear.

Does the Future Include Carlos Ruiz?

Elite catchers are hard to come by these days. Teams that manage to find one hold on to them for dear life, as the Minnesota Twins did with Joe Mauer, the St. Louis Cardinals with Yadier Molina, and the San Francisco Giants will with Buster Posey. The Phillies have one of their own in Carlos Ruiz and yesterday chose to pick up his $5 million club option for 2013, meaning that he could potentially be playing out his final year in Philadelphia.

According to FanGraphs, Ruiz was the third-most valuable catcher in baseball at 5.5 WAR. Baseball Reference was less flattering, putting him at 4.4, but still in third place. Going by offense only, Ruiz had the second-highest wOBA at .398, just a hair behind Posey and well ahead of Mauer in third place. It was quite clearly a career year as Ruiz hurdled his previous career-high in isolated power, finishing at .215. For the offensively-lacking Phillies, Ruiz was their backbone for most of the year until he succumbed to plantar fasciitis. Among Phillies with at least 300 trips to the plate, Ruiz was by far the most productive. Utley, with his .342 wOBA, was the second-most productive hitter, a far cry.

Ruiz has become an integral part of the roster, but where does he fit in for the future? He turns 34 in January and will be 35 if the Phillies choose to bring him back after next season. Expectations for the Panamanian should be centered around 2009 or 2011 levels, not 2012 levels. But even so, 35-year-old catchers rarely put up above-average offensive numbers. Since 1950, only six catchers have qualified for the batting title and posted an adjusted OPS (OPS+) of 100 (average) or better:

Player OPS+ Year Age Tm
Elston Howard 127 1964 35 NYY
Carlton Fisk 134 1983 35 CHW
Carlton Fisk 115 1985 37 CHW
Carlton Fisk 103 1987 39 CHW
Carlton Fisk 134 1990 42 CHW
Benito Santiago 103 2002 37 SFG
Jason Varitek 103 2007 35 BOS
Jorge Posada 153 2007 35 NYY
A.J. Pierzynski 118 2012 35 CHW
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/30/2012.

Even if you clamp the range down to 1991-2012, only four catchers qualify — an average of one every five years. There may be a few reasons for this. My hypotheses include:

  • Older catchers tend to get injured more often
  • Older catchers are on the decline, thus are not given enough playing time to qualify for the batting title
  • Older catchers retire earlier, or shift positions

The Phillies saw the rise and fall of a homegrown catcher in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s in Mike Lieberthal. His last full season was in 2004 at the age of 32. He took 529 trips to the plate. At 33, he logged 443 PA, then followed it up with just 230 in 2006. The Phillies finally parted ways with Lieby, and he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for his final season at 35.

Even when they are able to stay on the field, catchers in their mid- and late-30’s just haven’t been all that productive. The following list shows all catchers 34 years old or older that logged at least 200 plate appearances and started 75 percent of their games at catcher since 2010.

Player OPS+ PA Year Age Tm
A.J. Pierzynski 118 520 2012 35 CHW
Ramon Hernandez 113 328 2011 35 CIN
Ramon Hernandez 112 352 2010 34 CIN
Rod Barajas 97 337 2011 35 LAD
A.J. Pierzynski 97 500 2011 34 CHW
Rod Barajas 97 339 2010 34 TOT
Jason Varitek 92 250 2011 39 BOS
Jose Molina 80 274 2012 37 TBR
Rod Barajas 75 361 2012 36 PIT
Matt Treanor 75 242 2011 35 TOT
Ivan Rodriguez 73 421 2010 38 WSN
Jason Kendall 71 490 2010 36 KCR
Bengie Molina 68 416 2010 35 TOT
Matt Treanor 57 272 2010 34 TEX
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/30/2012.

The curve is skewed very much to the left in terms of OPS+. While there are three within 20 points to the right and four within 20 points to the left of 100, there are seven others further left than that. If you’re a betting man, the odds are higher that Ruiz goes the way of Matt Treanor rather than Ramon Hernandez.

This doesn’t mean that the Phillies should just kick Chooch to the curb after 2013. It just means that they shouldn’t rush to sign Ruiz to a multi-year extension because he has been so good in recent years. Six catchers have been signed to a multi-year contract in the last two years:

  • Victor Martinez, DET (4/$50M): 131 OPS+ in 2011 (age 31), missed all of 2012 due to injury
  • John Buck, MIA (3/$18M): 87 OPS+ in 2011 (age 30), 75 OPS+ in 2012
  • Miguel Olivo, SEA (2/$7M): 81 OPS+ in 2011 (age 32), 75 OPS+ in 2012
  • A.J. Pierzynski, CHW (2/$8M): 94 OPS+ in 2011 (age 34), 118 OPS+ in 2012
  • Yorvit Torrealba, TEX (2/$6.25M): 86 OPS+ in 2011 (age 32), released in August 2012 with a 69 OPS+
  • Ramon Hernandez, COL (2/$6.4M): 49 OPS+ in 2012 (age 36)

Of the six, only Pierzynski has been a good value. The rest declined or suffered an injury. If the Phillies are interested in having Carlos Ruiz around for just a little while longer, it should be on a year-by-year basis. Doing so would also allow them to bring along prospects Tommy Joseph, Sebastian Valle, and Cameron Rupp at a more comfortable pace. While Ruiz has gone far above and beyond anything we could have ever hoped for when he made his Major League debut in 2006, the Phillies have to be prepared to turn the page if necessary after the 2013 season.

Last Year’s Reliever Market As A Cautionary Tale

There has been some talk about the Phillies signing a veteran reliever to bolster what was a lackluster bullpen for much of the 2012 season. After marquee signing Jonathan Papelbon, the Phillies relied on a corps of young arms and seemed to always have the revolving door to the bullpen spinning. Although the contract given to Papelbon was, from every perspective, too rich and too lengthy — the largest contract ever given to a closer — they still got the performance they expected. Papelbon finished the year with a 2.44 ERA in 70 innings, continuing to be one of baseball’s best and most reliable closers.

Talk of the Phillies’ off-season plans tend to take on an open-and-closed tone. Many urge that the Phillies should add a “veteran eighth-inning guy” as if it is A) easy to pick out the ones who will give you what you pay for; and B) a wise allocation of resources. Last year’s reliever market is a great illustration of why the relief pitcher market is more or less a roulette wheel.

25 relievers signed deals with an average annual value greater than $1 million. Five of them signed multi-year deals. The results were… mixed. First, the multi-year deals:

  • Jonathan Papelbon, PHI (4/$50M): 2.44 ERA, 70 IP, 38 SV
  • Heath Bell, MIA (3/$27M): 5.09 ERA, 63.2 IP, 19 SV
  • Joe Nathan, TEX (2/$14.5M): 2.80 ERA, 64.1 IP, 37 SV
  • Frank Francisco, NYM (2/$12M): 5.53 ERA, 42.1 IP, 23 SV
  • Javier Lopez, SFG (2/$8.5M): 2.50 ERA, 36 IP, 7 SV

Three were quite good, two were very bad, and one did not even play in the Majors. In total, the six relievers combined to earn in $120.4 million over 15 total years, an average annual value exceeding $8 million. Of course, that is a bit top-heavy towards Papelbon, but a 50 percent success rate is less than impressive.

Here is a look at how the other relievers fared on one-year deals:

Player Team Amount ($M) ERA
Jose Valverde Tigers $9.00 3.78
Ryan Madson Reds $8.25
Francisco Rodriguez Brewers $8.00 4.38
Jeremy Affeldt Giants $5.00 2.70
Matt Capps Twins $4.75 3.68
Francisco Cordero Blue Jays $4.50 7.55
Darren Oliver Blue Jays $4.50 2.06
Jonathan Broxton Royals $4.00 2.48
Jason Frasor White Sox $3.75 4.12
Octavio Dotel Tigers $3.50 3.57
Jon Rauch Mets $3.50 3.59
Kyle Farnsworth Rays $3.30 4.00
LaTroy Hawkins Angels $3.00 3.64
Kerry Wood Cubs $3.00 8.31
Fernando Rodney Rays $2.00 0.60
Takashi Saito Diamondbacks $1.75 6.75
Todd Coffey Dodgers $1.30 4.66
Chad Qualls Phillies $1.15 5.33
George Sherrill Mariners $1.10 27.00

Of the 19 relievers listed, only four can be considered to have had great seasons: Affeldt, Oliver, Broxton, and Rodney. Eight finished with an ERA in the 3.50-4.50 range. As with the multi-year deals, it was more or less a coin flip with the expensive one-year deals — not much better than if GM’s had randomly picked names from a hat.

To look at it from another perspective, look at the 2012 ERA leaderboard for relievers and count the number of names that weren’t acquired via free agency. In particular, pay attention to the young players like Craig Kimbrel, Wilton Lopez, Jake McGee, Ryan Cook, Kenley Jansen, and so forth. Why gamble millions of dollars on players when your rate of success doesn’t significantly improve compared to relying on younger, cost-controlled players? Recently, I explained why the Phillies should rely on their young bullpen again, and this is part of the reason.

Veteran players such as Jeremy Affeldt, Octavio Dotel, and Ryan Madson are being cited as potential targets for the Phillies, but they can take a similar gamble for significantly less money and without unnecessarily taking on a multi-year contract. Four Phillies relievers posted a SIERA (Skill Interactive ERA) below 2.80 in 2012: Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, Jeremy Horst, and Raul Valdes. Dotel and Affeldt had a 2.65 and 3.06 SIERA, respectively. SIERA has been shown to be an accurate predictive tool. Probabilistically, you likely will not be getting significantly better performance out of either veteran compared to the youngsters either.

In other words, the upside of relying on the younger players is that they pitch well and they help you save money, which you can then allocate elsewhere. The downside is that they fail — as they did in 2012 — but at least you aren’t stuck with expensive, lengthy, unmovable contracts. Why would a team that opened 2012 with a $172 million payroll care about a few million here or there? They may not reach the luxury tax threshold in the off-season, but the extra financial flexibility could allow GM Ruben Amaro to make another one of his typical mid-season trades to bring in a quality player (the utility of which is an entirely separate discussion).

To sum it up briefly, signing relief pitchers to multi-year and/or multi-million-dollar contracts is just about the most inefficient, ineffective way for a team to spend money, and it can effectively hamstring them in other areas. The Phillies, who brazenly backed up an armored truck full of money in front of Papelbon’s house last off-season, would do well to recognize this and focus their attention and resources in other, more important areas. A veteran reliever would be nice, but such an asset is far down on the list of priorities.

The Bullpen Youth Movement

Despite being led by 31-year-old veteran Jonathan Papelbon, the Phillies’ bullpen featured a plethora of fresh, young arms in 2012:

The bullpen was unarguably the Phillies’ Achilles heel throughout the season. For a while, they were among the bottom quartile in the National League going by bullpen ERA. A great September (2.05 ERA) has them closer to the league average and gave us a glimpse into what the future may hold.

Relievers are notoriously volatile from one year to another which is why many Saberists suggest spending as little money as possible on the bullpen. Outside of the always-reliable Papelbon, the Phillies used a very Saber-friendly bullpen as most of the above are young, under team control for a long time, and have the ability to miss bats at a frequent rate. Now that the young relievers have some Major League seasoning, Amaro shouldn’t change a thing. Charlie Manuel recently said about the bullpen:

I think we have some real good pieces there. But I think we need at least one good piece. And when I talk about pieces, I mean someone that’s very, very good. First-class good. That’s what it takes to be a first-class team.

There will be quite a few decent relievers available, such as Mike Adams or Jeremy Affeldt, just to name a couple starting in the A’s. But would the Phillies be significantly better off paying Adams $5 million to set up for Papelbon than paying Aumont $500,000 to do the same job? Would several million for Affeldt leave the Phillies in a better place as opposed to utilizing Bastardo at $750,000? It was only two years ago that Affeldt finished with a 4.14 ERA and it was only last year that Bastardo finished with a 2.64 ERA. With relievers, you are guaranteed nothing, no matter how much money you toss around.

For 2013, the Phillies should grab Papelbon, Bastardo, Aumont, and Horst, then open up the final three spots to spring training competition. It’s the best of all possible worlds.

As you can see, the Phillies have a number of tough decisions to make between the end of the post-season and the end of spring training. It will be the most arduous time of Amaro’s career as GM of the Phillies, the author of an aging, expensive, injury-prone roster. Adept handling of the risks and rewards of the upcoming off-season will leave the Phillies ready to reclaim their throne atop the NL East; stepping on the various traps that lay beneath the surface will effectively end the Phillies’ reign as a superpower.

Check out past and future offseason coverage with the “offseason” category.

Filling Out the Starting Rotation

The image to your right was the cover of Sports Illustrated in March 2011. Depicted were the Phillies’ four aces — Roy Halladay, Cliff LeeCole Hamels, Roy Oswalt — and Joe Blanton. It was a glorious time for the Phillies, still riding the rush of sell-out after sell-out and playoff appearance after playoff appearance. Going on two years later, a lot has changed. Once with quad aces, the Phillies now have just a pair of aces in Hamels and Lee. Halladay’s 2012 season was a disaster while Oswalt and Blanton are long gone. Meanwhile, Vance Worley suffered an elbow injury, Kyle Kendrick had immense success flirting with the league average, and Tyler Cloyd has struggled to keep his ERA under 5.00.

We assume Halladay and Worley will be ready to go by spring training, but there are no guarantees and the Phillies, more than almost anyone, know the value of having too much starting pitching as opposed to too little. Unfortunately, there won’t be many reasonable, cheap starters available in free agency after the top shelf (Zack GreinkeRyan DempsterEdwin JacksonKyle LohseShaun Marcum) is harvested, a shelf the Phillies likely won’t be standing on their tips of their toes to reach.

One name to consider is Scott Baker. The Twins have a $9.5 million option on his contract that will likely be declined. In the event Baker doesn’t take a more team-friendly contract with them, the Phillies could make a play for the 31-year-old on a cheap one- or two-year deal. Before succumbing to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery on April 17, Baker arguably had his best two years in 2010-11, posting a 3.63 SIERA with a 3.93 ERA with a slightly above-average strikeout rate and a strikeout-to-walk ratio approaching four to one.

Carlos Villanueva is another name to keep an eye on, as the right-hander looked good after moving to the Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation at the end of June. From June 29 to August 30, the soon-to-be 29-year-old posted a 3.03 ERA with 65 strikeouts and 17 walks in 65 and one-third innings. His production declined precipitously in September, however, allowing 24 runs in 26 and two-thirds innings, thanks in large part to 10 home runs allowed. Villanueva earned less than $2.3 million in 2012 in his final year of arbitration, so he would come at a relatively cheap price if the Phillies were to pursue him.

No matter who they target, the Phillies should feel uneasy going into 2013 with a rotation that includes a 35-year-old Halladay coming off of the worst season of his career since becoming an every-fifth-day starter, Worley returning from elbow surgery, and one of Kendrick or Cloyd, both needing massive amounts of magic just to post a 4.00 ERA.