Let’s Get Excited

On Twitter this afternoon, loyal reader/follower Matt Jedruch (@MattJedruch) sent this to me:

twitter.com/mattjedruch/status/279320051016953857

I get the general impression that, with the disappointing 2012 season and the lack of a big free agent signing or trade, there isn’t that much enthusiasm going into 2013. The bulk of the roster is either aging and injury-prone or young and unproven. Perhaps the malaise of Philadelphia sports in general plays into that as well, since the Eagles and Sixers are depressing and the Flyers aren’t even playing.

I, however, can think of a few reasons to anticipate the return of Phillies pitchers and catchers in just a couple months.

5. Phillippe Aumont

Remember these?

 

A strong argument could be made that Aumont was the most exciting player to watch last season, though it was only for a brief period of time spanning 14.2 innings at the end of the season. He featured a mid-90’s fastball that creeped into the 97-98 MPH range at times, as well as a devastating slurve with about 15 MPH of velocity separation from his fastball. As he did in the Minors, Aumont struggled with control more than you’d like and it is expected to be an issue again in 2013, but the soon-to-be 24-year-old still has plenty of time to figure it out before the Phillies become reliant on his powerful arm.

4. Erik Kratz

A cynic might say that getting excited about a 32-year-old journeyman catcher and a career Minor Leaguer is depressing in and of itself, but Kratz is a great story. The inimitable Sam Miller captured it best at Baseball Prospectus back in September, pointing this out:

As you could imagine, there were plenty of frustrating seasons. Kratz told MiLB.com that he thought about retiring, and he worked construction jobs on the side to support his family. (He shot himself in the hand with a nailgun, but didn’t tell Toronto.) But perhaps the most frustrating year was 2004, which he spent most of on the disabled list—without, he says, an injury.

“I was on the phantom DL every time,” [Kratz] said. “I [mostly] sat in extended [Spring Training]. Just because, the year before, I was up there in the top three or four on the team in almost every offensive category in short-season [ball]. It was a hard time.”

On May 22, the Phillies recalled Kratz from Triple-A. He pinch-hit in that night’s game against the Washington Nationals. In the eighth inning, he hit his first career Major League home run at the age of 31, a solo shot off of lefty Tom Gorzelanny. The Phillies sent him back to Triple-A two days later.

When Brian Schneider was placed on the disabled list at the end of June, the Phillies recalled Kratz to take his place. He played sparingly, but eventually assumed an everyday role when Carlos Ruiz suffered from plantar fasciitis in his foot. Between July 24 and September 5 in a span of 110 trips to the plate, Kratz hit 7 home runs and drove in 21 runs while posting a .296/.345/.592 triple-slash line. 15 of his 29 hits went for extra bases. Ruiz had been the linchpin to the Phillies’ offense all season long, but thanks to Kratz, they didn’t skip a beat when the Panamanian had to go on the disabled list.

Ruiz will miss the first 25 games of the season due to a suspension for testing positive for amphetamines, meaning that Kratz is the heir apparent at the outset. Once on the fast track out of baseball entirely, Kratz may be the Opening Day catcher for one of the most successful teams in baseball in recent years. That’s pretty cool.

3. A Healthy Freddy Galvis

No, Galvis won’t be starting any games. He will likely serve as a late-game defensive substitute for third baseman Michael Young and/or as a pinch-runner, which is a good thing because he can’t hit. Galvis posted a .267 wOBA in 200 PA prior to a season-ending back fracture in June. Only 25 hitters took as many trips to the plate with less offensive success than Galvis. Where Galvis impressed last season, though, was on defense as it seemed like he made a spectacular play on a nightly basis.

Remember, Galvis was brought up as a shortstop with the intent to take over for Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies signed Rollins to a three-year contract extension though, while Chase Utley had to miss the first three months of the season, so Galvis moved a few feet to his left, making a seamless transition. Now, with a presumably healthy middle infield, Galvis fits in as a defensive replacement at yet another position late in games for the defensively-deficient Young, who makes plays like this:

2. Chase Utley

Remember the last time Utley was in the starting lineup on Opening Day? It was 2010 and the Phillies were just returning from a second consecutive World Series appearance. It feels like ages ago. If the baseball gods are kind enough, Utley may find himself back in the #3 spot when the Phillies open against the Braves in Atlanta. Phillies fans everywhere may then rejoice as the second baseman continues what may end up being a Hall of Fame career. With a career 53.3 rWAR and 53.8 fWAR, he could retire right now and there would still be an argument to enshrine him, but there’s no doubt the UCLA product still has plenty of baseball left in him.

No, Utley doesn’t have as much power as he once did, but he still compares favorably to other second basemen. His .173 isolated power last season ranked fourth among all second basemen with at least 350 PA, trailing only Robinson Cano, Aaron Hill, and Ben Zobrist. He was one of ten second basemen with double digits in homers and steals, and he did so in 200-300 fewer PA than players like Omar Infante and Dustin Ackley. Let’s not forget about Utley’s defense, which is still by all accounts above-average. Oh yeah, and his base running. Baseball’s all-time leader in stolen base success rate was 11-for-12 last year with a bad lower half. Hopefully an off-season of rest will put some pep back in his step.

1. The Lefties

It doesn’t get much better than Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. The Phillies lay claim to arguably two of the three best lefties in baseball, the other being Clayton Kershaw. Hamels continued to impress in 2012, finishing with a 3.05 ERA and the fourth-best difference between strikeout and walk rate (19%), behind Max Scherzer, teammate Lee, and NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. In late July, the Phillies ended months of anxiousness by signing Hamels to a six-year, $144 million contract extension, spanning his age 29-34 seasons. The lefty hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down as he has compiled five consecutive seasons of at least 31 starts.

Lee has had a quality run as a Phillie, too, even though it has been split into two sections. In the last two years in red pinstripes, Lee has compiled an aggregate 2.76 ERA over 62 starts with the National League’s best difference between his strikeout and walk rates, at 21 percent. Lee, now 34 years old, looks as good as ever and will make another run at a second career Cy Young award, which would make him the sixth player to win the award in both leagues (also joining teammate Roy Halladay).

Phillies Looking for Rotation Depth

Via Matt Gelb:

So forget the Ryan Dempsters, Edwin Jacksons, and even Shaun Marcums on the market. They will sign for at least two – maybe three – years, given the demand. The Phillies are looking for a one-year deal having already invested $71.75 million in 2013 salary for their four starting pitchers.

No, there won’t be a fourth ace to bring back memories of 2010, but there are still some quality arms available that could be very helpful to the Phillies in 2013. Here’s a big ol’ table full of potential targets, showing data from 2010-12. I’ve taken the liberty of excluding some unlikely names, such as Aaron Cook, Brett Myers, and Roy Oswalt.

Name K% BB% K%-BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP xFIP SIERA
Carlos Villanueva 21.3% 8.3% 13.0% .280 75.6% 4.20 4.30 4.08 3.76
Tim Stauffer 17.2% 7.1% 10.1% .278 77.5% 3.19 3.75 3.69 3.77
Francisco Liriano 23.0% 10.5% 12.5% .310 69.2% 4.59 3.73 3.77 3.80
Erik Bedard 22.1% 9.5% 12.6% .305 68.4% 4.31 3.85 3.80 3.86
Derek Lowe 14.3% 7.9% 6.4% .320 68.8% 4.68 3.95 3.87 3.94
Justin Germano 16.4% 6.5% 9.9% .302 64.8% 5.28 4.42 4.48 4.07
Jeff Karstens 15.0% 4.8% 10.2% .289 72.9% 4.02 4.23 4.05 4.15
Kyle Lohse 14.9% 5.6% 9.3% .286 70.2% 3.76 3.74 4.14 4.30
Dallas Braden 15.0% 5.6% 9.4% .274 71.8% 3.46 3.79 4.19 4.31
Freddy Garcia 15.6% 7.1% 8.5% .292 73.0% 4.42 4.51 4.30 4.39
Rich Harden 20.9% 11.7% 9.2% .293 74.3% 5.36 5.54 4.73 4.41
Jonathan Sanchez 22.2% 13.6% 8.6% .275 72.9% 4.31 4.55 4.51 4.43
Kevin Millwood 15.7% 7.4% 8.3% .308 69.8% 4.61 4.41 4.33 4.43
John Lannan 12.2% 8.7% 3.5% .306 71.6% 4.12 4.30 4.33 4.56
Carlos Zambrano 17.4% 11.1% 6.3% .294 71.7% 4.24 4.27 4.48 4.57
Daisuke Matsuzaka 19.1% 11.2% 7.9% .289 64.7% 5.48 4.56 4.79 4.58
Joe Saunders 13.4% 6.8% 6.6% .294 72.3% 4.07 4.50 4.38 4.58
Randy Wolf 15.0% 8.1% 6.9% .296 73.4% 4.39 4.63 4.58 4.60
Jair Jurrjens 14.4% 7.7% 6.7% .295 73.2% 4.18 4.31 4.47 4.60
Mike Pelfrey 12.7% 7.6% 5.1% .303 71.9% 4.10 4.05 4.38 4.61
Dustin Moseley 12.6% 8.1% 4.5% .269 70.3% 4.02 4.71 4.41 4.61
Chien-Ming Wang 9.5% 6.6% 2.9% .309 68.8% 4.94 5.00 4.60 4.63

I’ve mentioned Carlos Villanueva before, and he still looks pretty good compared to others in the same tier of pitching. He has under-performed his peripherals over his career due to a propensity to allow home runs. These heat maps shouldn’t be surprising:

Aside from that, Villanueva has great, underrated stuff. He leads the above free agent class in K%-BB% as well as SIERA. SIERA is very good at predicting future success for pitchers, so as long as Villanueva continues what he’s done recently, the results should catch up with the performance sooner rather than later.

Another interesting name on the list is Jeff Karstens. Having spent his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, his transformation into replacement-level dreck into average starter has gone mostly unnoticed. 2012 was his biggest stride forward as the right-hander boosted his strikeout rate to a career-high 18 percent and his walk rate down to a career-low four percent. In fact, his aggregate sub-five percent walk rate from 2010-12 is the lowest in the aforementioned table.

Oddly, over 26 percent of batted balls put in play against Karstens were line drives, a ridiculous rate. It was the second-highest total among pitchers with at least 90 innings pitched, behind Mike Fiers at 28 percent. Typically, Karstens has an even split of ground and fly balls — he is very Kyle Kendrick-esque in nature (Kendrick circa 2012, anyway).

Of course, the Phillies could always go with a #4-5 of Kendrick and Tyler Cloyd. Despite a 4.91 ERA, Cloyd pitched well in a small sample between the end of August and the end of the regular season, striking out 22 percent of the batters he faced while walking five percent. However, because nearly one in every two batted balls was put in the air, Cloyd allowed eight home runs in 33 innings.

Cloyd will not be able to rely on missing bats to succeed at the Major League level. This was former contributor Bradley Ankrom’s scouting report from back in August:

twitter.com/BradleyAnkrom/status/240841903652888576

twitter.com/BradleyAnkrom/status/240842207022702592

Unless the Phillies reach for an over-the-hill veteran like Kevin Millwood, it won’t be hard for them to grab an arm that can put up an ERA in the 3.75-4.25 range and solidify the back end of the rotation on the cheap. Villanueva and Karstens, at this moment, seem to be the best bets, but the Phillies have shown already this off-season that they are willing to go beyond the obvious.

Phillies Rumored to be Shopping Dom Brown

twitter.com/JonHeymanCBS/status/278626981531242498

Can’t make that up. Domonic Brown was once the Phillies’ top prospect and one they safeguarded in deals for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt, but with some unfortunate injuries and a lack of organizational commitment to his playing time and development, his stock has fallen off of the veritable cliff. Alfonso Soriano bounced back from a rough 2011 season, posting a .350 wOBA with the Chicago Cubs last season.

Heyman indicates that the Cubs would pay for all but $10 million of Soriano’s $38 million remaining salary which takes him through 2014. It sounds nice — a player who is coming off of a .350 wOBA season for two years at $10 million — but Brown will have significantly more value to the Phillies in the future. Brown doesn’t become eligible for arbitration until after the 2014 season, which means that the Phillies will have him under control for slightly more than the Major League minimum for another two years. Then, after that, Brown’s salary will scale according to his production or he could agree to a multi-year extension. Kyle Kendrick, for example, earned $2.45 million 2011 in his first year of arbitration eligibility, then agreed to a two-year, $7.5 million extension with the Phillies prior to the start of last season.

Essentially, if Brown pans out to be the prospect everyone thought he would be, the Phillies will be happy to compensate him. If Brown is a dud, as others expect, then he won’t earn as much money. In giving up Brown for Soriano, the Phillies are forgoing the opportunity to reap what they’ve sown in Brown, who is still young (25) with plenty of potential, an asset that could prove to be quite valuable over the next five seasons. In return, they would be gambling on a 37-year-old corner outfielder for the next two seasons.

The Phillies put themselves in this position, though. There were several opportunities to give Brown regular and even semi-regular playing time over the years, but they left him in Triple-A when he had nothing else to gain, then he was injured. He suffered from a quad injury in 2010, then had his hamate bone broken in March 2011, which sapped him of his power for a while. All told, Brown has 492 plate appearances spread out over three seasons, an average of 164 per season. In that span of time, however, Brown has shown some good signs — he has had as much power as Carlos Ruiz (both have a .152 ISO since 2010) and the third-best walk rate behind the now-departed Jayson Werth and Chase Utley.

Brown has his flaws too: he strikes out too much (fourth-highest rate since 2010) and has not looked comfortable in either outfield corner defensively. But is Soriano really any better in that regard, and are the Phillies’ needs so immediate that they must salvage Brown now rather than continuing to let him grow? This recent bit of news, along with manager Charlie Manuel‘s recent comments about Brown…

You know something, for me to say — I think I’m sending a bad message if I say that I don’t want them [Brown and Darin Ruf]. […]

… as well as the entire history surrounding the Phillies’ handling of Brown over the years, it does seem like a divorce is inevitable. Brown very well may be better off in another organization, but he is still a great asset to the team at the moment nonetheless, and certainly worth more to the organization going forward than Alfonso Soriano.

Report: Phillies Close to Acquiring Michael Young

UPDATE: It’s official.

twitter.com/BNightengale/status/277491159234912256

MLB.com Texas Rangers writer T.R. Sullivan reports  that a Michael Young trade to Philadelphia is getting closer to becoming a reality.

Michael Young’s time with the Rangers appears to be over. Industry sources are indicating that the trade could go down today with Young accepting a move to the Phillies.

Young was one of baseball’s least valuable players in 2012 and is 36 years old. Nevertheless…

twitter.com/JeffPassan/status/277422718381592576

Young has been debating whether or not to waive his no-trade clause to go to the Phillies, weighing — as Jon Heyman put it — professional vs. personal, as his family lives in Texas. Should the trade go through, the Phillies would push Kevin Frandsen back to the bench, giving the veteran the lion’s share of the playing time at third base.

Despite the awful 2012, Young entered the season having posted at least two Wins Above Replacement in six of his previous seven seasons, so there is the hope that last year was simply a fluke. However, there isn’t much historical precedent for older players rebounding after an awful season. Additionally, Young hasn’t played regularly at third base since 2010, accruing 40 games at the hot corner in 2011 and 25 in 2012, spending most of his time at first base and DH. When he was at third base, he was — well, less than impressive defensively. The video below was posted by commenter EricL, calling Young’s defense “Wiggintonesque”, referring to the second at-bat featured in the clip.

There were very few options available for the Phillies to address their third base situation, however, so Young was their top target in a weak market. Along with the recently-acquired Ben Revere, the Phillies will have surprisingly made two trades this off-season and zero free agent signings to date. With the Rangers expected to take on at least half of Young’s remaining $16 million salary, the Phillies still have the financial flexibility to make one or two big free agent signings. The Phillies have been looking at corner outfielders and starting pitchers since acquiring Revere on Thursday.

Phillies Acquire CF Ben Revere from Twins

Todd Zolecki reports:

Multiple sources confirmed to MLB.com this morning the Phillies have acquired outfielder Ben Revere in a trade with the Minnesota Twins. It is unclear who the Phillies have sent to the Twins as part of the trade, but the Twins have been looking for pitching.

Jim Salisbury reports Vance Worley and Trevor May are going to Minnesota.

Revere, 25 years old in May, has a career .287 wOBA in 1,064 trips to the plate, but he is more valuable than he appears at first glance. He becomes eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2013 season, which means he will be cheap and under team control through 2017. You’re looking at the Phillies’ center fielder of the future, barring any future transactions. Additionally, he plays excellent defense and runs the bases very well (74 steals in 93 attempts, 80%). The hope is that Revere’s offense improves with time, and there will be plenty of that.

Many were hoping for the Phillies to get Michael Bourn or Josh Hamilton, but trading for Revere was sensible by comparison. Rather than committing millions of dollars to players in their 30’s, the Phillies got a cost-controlled outfielder that represents very little in the way of risk with plenty of upside.

That being said, the Phillies did pay a price. They sold low on Worley, who is coming off of a bad season besmirched by an elbow injury. The right-hander was solid for the Phillies in 2011, posting a 3.01 ERA. Overall, in 277.2 innings, he has a 3.92 SIERA, which speaks of a reliable arm to have in the middle of a rotation.

May was, even to the seconds leading up to the trade, considered a top prospect in the Phillies’ system. Some of that speaks to the dearth of talent in the system, but May still showed flashes of a Major League-quality arm. The Phillies sold low on him as well after a disappointing 2012 in which he posted a 4.87 ERA with Double-A Reading. His strikeout rate declined precipitously and he still had not shown marked improvement in his control. Eric Longenhagen wrote a report on May back in October, concluding:

May’s ceiling is mostly the same (folks, I saw 96mph, a plus curve and a plus change at various times this year. A mid-rotation starter is in there somewhere and it’s still his ceiling) but the chances he gets there are now minute.

The trade will likely be framed, by fans and analysts, in the terms “won” and “lost”, but it’s not quite as simple as that. If this is what it took, at a time when center field options were quickly being taken off the board, to get Revere, then the Phillies did well to get a player who will not hamstring them financially while providing plenty in the way of talent and upside. Additionally, by not spending lots of money on a free agent center fielder, the Phillies have the freedom to go after free agents at other positions, such as Nick Swisher for right field.

Sending Worley away means that the Phillies, at the outset, will go into 2013 with a starting rotation that includes the usual Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay, but also Kyle Kendrick and Tyler Cloyd as well. That back-end of the rotation could spell trouble going forward, so it will be interesting to see if the Phillies go after free agent starter. The list of remaining free agent starters is small and mostly uninspiring, but does have names such as Edwin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez, and Kyle Lohse. An unheralded, relatively cheap player to think about is Carlos Villanueva as well.

When the Phillies are done making moves, it will be interesting to compare what they’ve done to what they could have done. For example, are they better with a rotation that includes Worley and an outfield with an expensive free agent than they are now with Revere and perhaps a new starting pitcher? The difference is smaller than one would expect, and it’s why this trade should be, at least for now, applauded.

Looks Like We Picked the Wrong Week to Quit Sniffing Choo

Ruben Amaro Jr. may have nurtured a bit of a reputation for offseason ostentatiousness, but there didn’t seem to be much room for it entering this offseason. The Phillies’ needs were obvious enough: outfielders, likely two, one of which a centerfielder, and a serviceable third base solution. The market at both positions was similarly straightfoward, with a few headliners like Hamilton, Bourn, B.J. Upton, and Angel Pagan available at centerfield, Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera, and some lesser names in the corners, and some decidedly slim pickings at third base. Circumstances seemed primed for an offseason that would grow more predictable as a few big pieces found their new homes.

So it’s been interesting to watch many of the obvious free agent targets come off the board as the Winter Meetings in Nashville have progressed. The Phillies not only non-tendered Nate Schierholtz (a puzzling choice considering his usefulness and probable low arbitration figure), but have been rather quiet as quality outfielders for hire have signed elsewhere. This doesn’t exactly comport with Amaro’s typical offseason; one could well have expected him to acquire a certain target early, and offer whatever deal was necessary to secure it before the market had a chance to take shape. Instead, in the past week, the Phillies have collected plenty of interesting data about how that market is behaving. It ranges from some seemingly reasonable deals, such as Angel Pagan’s 4 year, $40 million contract with San Francisco, to the expensive and risky (but probably acceptable) 5 years, $75 million that B.J. Upton earned from the Braves, to the outright inexplicable: 3 years, $39 million for Shane Victorino from the Boston Red Sox. It’s clear the the Phillies have stayed on the safe end of some dangerous potential bidding wars.

Superficially, the Phillies staying mum during the Winter Meetings would make for a boring start to the offseason. But in fact, as the obvious free agent options have dwindled, the December and January landscape has only grown more fascinating. The likelihood that at least one trade will be needed to satisfy the team’s needs has risen substantially, and that broadens the field of possible solutions. Early in the week, the notion that Curtis Granderson could be dealt for the right price emerged from multiple sources. Granderson, who is owed $15 million via an escalated club option next season, hit .232/.319/.492 for the Yankees last season, and is a capable defender in center. The Yankees, while trying to lower their payroll to a level that will be more advantageous under the new CBA, are still, as ever, trying to compete in 2013, so Granderson’s value to them next season is just as high as it would be for the Phillies; this makes it difficult to craft a deal that would be acceptable to them, especially as they’ve watched free agent targets like Jeff Keppinger and Eric Chavez go elsewhere. Brett Gardner taking the reins in center is not out of the question, but Nick Swisher is unlikely to return, and so their outfield possibilities are bleaker still without Granderson.

There is another, more intriguing possibility. Open as the AL Central perenially seems to be, it’s difficult to imagine the Cleveland Indians putting together a credible bid for it in 2013. Predictably, Jon Heyman reported on Wednesday that outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is “very available,” with the Indians seeking “long-term assets.” Choo turned 30 in July, and since 2008 has hit .291/.384/.471 for the Indians, the only blemish an injury-hampered 2011. In that same time period, he ranks 8th among 144 qualified MLB outfielders in wRC+, in the same neighborhood as Josh Hamilton, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Beltran, and 3rd in on-base percentage, behind only Manny Ramirez and Matt Holliday. The latter is thanks in part to an 11.4% walk rate, compared to the 2008-2012 ML average of 8.7%. More walks and on-base ability would be welcome additions to the Phillie lineup, which finished 14th in the NL in BB% and 10th in the NL in OBP in 2012. Choo also projects to be relatively inexpensive. Entering his final year of arbitration eligibility, Matt Swartz pegs Choo’s case at $7.9 million.

Is it a pipe dream? Possibly. It’s more likely than it was a week ago, when there was no chatter about Choo at all, but there have been no rumors forthcoming thus far that indicate the Phillies are in the mix. Add to that Buster Olney’s source that asserts the price for Choo is “high.” This is, of course, more rhetoric than reference point; who really knows what “high” is in the court of Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro. But, as with any potential trade this offseason, the Phillies find themselves low on ammunition. The good news is that, considering the state of the organization, there are few pieces the Phillies could send away that would constitute a significant blow to the farm system. The bad news is that it will be difficult to seriously impress the Indians with the likes of Trevor May and Vance Worley, the two assets that the Phillies are rumored to be bringing to the table this week. Worley is at a low point in perceived value, struggling with injuries last season, and it may be difficult to convince anyone that his true talent level is closer to his 2011 season. Trevor May would constitute a “long term asset” that the Indians seek, but he failed to progress in 2012, and has struggled to establish a repertoire of secondary pitches that could feasibly keep him in a starting rotation.

That’s not to say the Phillies don’t have more attractive assets, like Tommy Joseph and perhaps Jesse Biddle, but they’re not likely to want to part with either, considering that the sheen has seemingly worn off of Sebastian Valle, and the dearth of high-profile arms on the farm. It bears wondering whether, when Jim Salisbury reported on the Phillies’ enthusiasm for Jonathan Pettibone, Ethan Martin, and Adam Morgan, he was able to do so with a straight face. So perhaps acquiring Choo is a distant wish for the Phillies, but considering how well he suits their needs, it is more than worth pursuing. Rather than pay free agent dollars for Nick Swisher, Choo would allow the Phillies to stomach a larger contract for one of the remaining free agent centerfielders, instead of settling for the Coors-fueled Dexter Fowler or pining after the not-actually-available-at-all Peter Bourjos. And as a benefit of waiting out the market, the Phillies may find that prices for the likes of Hamilton or Bourn will sink to a more palatable range, or that previously unconsidered trade possibilities will present themselves. Creativity and patience may trump the war chest this offseason.

Indulging: Cliff Lee For Justin Upton?

It was something a lot of us could sense, but not necessarily put our fingers on. The Phillies had been very quiet this offseason, linked in name to some outfield options only to see them be inked by other clubs. Then, just before 5 p.m. eastern Wednesday, Pedro Gomez unleashed this:

Now isn’t THAT something?

Now, Gomez is not typically known for his baseball news-breaking and the report was, as expected, shot down not long after by other reporters and (rather vehemently) by Amaro himself. So, knowing that this deal is nowhere near imminent and perhaps nothing more than a breath beyond “rumor,” let’s press on and ponder the hypothetical.

Removing personal attachments and viewing these players simply as baseball assets, the fit would seem to make sense for both sides. In Justin Upton, the Diamondbacks would be parting with a homegrown, cornerstone player who turned 25 in August, a right fielder that the Phillies had hoped Domonic Brown would one day be. In Cliff Lee, the Phillies would be parting with a 34-year-old ace who has posted excellent numbers each of the last five years, a formidable counterpart to Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and, potentially, Trevor Bauer.

Each part of the deal carries risks complementary to their rewards. Could the Phillies deal from a supposed position of strength, with Roy Halladay’s health in question and immediate “prospect” replacements far from sure things? Could Arizona assume most of the difference between Lee’s and Upton’s salaries and expect him to keep pitching at a high level into and through his mid-30s?

Both Lee and Upton are signed through 2015.

Lee Upton
2013 $25M $9.75M
2014 $25M $14.25M
2015 $25M $14.5M

Lee also has a 2016 club option for $27.5M and a $12.5M buyout. Upton has no such provision.

The salary difference is striking, and would almost certainly have to be addressed in some capacity. But, assuming the entirety – or even the vast majority – of the difference is not accounted for, this could free the Phillies up to use the newly freed money to address another pressing need in CF or 3B. Or, to a lesser extent, a depth starter.

The Phillies’s new top of the lineup could look something like this:

SS Jimmy Rollins
RF Justin Upton
2B Chase Utley
1B Ryan Howard
C Carlos Ruiz

With other positions remaining to be addressed. The rotation, then, would be left as:

Cole Hamels
Roy Halladay
Vance Worley
Kyle Kendrick
Tyler Cloyd

It’s significantly worse without Lee. Yet the lineup has a great shot at being significantly better, with a payroll ultimately lower than it was before (prior to finishing moves). Is it worth it? The rumor may be dead for now, but it’s still one worth keeping an eye on.

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.