The off-season isn’t officially “off” yet. I know this. If only wanting would make it so.
But now that the Super Bowl is over and Madonna is finished horrifying America, looking ahead to pitchers and catchers reporting to Florida and Arizona this month seems like the right thing to do.
With that, this off-season proved to be yet another busy one for the Phillies, although not quite as big as in seasons past. There was no Cliff Lee-like bombshell this year, no Roy Halladay-like trade to get the juices flowing. But there were a couple of big free agent signings, and perhaps more importantly, some smaller deals that could have a major impact on the 2012 season.
And there is still time for Ruben to get more done. If he can get Cole Hamels to sign a contract extension, the grade given here will automatically improve. And should he sign Roy Oswalt again for pennies on the dollar while at the same time finding a taker for Joe Blanton’s over-sized waistline and contract, his star will rise even more.
However, barring any major developments, let’s take a look at just how Ruben Amaro Jr. did in this still-incomplete off-season.
THE BIG MOVES:
Jonathan Papelbon (4-years, $50 million):
The ins and outs of this deal have been covered to exhaustion, so I won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say, spending that kind of money on a guy who is only going to pitch in about 5% of a team’s innings during the season is foolish, to put it kindly. The deal looks a lot worse after watching just about every other available closer on the market sign very team-friendly deals (Heath Bell aside), exemplified by Madson’s one-year deal with the Reds. There were a glut of closers on the market and not enough teams to go around, yet Ruben jumped the gun and went way-above market to sign a guy who is admittedly perhaps the second-best closer in baseball.
There was also the strange way in which Amaro and Scott Boras conducted the Madson contract negotiations. Did they agree to a four-year contract? Did the Phillies get cold feet? If so, why? Wouldn’t Madson at four years have been better than Papelbon at five? There are still a lot of unanswered questions about that one.
The bad news is that Amaro overpaid for Papelbon. The good news is that Papelbon is still one of the best in the game, has no injury history at all, and should still be a productive pitcher for most of his contract. You’d like to think that this deal wouldn’t prohibit Amaro from conducting other business (i.e. Hamels extension). After all, Ruben may be many things (arrogant and over-aggressive just to name a couple), but one thing he isn’t is an idiot.
Jimmy Rollins (3 years, $15 million plus vesting 4th year option):
It seems as though Ruben maybe learned a few things after jumping the gun on the closer market. While Amaro would never admit it publicly, he knows he over-payed for Papelbon and didn’t wait out the flooded closer market. Isn’t that clear from how he handled contract negotiations with Jimmy? At the start of the off-season, Rollins said he wanted a five-year deal. Everyone knew the Phils weren’t going to do that. The question was, would a team like San Francisco or Atlanta go there?
Amaro judged the market effectively this time, and waited for Rollins’ asking price to come down, eventually signing the face of the franchise to a very team-friendly three-year deal, with a fourth-year vesting option that will require Jimmy to remain healthy and on the field in order for it to be triggered. While Rollins is getting older, the other options at shortstop either weren’t very palatable or realistic. This was a nice job by Amaro, a very solid signing at an important position.
THE LITTLE MOVES:
Jim Thome 1 year, $1.25 million:
I’m not sure this move will be anything more than a nostalgia signing when all is said and done. Nonetheless, for a small amount of money, Amaro got himself a true big-bopper and hometown favorite to come off the bench from the left side of the plate. Now, if Thome could still play first base defensively, this move would have been a major coup. With Ryan Howard sidelined until likely May, if not June, Thome as an every day starter at first base would have been terrific. Unfortunately, most observers think Thome has the mobility of a Brinks truck on ice, which means he’ll mostly be used as a late-inning pinch hitter. His real value will come if he can pull a Matt Stairs at some point late in the season, as well as in the clubhouse, where his positivity and professionalism will be an asset as well.
Brian Schneider 1 year, $800,000:
At the plate, Schneider stinks. Last year, he hit .146/.246/.256 with 2 HRs and 9 RBIs. When penciled in the lineup, Schneider is an automatic out. That said, he only appeared in 41 games last year, and excelled in handling young starter Vance Worley. Since the Phils aren’t really looking for a ton of offense out of their back-up catcher anyway, this deal made sense. An offensive upgrade would have been nice, but unnecessary here.
Acquired Ty Wigginton from Colorado @ 2 years, $8 million:
The Phillies have long had their eye on Wigginton, and in fact have looked into acquiring him on multiple occasions. Finally, Ruben got his man, although probably two years past his prime. Last year, Wigginton hit .242/.315/.416 for an OPS of .731, hitting 15 HRs and 47 RBIs. His real value, though, comes in his positional versatility. And with Howard missing most of the first month or two of the season, and Thome’s inability to play first base defensively, it’s likely Wigginton will be an everyday player for the Phillies until at least June.
Wigginton has some pop, but not as much as he used to have. And in keeping with the tradition of Phillies hitters who show impatience at the plate, Wigginton’s .315 on-base percentage isn’t anything to get excited about. It would have been preferable for Amaro to target someone who does a better job getting on-base, but the Phils’ GM was obviously looking for some punch off the bench. And it was just two years ago that Wigginton hit 22 HRs with Baltimore. Overall, it’s not a bad deal, but nothing to get excited about, either.
Laynce Nix 2 years, $2.5 million:
For everyone who thinks the Nix signing is a roadblock to Domonic Brown, just stop. Stop it already. For the record, there is no way on God’s green earth that Laynce Nix will stand in the way of Brown becoming a full-time player in Major League Baseball. OK?
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, the Nix signing still doesn’t look very good. Like Wigginton, Nix is a bench player that will see significant time in a platoon role in left field and first base. And, like Wigginton, Nix is a bench player who is abysmal at getting on base. Last year, he hit .250/.299/.451 with 16 HRs and 44 RBIs. Like Wigginton, Nix has some pop, but only against right-handed pitching, with all of his home runs coming against righties, while posting a slash line of .263/.306/.475 for an OPS of .781. Against lefties, he is a black hole of ineptitude, hitting .111/.226/.185 in 31 at-bats in 2011.
If Nix is allowed to face a single left-handed pitcher in 2012, Charlie Manuel should immediately be taken to the hospital for a CAT scan.
There were better options than Nix for a platoon position on the bench, someone with a higher on-base percentage and splits not nearly as drastic as Nix’s. In all, this move seemed to be Ruben’s poorest of the off-season.
Dontrelle Willis 1 year, $850,000:
Bringing in another lefty for the bullpen while freeing up Antonio Bastardo for set-up duty was a move that had to happen, but Amaro went about it in an usual way. However, this is one of those moves that I could imagine Pat Gillick doing. While Willis’ numbers with the Reds last year weren’t great (5.00 ERA, 1.520 WHIP, ERA+ 78), he was very tough against left-handed hitters (.369 OPS, 10.0 K/BB, striking out 20 of the 60 hitters he faced). If Willis can stay healthy, he could be quite a nice addition as a situational left-hander out of the ‘pen in 2012, provided someone is able to tackle Charlie every time he lets Willis face a right-handed hitter.
Chad Qualls 1 year, $1.15 million:
The Qualls signing seemed a bit unnecessary, unless the front office feels that Jose Contreras can’t be depended upon. Contreras still isn’t throwing off a mound, and with pitchers and catchers set to report soon, and the fact that Contrereas is about 62 years old, Amaro may have felt the need for another veteran arm for the later innings. Is Qualls the guy? While he has had decent career numbers, his K/9 decreased sharply last year. From 2004-2010, Qualls averaged 7.4 K/9. Last year in San Diego, he averaged just 5.2. And at 33 years old, it’s not good to see a reliever lose his ability to get hitters to swing and miss. It’s reasonable to think someone like Justin De Fratus or Phillippe Aumont would have been a cheaper and better candidate to take Contreras’ slot, but Amaro likes him some veterans, and he got himself another one. Seems more like an Ed Wade move to me, though.
Amaro signed a number of players to minor-league deals aimed at strengthening the organization’s starting pitching and outfield depth, moves that could make a big difference once the 2012 season starts. Dave Bush averaged 147 innings from 2006-2010, although he wasn’t terribly effective in many of those innings. Still, he’s a decent spot starter that will spend most of 2011 in AAA more than likely. Joel Pinero may be the best under-the-radar signing that could pay huge dividends down the road. He flat-out stunk with the Angels last year (5.13 ERA, 1.510 WHIP) but is a ground-ball pitcher that had two solid years in 2009 (15-12, 3.49 ERA with a league-leading two shutouts in 214 innings for St. Louis) and 2010 (10-7, 3.84 ERA in 152.1 innings for Los Angeles), and would likely be the first pitcher called up if Blanton or Kendrick were to get injured in 2012. It’s one of those moves that doesn’t make a lot of headlines when it’s made, but could have a major impact later on.
Juan Pierre will battle Scott Podsednik for the fifth outfield spot in spring training, and his addition to the bench could be impactful as well. While he’s not an on-base machine (.329 OBP), he’s better than Nix, can lay down a bunt and steal a base in a close ball-game. Pierre would be a great weapon to have late in a ballgame with the Phillies down by a run, leading off an inning. And a mild surprise was Amaro’s trade of Wilson Valdez, giving away some much-needed infield depth, for AAA left-handed reliever Jeremy Horst. Horst simply adds depth the organization’s stable of lefty relievers, while Valdez’ departure likely means Michael Martinez will be on the opening day roster as the utility infielder, something no Phils fan really wants to believe will happen.
Overall, Amaro’s off-season was a mixed bag. There was the bad (Papelbon and Nix), the good (Rollins, Pinero, Thome) and the indifferent (Wigginton, Willis, Schneider). Could Amaro have done things differently? Sure.
He could have decided to bid goodbye to Jimmy Rollins, sign third baseman Aramis Ramirez to provide more power to the middle of the lineup, turning Polanco into an ultra-utility man. He could have then signed Alex Gonzalez or Rafael Furcal to a one or two-year deal until Freddy Galvis was ready to take over. He could have also signed Michael Cuddyer to play left field during Ryan Howard’s absence, moving Mayberry to first. Then, upon Howard’s arrival, Mayberry would go back to the bench as a dominant right-handed hitter/fourth outfielder, negating the need for Wigginton or Nix.
But Amaro went a different direction. Overall, I think a grade of B- is fair for his work, with room for extra credit should he sign Hamels to a long-term extension or trade Blanton and re-acquire Oswalt.