After an 81-81 season that felt a lot worse than the final record would indicate, the Philadelphia Phillies should enter the off-season knowing exactly what they are.
The Phils truly are a .500 team right now. And they must approach the winter with that fact in mind.
Were there injuries? Sure. Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Carlos Ruiz, Vance Worley and an assortment of other players all missed time this year on the disabled list. When you lose that many core players for long periods of time, that’s going to hurt.
However, injuries should not be used as an excuse. Just about half of the Washington Nationals roster, including major cogs Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Ian Desmond, all missed large chunks of the season as well.
They got through it. The Phillies didn’t.
Most of the Phils’ injuries were a by-product of the age of the ballclub. The Phillies are a team with some promising young players, especially in the bullpen, and a couple intriguing young outfielders, surrounded by a core of veterans in their mid-30s, most of whom have suffered from various ailment or two over the last couple years.
As the team looks ahead to 2013, there are holes in all three outfield spots, third base, and the bullpen that need to be addressed. And while the Phillies were able to provide themselves a little bit of salary space for 2013 with the trade of Hunter Pence, the trades of Joe Blanton and Shane Victorino also affect the Phils’ ability to add payroll this off-season. Those trades at midseason allowed the Phils to stay under the luxury tax this year, meaning the Phillies could overspend this year without incurring a double-penalty for going over the tax two years in a row if they wanted to.
How much the Phillies are willing to spend, no one knows. But my recommendations are based on the team keeping payroll at about the same number, around $174 million.
That said, here’s what Ruben Amaro should do.
1. Sign Angel Pagan To Play CF and Lead Off
There are a slew of quality center fielders on the free agent market. Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and Cody Ross would all be upgrades over what the Phillies have in center right now, which is, nobody (sorry John Mayberry Jr.). But all those players have major drawbacks and would not be as ideal a candidate as Pagan.
Bourn would be an excellent leadoff hitter for the Phils, and management would love to bring him back. In fact, I think Amaro is going to go hard after Bourn, and I actually expect him to be a Phillie in 2013. He hit .274/.348/.391, with 42 stolen bases, 26 doubles and 10 triples last year, and is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. However, he will turn 30 next year, struck out 155 times in 2012, and is likely going to require a five or six-year deal at about $15 million a year. That’s WAY too much money for Bourn.
Hamilton is an awesome power hitter, but like Bourn, is likely going to get at least a four-year deal and probably five. Hamilton will be 32 next year. The last thing the Phils need is an injury-prone player with a history of personal issues on the wrong side of 30 earning more than $20 million a year.
B.J. Upton is the youngest of the available players, and his talent is undeniable. And while he does offer a promising power bat at the top of the lineup (28 HRs in 2012) and quality defense in center, he is a flawed hitter who strikes out a ton (169 last year) and doesn’t get on base nearly enough to be a leadoff hitter (.298 on base percentage in 2012). Upton also has had personality issues over the years, although the fact that he’s just 28 and a terrific athlete makes him at the very least intriguing.
The guy who makes the most sense is Pagan.
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Pagan will turn 31 next year, so his age is a consideration. But unlike Bourn and Hamilton, Pagan likely won’t require a four, five or six-year deal. Instead, a three-year deal at around $10 million a year should probably do the trick. And for a starting center fielder that provides the kind of production that Pagan did this year, a three-year, $30 million deal is a price worth paying.
Pagan is also the most well-rounded of the center field candidates. He can hit for average, get on base, steal bases, wrack up a ton of extra base hits, and would probably hit a few more home runs playing at Citizens Bank Park, instead of that Grand Canyon of a ballpark in San Francisco.
The Phillies could also try and swing a trade for Colorado’s Dexter Fowler, Anaheim’s Peter Bourjois or Arizona’s Justin Upton, but the price for all three players would probably be too steep in prospects for the Phils to meet. Not only that, why give up players from a middle-of-the-pack farm system when you can just spend some cash on one of a number of quality free agents?
The Giants are said to be interested in re-signing Pagan, so it’s no guarantee he’ll go anywhere. Still, if San Francisco was that interested in signing him, they wouldn’t have let him become a free agent in the first place.
If I were Ruben, this is the very first move I would make.
Expected Price Tag: 3 years, $30 million ($10 million/year)
2. Sign Nick Swisher to Play Right Field
Like Pagan, Swisher is a switch hitter and has been tremendously consistent for the last eight years.
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Raise your hand if you knew that Swisher had hit at least 21 home runs every year since 2005. Not only that, Nick has been extremely durable, playing at least 150 games a year each of the last seven years. He’s another guy that gets on base and plays decent defense in the outfield.
The Phils do have a homegrown option in Domonic Brown, who finished the season playing right field for the Phillies. And while Brown did once again show some flashes of productivity, his year-end Major League totals (56 games, .235/.316/.396, 5 HRs in 212 plate appearances) once again were lacking. Handing him the right field job in 2013 is a risk the Phils cannot afford to make.
If the Phillies can’t get Swisher, Red Sox outfielder Cody Ross would be another target for a corner outfield spot. Ross had a terrific 2012 season, hitting 22 HRs in just 130 games, posting a slash line of .267/.326/.481 with an OPS+ of 113.
Of course, were Ross to sign with Phildelphia, the fans would have to forgive him for decimating the Phils in the 2010 NLCS. I’ve never seen a Phils fan throw a battery at one of their own players though, so I think he’d be OK.
Expected Price Tag: 3 Years, $24 million ($8 million/year)
3. Sign Jeff Keppinger To Play Third Base
If the Phillies were to use Kevin Frandsen and Freddy Galvis at third base next year as place holders for Phils prospect Cody Asche, that would be OK with me. And if the Phils sign two free agent outfielders, they may need to go low-cost at third. But a guy like Keppinger could probably be had on a one or two-year deal for about $2-3 million a year. Keppinger will turn 33 next year, but his age wouldn’t be much of a factor if it’s only a one-year deal. In 115 games last year, Keppinger hit .325/.367/.439 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs for Tampa and can also play second base and shortstop, so he would give the Phillies flexibility as well.
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4. Platoon Darin Ruf/Domonic Brown in Left Field
It would be foolish to give Ruf any kind of starting job based on his assault of AA pitching and 12 stellar games at the Major League level. In fact, no one knows if Ruf can even play left field on a regular basis, having been moved from first base in the middle of the season down in Reading. However, he didn’t embarrass himself while out there in his Major League cup of coffee, and with enough repetitions in winter ball in Venezuela and a crash course in Spring Training, his defense could probably become at least passable.
And just to put into prospective the whole Ruf vs. Domonic Brown thing, Ruf’s 12-game cameo in September (.333/.351/.727, 3 HRs, 2 2Bs 1 3B, 10 RBIs) was better than any 12-game stretch Brown has ever put together in parts of three seasons at the Major League level. Brown’s best 12-game stretch was from June 25-July 10 of 2011 (.333/.388/.444, 1 HR, 2 2B, 5 RBIs).
The Phils desperately need some young, cheap players to come through, and Ruf has shown enough at the plate to at least allow him the time to platoon with a guy like Brown, who the Phillies are still hoping will come around. Brown seemed to show a bit more power at the plate during the last three weeks of the season, but still is not consistent enough to be totally relied upon. However, Brown should get an opportunity to at least start the season with the club next year, if only as one half of a platoon with Ruf.
5. Sign An 8th Inning Set-Up Reliever
Hey, Brad Lidge is available! Ah… never mind.
The Phillies actually have a ton of young relievers in their ‘pen with quality arms and great swing-and-miss stuff. Antonio Bastardo, Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, Jeremy Horst, Jake Diekman, and B.J. Rosenberg all have tremendous upside and power arms.
Control, that’s another issue.
However, the Phils’ bullpen really came around toward the end of the season, so Amaro really should allow these cheap, young arms to step up to the forefront and produce for him.
That is, except, for the eighth inning. Aside from Antonio Bastardo, who was terribly inconsistent this year, the Phillies really don’t have an eighth inning set-up guy. So Amaro should spend just a little bit of cash and bring aboard someone like Mike Adams or perhaps even Ryan Madson to be Jonathan Papelbon’s set-up guy. But please, Ruben, no more than $3-4 million on a one or two-year deal for this reliever. We beg of you.
Of course, it’s hard to predict trades, which is always something Amaro will consider. I’m sure he’d love to swing a deal for a guy like Justin Upton, Chase Headley or David Wright, but it’s extremely unlikely the Phils would match the asking price for any of those players. A trade for an 8th inning set-up man might be the most realistic.
At the end of the day, Ruben Amaro knows the Phillies need to improve in numerous areas. The hope is that he’s not distracted by the bright shiny-object free agents, and instead uses a disciplined, methodical approach to free agency this year.
And please, no more $10 million relievers.