Everyone has been laying out their off-season strategy for the Phillies since the end of game 162. The areas of need are obvious to everyone who watched this team sputter to .500. Third base was a revolving door all year, and the outfield is full of question marks since the trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. The rotation is likely set for next year, but the bullpen could use a stabilizing veteran presence behind Papelbon. Where the teem has needs isn’t under dispute, but if Ruben Amaro doesn’t address what the team needs they will suffer from the same deficiencies as last year. If the Phillies look to address their three biggest weaknesses, there is no reason they can’t put the Nationals back in their place and reclaim the National League East.
1. Making Contact
This may be the most glaring weakness of the Phillies. Ryan Howard get’s a lot of the criticism for his high strike out totals, but he isn’t the only culprit. The Phils struck out a league leading 1,094 times. No matter whether you subscribe to the theories of Moneyball or not, there is nothing good about swinging and missing. The team’s inability to advance runners, and drive in runs from third base with less than one out is a direct consequence of their whiffing. Juan Pierre was a pleasant surprise, slapping balls through the infield at a steady rate, but the team missed Placido Polanco’s steady ratio of putting balls in play. Keeping Pierre is a no brainer, even if his average takes a predictable drop (*Struck out once every 16 plate appearances).
There are a few players who would fit the bill, and most of them wouldn’t break the bank. Nick Swisher is a popular name who would add some pop to the Phils lineup, but he struck every 4.42 times up. We already know Michael Bourn looks good in pinstripes, but his 4.52 strike out rate wouldn’t add much value to the leadoff spot. Angel Pagan on the other hand only K’d every 6.8 times up, and showed serious gap power with 38 doubles.
At third base the Phillies could sign Jeff Keppinger, who has rightly been recommended by my colleagues at TBOH. Playing part time, Keppinger stuck out at an amazing rate of 1/13PA, which could fill the role of the recently departed Polanco.
2. Getting On Base
You can’t score runs if you can’t get on base. It’s a simple concept, but one that the Phillies don’t seem to have fully embraced yet. The Phils were ranked 13/16 in the NL in walks (454) and in the bottom half in OBP (.317). Consequently the team has seen a steady decrease in runs scored the last four seasons. Even if the pitching staff returns to league leading dominance, they will have to get more guys on base.
Nick Swisher’s name comes up again as an appealing target. Despite the strikeouts he has a very good eye, and draws walks an a very steady rate. His .364 OBP would have been the second highest of the team last year, and his home run rate translate well at CBP. The Phillies lineup would be improved with Swisher despite the strikeouts, but his asking price should push him out of consideration. His rumored asking price of $100 million is a non starter, and the Phils would be wise to stay away from long deals for players north of 30.
A cheaper on base machine would be Johnny Gomes. He was a pleasant surprise for the A’s last year slugging 18 homers with a .377 on base average. Both numbers were career highs, but his splits vs. lefties would bring a lot of value to Philadelphia. He hit .299/.419/.561 against southpaws hitting 11 of his 18 long balls against them as well. Offering Gomes a guaranteed deal at a slightly higher salary (1 yr/$1.5) ought to get it done. Not a bad insurance policy for the unproven Darin Ruf.
3. Keeping the Ball in the Park
Despite their problems, the Phillies staff as a whole wasn’t all that bad. They were towards the top of the NL in ERA, BB, and K’s, but they had one glaring weakness: home runs. The team was second to last in homers allowed (178). Part of that can be contributed to the friendly confines of CBP, but not all of it. The bullpen was responsible for about 30% of the total, with Papelbon leading the way. He’s locked in as the Phillies closer, but Antonio Bastardo shaky season (7 home runs allowed) is an area that deserves an upgrade. Given that he is under team control he won’t be going anywhere, but trusting him with the 8th inning is just too risky. Jeremy Affeldt could be the veteran presence this young bullpen needs. He’s been a dominant force for the Giants the past 4 years as Phillies fans are well aware of. His splits vs. righties and lefties were nearly identical, and he only gave up one homer all season.
If the Phillies are thrifty filling other holes, they can afford to spend the 6-7 million dollar salary Affeldt will likely command. The risks are higher for bullpen arms, as they are less predictable from year to year. But, Affeldt has proven over a long career that he is a shut down pitcher who can get big outs come October.
Ruben Amaro Jr.’s track record suggests that he will look to fill the team’s holes quickly rather than let the market play itself out. As long as Ruben focuses on what the team needs rather than where they need it, there’s no reason the Phillies shouldn’t be poised to get back to October baseball.