We all want the Phillies to do better in 2014. We want Ruben Amaro to get on the phones, talk to other teams, talk to agents, and somehow, someway, make the Phils a playoff contender next year.
However, I ran across a stat today illustrated just how hard this is going to be.
The worst run differential in the postseason is TB with +57. The Phillies were -139. A postseason berth in ’14 will require a 200-run swing.
— Casey Feeney (@caseyfeeney66) October 2, 2013
So yeah, it’s not going to be easy.
In order to make the playoffs next year, there is going to have to be a massive turnaround by this ballclub, and most of that turnaround is going to have to come from the same players that have been declining for the last few years.
The Phillies have made their bed with big contracts to Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams. Those seven players are set to make $119.5 million next year. Kyle Kendrick will get about $7-8 million, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez will get $4 million, and there are a series of arbitration eligible players, like Kevin Frandsen, Ben Revere, and Domonic Brown that are due slight raises next year. All three players will likely hop over the $1 million mark.
So, that’s roughly $14-15 million more, putting the total salary for next year at $133.5 million. Then there are the youngsters like Jeremy Horst, Freddy Galvis, Cody Asche, Darin Ruf, Cesar Hernandez, Ethan Martin, Jonathan Pettibone, Jake Diekman, Justin De Fratus, and others, who all need to be paid. Figure another $5-6 million for those guys.
That puts the Phils at about $139 million committed to next year’s roster. If we assume the Phils are not interested in going over the 2014 luxury tax limit of $189 million this year, that would leave the Phillies with roughly $50 million to play with this off-season. The Phils need to fill holes at catcher, a right-handed hitter with power/outfielder, starting rotation, and perhaps bullpen.
So, how does Ruben do this? How does he pull this off? What follows is what I would do if I were general manager of the Phillies. It also proves why I should probably NOT be GM.
Hey, we’re just having fun here, kiddos.
1. RE-SIGN CARLOS RUIZ
This seems like an obvious move. The only catcher options out there are Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Chooch. McCann is going to cost way too much money and has injury concerns. Saltalamacchia is a switch-hitter who can’t hit right-handed, plus his name is just way too long to have to spell on a regular basis. Both players will cost more than Ruiz, and Carlos provides the Phillies with stability. He knows the staff and is still an effective defensive catcher. And even though he lost some of his power this year, his offensive game is still plenty good, hitting .268/.320/.368 in 341 PAs this year. One would think those numbers might even be better with a full spring and no suspension to get in the way.
Figure a two-year, $14 million for Ruiz, with an AAV of $7 million.
That puts the payroll at about $146 million, with about $43 million left.
2. SIGN JAPANESE PITCHER MASAHIRO TANAKA
Even with Kyle Kendrick coming back, the Phils desperately need an answer in the starting rotation. The best bang for the buck would be for Ruben Amaro to pony up some big-time cash for the rights to sign 24-year-old Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka. Because when Matt Garza is your best option among free agent starting pitchers, it’s time to think outside the box.
Tanaka is not going to come cheap. Using the Yu Darvish contract as a guide, it’s likely the Phillies, or any other MLB team, would have to post anywhere from $45-55 million just for the right to negotiate with Tanaka. However, that money does not count against the team’s salary cap. Tanaka is seen as a slight downgrade from Darvish, so he may not require as big of a contract, but it’s still going to be big. Figure a six-year $50 million deal for Tanaka, with an AAV of about $8 million (this would be $8.3 million to be precise, but we’re rounding here).
When you figure pitchers like Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez are likely going to get more than this, and are all significantly older than Tanaka, the Japanese star really offers the best value. He’s young, he’s relatively inexpensive (at least as far as payroll numbers are concerned), and should perform better at the end of his deal than any free agent Major Leaguer out there. The Phils could slide him into the #3 or 4 spot in the rotation and give them some depth with tremendous upside.
Of course, there is the chance Tanaka could be terrible in the Majors. That’s happened before with Japanese starters. But I’m betting on him having success in the U.S.
If they get outbid for Tanaka, then I wouldn’t mind seeing the Phils go hard after Cleveland’s Jimenez, or Josh Johnson, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The payroll now stands at $154 million, with $35 million left.
Signing Tanaka would also let the Phillies do the following…
3A. TRADE CLIFF LEE FOR MATT KEMP
This undoubtedly carries with it some risk, and any Lee trade would require his approval. So this may be unrealistic.
Right-handed thunder is hard to come by these days. Giancarlo Stanton isn’t getting traded unless the Phils unload all of their top prospects, something I think would be unwise to do. Acquiring one may require the Phillies to give up their best starting pitcher.
This seems counter-intuitive, given how much of a priority the Phils have placed on shoring up the rotation. But here me out.
Matt Kemp, when healthy, is one of the best players in the game. He is a right-handed, power hitting outfielder and turns just 29 years old. Yes, he’s expensive, signed through 2019 as part of an eight-year, $160 million contract that will pay him $21 million next season. Still, that is cheaper than the $25 million the Phils will pay Cliff Lee next year. Not only that, Lee is now 35 years old and, even though he was spectacular in 2013, one only has to look at Roy Halladay to see how quickly a veteran Major League pitcher can lose it.
Lee’s trade value will never be higher than it is right now. The Dodgers have a surplus of outfielders and could always use starting pitching. Lee would likely accept a trade to Los Angeles, given the market and their status as a World Series contender.
Now, there are obvious concerns about Kemp’s health. He went on the disabled list three different times this year and missed 88 games. He strained his right hamstring in May, irritated his surgically repaired left shoulder in July and hurt his left ankle in a plate collision in July. He will not play in the NLDS against Atlanta because of stiffness in that ankle. He would be a risk, no doubt.
But even in an injury-plagued year, Kemp still hit .270/.328/.395 in 290 PAs. And he is just two seasons removed from his MVP-caliber season of 2011, when he posted a bWAR of 8.6 and hit .324/.399/.586 with a league-leading 39 HRs and 126 RBIs.
Last year, in just 106 games, he hit .303/.367/.538 with 23 HRs and 22 doubles. He’s won two Gold Gloves and, while his defense probably isn’t THAT good, he’s not terrible defensively.
Trading Lee for Kemp would initially save the Phillies $4 million, dropping their payroll to $150 million, giving them $39 million to spend.
However, if acquiring an outfielder through a Lee trade is impossible, then here is my free agent suggestion…
3B SIGN CURTIS GRANDERSON
The free agent options are just so underwhelming.
Jacoby Ellsbury is without a doubt the best free agent outfielder on the market. He’s a great defender, has phenomenal speed, and would make a terrific leadoff hitter for the Phils. However, he hits left-handed, does not hit for power, and will require more years and dollars than anyone else available. He’ll likely get a six or seven year contract, which is a dangerous length given how dependent he is on his speed to be effective. It just doesn’t seem like the best fit for the Phillies, although I do suspect it’s who Ruben Amaro is going to target.
Carlos Beltran is old (he’s 37) and, while he did hit 24 HRs this year with an OPS of .830, he hit just 5 HRs from July through the end of the year. He’d be a dangerous two-year signing.
Nelson Cruz is a right-handed power bat, but he’s 33 and was suspended 25 games for PED use as part of the Biogenesis investigation. However, he did hit .266/.327/.506 with 27 HRs this year and is probably the best pure right-handed power-hitting outfielder on the market. Another consideration is his awful defense. Amaro has said he wants a better defensive outfield, which means Cruz probably doesn’t work.
Shin-Soo Choo‘s on-base skills (.423 this year) are highly attractive, but he would be yet another left-handed hitter with horrible numbers against left-handed pitching (.215/.347/.265 with 0 HRs) this year and very little power.
Corey Hart, while intriguing, missed all of this year with knee issues. The last thing the Phillies need is another question mark in the outfield.
The one free agent that interests me most is Granderson. He’ll turn 33 in March and is coming off an injury-plagued year in which he played in just 61 games and hit .229/.317/.407 with 7 HRs. However, he’s a pretty good defender with plus-speed that can play all three outfield positions and can also steal a bag (7 in just 55 games this year). He’s never had a walk rate less than 11% in any season since 2008, however, he does strike out a lot. And while his career numbers against left-handed pitching are poor (.226/.295/.409), he was actually quite good against lefties in 2011 (.272/.347/.597 with 16 HRs). His 2012 numbers against lefties (.218/.304/.458 with 14 HRs) ticked down, although they showed he could at least still hit some homers off them.
Someone like Coco Crisp would be a fantastic addition for the Phils but, Oakland has an affordable team option they are likely to pick up. And if the Phils are looking to sign someone on a short-term deal, they could roll the dice that former Phillie Marlon Byrd‘s ridiculous 2013 season (.291/.336/.511 with 24 HRs and 4.1 fWAR) isn’t a fluke. He could be had on a two-year deal, most likely, although he’s 36 years old and a two-year deal would take him to age 38. Yikes.
That said, Granderson looks like a realistic option. The Yankees aren’t likely to re-sign him and, coming off an injury-plagued year, he could be a decent buy-low opportunity. MLB Trade Rumors predicts a three-year, $45 million contract, with an AAV of $15 million. Yes, the Phils would likely be paying for his declining years, but that’s going to be the case with whatever free agent they sign.
Signing Granderson would put the Phils payroll at $169 million, leaving them $20 million under the luxury tax.
4A. SIGN UBALDO JIMENEZ (CONTINGENT ON LEE TRADE)
If the Phillies trade Cliff Lee, they’re going to need another starter. Assuming they sign Tanaka (which is a HUGE assumption), the starter they should target is Ubaldo Jimenez, who is enjoying quite a turnaround season. Jimenez went 13-9 in 2013 with a 3.30 ERA, with 194 Ks and 80 BBs in 182.2 IP. His WHIP was a bit high (1.330) but made up for it with the best K-rate of his career (9.56). He also lowered his BB-rate by almost a full walk per inning from last year, and, while he isn’t throwing as hard as he did during his time with Colorado, he still averaged 92.1 mph on his fastball. The difference is his ability to control the fastball much better this year.
Jimenez turns 30 in March and should reasonably expect a contract of about four years, $52 million with an AAV of $13 million, taking him through his age 34 season. Cleveland could make him a qualifying offer, but it’s not seen likely that they’ll do that. In addition, the Phils would not have to give up their protected first round pick even if they do, which makes signing him that much more palatable.
Under this scenario, the Phils payroll would stand at $163 million, leaving them $21 million under the luxury tax.
5. SIGN BULLPEN HELP
The Phillies appear to have much of their bullpen set up for next year. Closer Jonathan Papelbon will never leave us. Mike Adams, coming off an injury, should be back as the set-up man. They’ve already committed $20 million to those two, so they HAVE to be counted on next year. Jake Diekman, unless he implodes in the spring, will be one of the left-handers out of the ‘pen. Ethan Martin looks like he’ll be a bullpen piece next year, along with B.J. Rosenberg and Justin De Fratus. The Phils will need a long man out of the ‘pen, which will either go to Kyle Kendrick or someone in-house like Tyler Cloyd. But the Phils likely need someone with a track record in case Adams’ health doesn’t hold up, or in case Diekman regresses from the phenomenal progress he showed this year. And Antonio Bastardo isn’t likely to return.
When looking at free agent relievers, the idea is to limit years and find someone with a track record of consistency. You’re also looking for someone who can miss some bats and limit walks and isn’t too old. It’s a very tough needle to thread, which is why signing relievers to free agent contracts is usually a good thing to avoid if you can.
The Phils may not have a choice, though.
As far as left-handed relievers go, New York’s Boone Logan, San Francisco’s Javier Lopez and Atlanta’s Scott Downs are all available and all would probably cost $4-5 million a year. That’s a lot of money for a reliever. Logan is the youngest of the three (31) and could probably be had on a one-year deal, rather than Lopez and Downs, who will likely command multiple years. Logan’s not sexy, but his K/9 this year was 11.54 and his BB/9 was 3.00, all while posting a 3.23 ERA.
The Phils could also take a flier on an injured pitcher Eric O’Flaherty, who is coming off Tommy John surgery. He began throwing last week, but it could be June before he joins a Major League rotation.
Texas’ Jason Frasor had a solid 2013 season, posting a 2.57 ERA in 49 IP, with a K/9 if 8.8 and BB/9 of 3.67. He has a career ERA of 3.67 and, although he’ll be 36 next year, has pitched at least 50 games every year since 2009 and never less than 49. He’s also posted an ERA of 2.50, 3.68, 3.60 and 4.12 in the four previous years. He could likely be had on a one-year deal at around $2 million. Grant Balfour, Joel Hanrahan, J.J. Putz and, dear heavens, Brian Wilson, are also potential right-handed relievers that could be had, however, at higher prices.
Figure the Phils sign a lefty and righty reliever, hopefully on one-year deals. That’s about $7-9 million, which would bring the payroll under the Trade Lee Scenario up to about $170 million, around $19 million under the luxury tax. Under the Non-Trade Lee Scenario, the payroll would be right around $176 million, leaving $13 million under the tax.
So, here are my plans…
- Re-Sign Carlos Ruiz
- Sign Masahiro Tanaka
- Trade Cliff Lee for Matt Kemp
- Sign Ubaldo Jimenez
- Sign two relievers
Payroll around $170 million.
Payroll around $176 million.
My preference is for Plan A. It solidifies the catcher position, eliminates Lee from the rotation but replaces him with Tanaka and Jimenez, gets Kemp in the outfield and brings aboard two relievers, all with about $19-20 million left under the tax.
Plan B brings Chooch aboard and keeps Lee, while adding Tanaka. It also adds Granderson to the outfield and brings probably just one more reliever on board, and costs a bit more, leaving about $13 million under the tax.
Whatever Amaro does this off-season, he’s going to have to get creative, or find some sucker to take a lot of these problems off his hands.