Offseason Outlook: Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies' old window of contention is closed, Jimmy Rollins acknowledges, but the team's longtime shortstop insists a new one is about to open.

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Ruben Amaro Jr. has drawn some of the harshest criticism of any GM in baseball after doubling down on his club's aging core, but he will be back and fascinating to watch again this offseason. Amaro recently told Andy Martino of the New York Daily News that he is on the hunt for impact transactions in the coming offseason, though some observers feel that the club will hunt for mid-tier value. With over $120MM guaranteed next year to eight players, around $11MM to spend on arbitration eligible players (per Tim Dierkes' prediction), and the pre-arb portion of the roster to pay, the club is already within $40MM of its highest-ever payroll ($172MM in 2012). 

On the other hand, the team may soon be flush with a big new TV deal and surely feels pressure to reverse its slide from atop the league's attendance standings. And after earning a protected top-ten pick in the 2014 draft, the Phils will have an edge on most other big market clubs in buying free agents. Will the Phillies be more aggressive this year than they were last offseason?

Amaro made it clear that the club is reloading, not rebuilding, with a series of summer moves. First and foremost, Amaro got veteran star Utley to agree to a reasonable and flexible extension that shouldn't be an albatross, though the club forewent a big trade deadline haul to do so. Then, the organization made its first major international splash, promising $48MM to 26-year-old Cuban hurler Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. (The amount was ultimately quartered and the length halved after medical concerns cropped up.) Finally, the club shed longtime skipper Charlie Manuel for heir-apparent Ryne Sandberg, and then officially anointed the Hall-of-Fame second baseman as its 2014 manager with a three-year contract.

After posting the league's second-worst run differential in 2013, the Phils could find it difficult to add enough talent to feel confident that they have a contender, unless ownership is willing to push up against (or even over) this year's $189MM luxury tax threshold. In 2013, the Phillies put up about 17.5 WAR as a team, which is around half the total accumulated by the lowest-tallying playoff club (Cleveland). Making up that kind of gap will be expensive. Even if the money is available, moreover, there are only so many places that the club can put it.

The club is certainly not going to spend in the middle infield, where it has the longtime Rollins-to-Utley double play combo under contract. The duo has not exceeded 8 fWAR since 2009, and last year managed only around 5.5 fWAR (and under 4 rWAR). Howard remains entrenched at first, though he may get additional rest and lose at-bats against lefties to Darin Ruf, who has done nothing but hit in his 318 big league plate appearances (17 homers, 136 OPS+). Though both are defensive liabilities, their complementary power bats could make up a productive combination — if Howard can stay healthy. 

At third, Cody Asche has probably done enough in nearly 200 plate appearances to presume that he will man the position in 2013. Like Howard, Asche also has a ready platoon partner in Kevin Frandsen, assuming he is tendered a contract. And it should be remembered that top prospect Maikel Franco is demanding attention at the hot corner after mashing at Double-A as a 20-year old. 

Catcher is quite a different story, as the stalwart Ruiz will hit free agency going into his age-35 season. With the organization's younger options like Tommy Joseph and Sebastian Valle fizzling, an internal replacement seems unlikely. Cameron Rupp earned a September call-up after putting together a solid campaign in the high minors, but he is a more likely candidate for Erik Kratz's backup job given his lack of a compelling ceiling. Having enjoyed cut-rate production from Chooch for years, Philly will need to spend just to hold serve behind the dish. 

A return for Ruiz could make sense, and he seemingly hopes to do just that. Dierkes pegs his open-market value at a reasonable two years and $14MM. But it has been suggested that Ruiz can only handle 100 games as a receiver at this point, and the club could want a more full-time, long-term solution. The leading catchers on the market – Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Brian McCann – may not be perfect fits. Both would further tilt the team's lineup towards the left side since Salty is a switch-hitter who struggles against lefties. And Philly does not figure to have first base (or, of course, DH) at-bats available to keep the latter fresh as he ages.

The Phils joined just the Astros and Twins with an aggregate sub-replacement-level performance from their outfielders in 2013. According to Fangraphs, the club had only three players who made positive contributions: a redeemed Brown, 26, whose stellar offensive output was partially offset by awful defense metrics; center fielder Revere, 25, who was trending upward when he broke his foot; and the lumbering Ruf. Many were also impressed by the debut of young Cesar Hernandez, who hit and reached base at an impressive clip while learning on the job in center. Brown and Revere are locks for regular jobs. But the club apparently does not view Ruf as an everyday option in the corner outfield, and the light-hitting Hernandez is most likely to join Freddy Galvis as cheap, versatile bench options.

It is little surprise, then, that the Phillies are said to desire a right-handed hitting corner outfielder. On the free agent market, the premier options are Nelson Cruz and the switch-hitting Carlos Beltran (recently compared by MLBTR's Charlie Wilmoth). Otherwise, the club would be looking at older players like Marlon Byrd or bounceback candidates like Chris Young, Corey Hart, or Michael Morse. It is, of course, still possible that the club could instead go after a left-handed bat and/or center fielder if it finds better value there.

If Amaro explores the trade market, he figures to be competing with many other motivated buyers. The GM has reportedly made repeated efforts to acquire young stud Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins, but probably lacks the chips to get one of the game's most valuable commodities. Other possible targets include Michael Cuddyer, Mark Trumbo, and Yoenis Cespedes, but none of these players seem likely to be dealt unless their current employer is overwhelmed by an offer.

Meanwhile, the once-imposing rotation turned out baseball's sixth-worst ERA in spite of typically excellent seasons from Lee and Hamels, both of whom return. Gonzalez is a "mystery" even to his new manager, having never pitched in the bigs and coming with elbow concerns, but he will certainly take a rotation slot. Kendrick, who projects to earn $6.6MM in arbitration, looks like a possible non-tender candidate after a below-average season, but Amaro has said rather emphatically that he will be retained.

With Jesse Biddle still working to reign in his command and Adam Morgan stalling out with injury, internal promotion is not a likely avenue for the fifth spot. The spot could be entrusted to Jonathan Pettibone, who was solid in his first MLB season (4.04 ERA in 100 1/3 innings), or he could be the first man up in an injury situation. Ethan Martin is also a possibility. Though he was hit hard in his first big league go-round and may not stick in the rotation, it may be worth another shot given his upside.

Amaro has said he remains open to bringing back former ace Halladay, presumably on an incentive-laden contract. His performance and injury struggles during 2012-13 make him anything but a certainty, however. Alternatively, the Phillies could see the last starting slot as an opportunity to make a significant upgrade. There are a few strong starting options among Dierkes's list of the ten best overall free agents, along with several other mid-level options, and the Phils have never hesitated to load up on arms.

The bullpen was even more troublesome for the 2013 Phils. Despite two high-priced arms in Papelbon and Adams, the group's collective 4.19 ERA was the fourth-highest in baseball. Looking ahead, Philadelphia will hope that Papelbon's declining strikeout numbers do not foretell a like decline in his effectiveness, and that Adams is able to return from injury. Bastardo will be called on to return from his PED suspension to be a reasonably-priced late-inning lefty.

Otherwise, Sandberg will likely be looking at a series of less-established hurlers when he marches out of the dugout and taps his arm. Though he says that the club still needs "long guys, swing men, [and] depth in the bullpen," Ryno previously indicated that "some of the question marks in the bullpen could have been answered" with the work of pitchers like B.J. Rosenberg, Jake Diekman, and Justin De Fratus. Also looking to entrench themselves in the bigs are Phillippe Aumont, Jeremy Horst, and Michael Stutes, none of whom has performed consistently. Martin figures to earn a spot if he is not slotted into the rotation.

While the in-house options may have the potential to form a solid core, ample uncertainty surrounds most of the pieces. A team intent on contention would surely look to buttress its collection with at least one reliable arm. The organization already moved on from two marginal options by allowing Tyler Cloyd and Raul Valdes to be claimed off of waivers, which supports the idea that Amaro is looking to improve, not just get by.

The top of the free agent market includes several current and former closers, though convincing one of them to set up Papelbon could be pricey. The market for reliable options probably hovers between the $3.5MM we might expect the injured-but-excellent Jesse Crain to pull down and the $20MM+ that relatively youthful closer Edward Mujica could garner. Amaro has largely struck out on his past free agent relief pick-ups; it will be interesting to watch whether he'll trust the system's young arms or risk funds in open-market bidding.

Barring another high-stakes, multi-part trade maneuver, the Phillies seem unlikely to make a major addition to the infield or overhaul the rotation. That leaves a relatively straightforward series of targets: corner outfielder, catcher, starter, and perhaps setup man. But unless it is willing to part with important pieces from an improving but still-below-average farm, the team will have to spend quite a lot of money to ensure true upgrades. 

Last year's strategy – adding supplemental pieces and hoping for a big year from the team's aging core — was an evident failure. One year later, it seems even more clear that, if not an aggressive buyer or an aggressive seller (or both), Philly could be caught in the middle with an expensive, injury-prone, low-ceiling ballclub. The organization faces a non-negligible risk of something like baseball's version of stagflation: a bloated payroll, declining attendance, and eroded leverage in TV rights negotiations. That possibility — along with the presence of the always-creative Amaro, who could be on thin ice if he can't produce a winner — makes the Phillies a major wild card over the coming offseason.


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