The Phillies fell to the basement of the NL East with a 73-89 record in 2014. Ominously, the club received decent performances from many over-the-hill veterans, suggesting the presence of additional downside. Youngsters and the rotation take most of the blame for the poor season. If there’s one bright spot (and there is only one), it’s the bullpen.
- Ryan Howard, 1B: $60MM through 2016
- Cliff Lee, SP: $37.5MM through 2015
- Cole Hamels, SP: $96MM through 2018
- Chase Utley, 2B: $15MM through 2015 (plus three $15MM vesting options from 2016-2018)
- Jonathan Papelbon, RP: $13MM through 2015 (plus $13MM vesting option for 2016)
- Jimmy Rollins, SS: $11MM through 2015
- Carlos Ruiz, C: $17.5MM through 2016
- Marlon Byrd, OF: $8MM through 2015
- Miguel Gonzalez, SP: $7MM through 2016 (plus unknown vesting option for 2017)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Tony Gwynn Jr. (5.147): $900K projected salary
- Antonio Bastardo (5.054): $2.8MM
- Andres Blanco (4.007): $700K
- Ben Revere (3.149): $4MM
- Domonic Brown (3.078): $2.6MM
- Cesar Jimenez (3.020): $600K
- Non-tender candidates: Gwynn, Blanco, Jimenez
- A.J. Burnett: $15MM mutual option or $12.75MM player option ($1MM buyout)
- Mike Adams: $6MM club option
The Phillies entered the July trade deadline with few assets and an obvious need to retool. However, they opted to keep their most marketable pieces like Hamels, Papelbon, and Byrd. That trio were involved in a wide range of trade rumors, but a deal was never finalized. Philadelphia did swing a notable August trade, securing prospects Jesmuel Valentin and Victor Arano from the Dodgers for starting pitcher Roberto Hernandez. The Phillies also netted Gustavo Pierre for backup outfielder John Mayberry Jr.
GM Ruben Amaro Jr. may be on the hot seat due to a combination of bad contracts and a failure to turn veterans into future talent during the season. For example, several playoff-bound clubs like the Tigers, Giants, or Dodgers could have benefited from Papelbon, but Amaro was unable to unload him. For what it’s worth, former team president Dave Montgomery and interim team president Pat Gillick have issued multiple votes of confidence on behalf of Amaro. The club’s failure in 2014 should make it easier for the front office to accept a rebuilding process.
Philadelphia lacks near-ready position prospects beyond Maikel Franco. Their offense ranked 27th in baseball per wRC+, a context neutral advanced statistic. They barely outpaced the Padres, Reds, and Diamondbacks among the league’s worst offenses. A focus on finding new, long-term assets should be the top priority.
While it’s obvious the club should rebuild, the how of it is muddier. The outgoing free agents do not represent a substantial chunk of the payroll, so a Yankees-like spending spree isn’t a possibility. A quick turnaround will require shrewd moves on the free agent, trade, and waiver markets. When this club was last successful, they found Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth on the scrap heap. This time around Philadelphia needs to find even more hidden gems.
Before fixating on the Phillies myriad problems, let’s examine their biggest strength – the bullpen. Papelbon posted a fine season with 39 saves and a 2.04 ERA. His fastball velocity declined for a fourth straight season – now down to 91 mph. His peripherals are worrisome, especially his unusually low .247 BABIP and 2.7% HR/FB ratio. If both numbers regress to league average, we should expect a corresponding bump in ERA.
Papelbon found himself in the rumor mill this summer but ultimately stuck with the club. His contract, vesting option, and reputation as a distraction will make him difficult to trade. He can block deals to 17 clubs, but he’s said he will accept a trade to any contender who uses him as their primary closer. The emergence of Ken Giles – 1.18 ERA, 12.61 K/9, 2.17 BB/9, and 97 mph fastball – gives Philadelphia an alternative to their veteran star. However, Giles has struggled with command in the minors, so it may be prudent to confirm he can maintain a strong walk rate. Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal offers a cautionary tale.
Another reliever to emerge this season is Jake Diekman. The left-handed slinger dialed up the gas with an average fastball at 97 mph and the ability to touch triple digits. He improved throughout the season and finished with a 3.80 ERA, 12.68 K/9, and 4.44 BB/9. Diekman’s presence could make Bastardo expendable. The club’s longest tenured lefty reliever is entering his third and final season of arbitration eligibility and is expected to earn $2.8MM. The Phillies can also turn to right-hander Justin De Fratus to shorten games.
Papelbon is not the only player who should expect a swirl of trade rumors this winter. With several high profile players, the question is: will they return? Burnett may consider retirement rather than accept his side of the option (worth at least $12.75MM). Even if he does decide to continue playing, there’s no guarantee he won’t opt to serve with another franchise.
One reason Burnett chose Philadelphia was that he thought he could help them compete. Despite an 18-loss season, teams would probably be willing to bet on Burnett returning to a healthier and more productive state in 2015. He pitched nearly the entire season with a hernia and posted the highest walk rate of his career. A healthy Burnett could more closely resemble his strong 2012-13 seasons.
In many ways, it’s fortunate that outfielder Yasmany Tomas was declared a free agent last Thursday. The Phillies were the first club to organize a private workout with the Cuban and are said to have always preferred him over fellow countryman Rusney Castillo. The power hitter would fit the Phillies need of young talent without necessitating a trade. The outcome of the Tomas pursuit could accelerate the club’s rebuilding plans – assuming they can swallow a possible nine-digit price tag.
If payroll stays consistent around $175MM, Howard, Lee, and Hamels represent over 40 percent of expenditures. Currently, about $132.67MM is guaranteed in 2015 with another $10MM estimated through arbitration. Burnett’s $12.75MM player option will play a big role in available payroll. Depending on his decision, the Phillies appear to have about $20MM to $35MM to spend over the offseason. It’s possible declining attendance will lead to a lower payroll, or perhaps valuable opportunities like Tomas will lead to more spending.
Hamels is the club’s most valuable Major League asset. Amaro reportedly asked teams for their three top prospects in return for Hamels – a price at which many scoffed. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs confirmed that Hamels has some value with his current contract, but the financial cost does make it hard for another club to justify an exorbitant prospect fee.
As the Phillies’ most marketable trade commodity, the club will have trouble pulling the trigger on a Hamels deal. Most rebuilding franchises will conduct a fire sale and count on a quantity of well-regarded prospects to provide value down the road. The Phillies basically get to take one shot at finding their future. Prospect-rich teams like the Cubs, Red Sox, and Dodgers are expected to make a play for Hamels, who can block trades to 20 clubs.
The team has caught a lot of flak over the years for Howard’s contract, and the criticism seems well deserved. Since his current contract kicked in prior to 2012, Howard has provided -1.0 fWAR. That places him among the worst players over that time span despite collecting one of the highest annual salaries.
Philadelphia has tried to dump Howard to any AL franchise while assuming most of the remaining payroll. So far, the fish won’t bite. The club could opt to dismiss the former star and eat his salary, although that seems like a hasty measure without an alternative in place. Darin Ruf is the backup first baseman, with Franco in apparent need of more minor league seasoning.
Lee is another pricey player who might not live up to his contract. Whereas there is little hope of a resurgence from Howard, Lee could recover his past form if the flexor tendon in his left elbow heals over the offseason. This year, he pitched to a 3.65 ERA with 7.97 K/9 and 1.33 BB/9 in 81 innings while missing most of the second half.
Lee’s $27.5MM option for 2016 becomes guaranteed if he throws 200 innings next season without ending on the disabled list with a left arm injury. Otherwise, it becomes a club option with a hefty $12.5MM buyout. An offseason trade of Lee seems unlikely due to his injury, though it’s possible that a team like the Dodgers would be willing to assume some or all of the contract as a way to acquire a possible star at a minimal prospect cost.
With the Phillies’ top three starting pitchers uncertain to return and/or produce in 2015, rotation depth will be a priority for the club. Kendrick could be re-signed as a familiar face. He’s a reliable if unexciting option to absorb innings for a rebuilding club. Internal options include David Buchanan, 2014 draftee Aaron Nola, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, and Jonathan Pettibone. Prospect Jesse Biddle could figure as a mid-season addition.
Even if the Hamels, Lee, and Burnett remain in Philadelphia, the team may want to acquire two starters via free agency or trade. A top-flight free agent is an unlikely acquisition, and competition could keep them away from mid-market targets. Again, Tomas’ decision could affect the club’s direction in the rotation. It would be easier to justify signing a Brandon McCarthy if a quick path to contention was evident. Similarly, if Burnett declines his option, the Phillies may be more inclined to investigate other mid-market options.
The outfield is perhaps an area of consternation for the Phillies. Byrd performed as expected, as did Revere. However, Brown turned in a lousy season with just 10 home runs and a .235/.285/.349 line. The club may be ready to execute a change of scenery move. Certainly, Brown’s grasp on regular playing time has eroded.
The free agent market for outfielders is fairly thin, and trading for a notable outfielder could be difficult to balance with the club’s priorities. Philadelphia could still cash in on Byrd over the offseason to take advantage of the paucity of outfielders in free agency. As for depth pieces, the club received solid production from Sizemore and could consider another one-year deal. Perhaps they would consider recently designated outfielder Jose Tabata too. Most internal options like Cesar Hernandez and Gwynn are defense-oriented. The lone exception is prospect Kelly Dugan, but he’s struggled with injuries and has yet to show much in-game power.
On the face of it, the infield is stable. Howard, Utley, and Rollins have manned their respective positions since 2005 while Cody Asche or Franco will probably handle third base. If Howard isn’t back for 2015, the club has a few internal solutions. Utley could move to first base with either Asche, Hernandez, or Freddy Galvis serving at second base. Alternatively, Franco or Ruf could step directly into the first base job. Some speculate that playing first base could help Utley remain healthy and effective, although such claims are not accompanied by evidence.
While an external hire is unlikely, third base is an area of depth in free agency. If Philadelphia has its eyes on the postseason, Aramis Ramirez might be of interest – assuming he turns down his half of a mutual option. Ramirez is entering his age-37 season, which doesn’t appear to be a good fit for the Phillies. However, he could give Asche and Franco space to develop while improving the on-field product. He may come with a qualifying offer attached, but the Phillies’ first round pick is protected, meaning he would require forfeiture of a second-round selection.
Since he’s available to sign now, Tomas appears primed to be the first domino to fall in the free agent market. His decision may affect the direction of the Phillies offseason. If Philadelphia gambles on the Cuban, they might be more inclined to aim for a competitive roster in the next couple years. Unless they find a similarly high-ceiling youngster around which to build, the situation looks bleak.