The deck has been cleared in Philly, and now it’s time for the new front office to chart a course.
- Ryan Howard, 1B: $35MM through 2016 (including buyout of 2017 option)
- Matt Harrison, SP: $28MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
- Carlos Ruiz, C: $9MM through 2016 (including buyout of 2017 option)
- Miguel Gonzalez, SP/RP: $4MM through 2016 (contract includes 2017 vesting option)
- Andres Blanco (5.007) – $1.0MM
- Jeanmar Gomez (4.063) – $1.5MM
- Freddy Galvis (3.021) – $1.9MM
- Non-tender candidates: none
- Cliff Lee, SP: $27.5MM club option ($12.5MM buyout) — option already declined by club
The Phillies constitute a fairly blank slate, in more than one respect. Heading out of the 2015 season after a year that featured an unusual amount of change, it’s hard to predict exactly how the club will proceed.
Philadelphia also features a brand new, hard-to-predict leadership group. Plurality owner John Middleton has been around for some time, but has steadily increased his ownership share and only recently stepped into the public spotlight for the first time. Incoming president Andy MacPhail has been running teams for quite a while, but was last at the helm in 2011 with the Orioles. He made the first big move of his tenure by firing long-time Phillies executive Ruben Amaro Jr. and replacing him with Matt Klentak. The youthful executive got his start under MacPhail in Baltimore, and more recently served as Jerry Dipoto’s assistant GM with the Angels, but has never functioned as a general manager. Philadelphia also decided to retain veteran baseball man Pete Mackanin as manager — his first permanent post after serving as an interim skipper on several occasions. The organization is even rolling out a new data and information system — the aptly-named “PHIL” — which is expected to assist the organization’s fledgling sabermetric efforts.
The fresh-look front office will inherit little in the way of future commitments. After sporting $100MM+ payrolls for each of the last seven years, the Phils have less than $65MM in obligations written in ink for 2016 and just a shade over $25MM thereafter. That’s quite a turnaround for a club that carried over $200MM in future promises in advance of the 2014 campaign.
As that wide-open future payroll would suggest, there aren’t many veteran pieces left. Ryan Howard has $35MM left on his deal, but that includes the buyout on a 2017 option, so he’s almost certainly entering his last year with the team (if he’s not moved beforehand). Veteran catcher Carlos Ruiz is in the same boat, though he only costs another $9MM. Cliff Lee’s buyout is included in the 2016 tally, as is the remainder of the money promised to Miguel Gonzalez. And the only other commitment that the team has is to lefty Matt Harrison, who was included as part of the salary workout undertaken in the summer’s Cole Hamels trade.
Neither is there much to worry about on the arbitration side of things. Just before Klentak was hired, the club outrighted former top prospect Domonic Brown, bringing his disappointing tenure with the organization to an end. He wouldn’t have earned much more than the $2.6MM he received through arbitration last year, and comes with another season of control thereafter, but the organization decided to cut bait after he put up back-to-back .634 OPS campaigns while delivering poor glovework in the corner outfield.
The remaining arbitration cases seem fairly easy. Jeanmar Gomez is a cheap and solid middle reliever. Andres Blanco, a historically light-hitting utilityman, had a career-best .292/.360/.502 batting line over 261 plate appearances (with most of the damage coming against lefties). There’s little harm in keeping him around on a cheap salary. It won’t be expensive to retain Freddy Galvis, either. While he’s not much of a hitter, he’s a good and versatile defender and strong baserunner.
Some would argue that it’s preferable to give a look to younger players rather than relying on the likes of Blanco and Galvis. But cheap veterans such as these allow teams to make promotions based upon developmental considerations rather than desperation. And it’s always good to have some experience and leadership in the clubhouse.
There are some other returning pieces that will factor into the offseason plans, of course. We’ll start in the infield, where Cesar Hernandez joined Blanco and Galvis in the middle infield (along with the since-traded Chase Utley). Like Galvis, he’s a light-hitting but versatile player who gives the organization flexibility. Youngster Darnell Sweeney, acquired in the Utley deal, will factor into the mix as well after making his MLB debut last year. The club could conceivably utilize those in-house options up the middle in 2016, or trade any one of them if an opportunity arises to add a new player who’s ready for big league action. Top prospect J.P. Crawford is the future at shortstop, and could end up as a mid-season call-up, but he has yet to play above the Double-A level. Third base is even easier: Maikel Franco will look to build off of his strong 2015 and make himself into a star.
The opposite scenario is in play at first and behind the plate. Philly could dump Howard and Ruiz for whatever salary relief it can find. Darin Ruf and Cameron Rupp are standing by as short-term replacements, or time-share options, depending upon what direction the team goes. Neither of those players is terribly exciting, of course, and both are much more useful against southpaws, but they could be paired with a variety of short-term free agents. There’s plenty of left-handed-hitting first base options, with Pedro Alvarez representing a somewhat interesting trade possibility, and catchers such as Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Alex Avila — both of whom are historically much better against righties — could be drawn by the promise of playing time.
In the outfield, too, Philly has somoe options but very few things etched in stone. Odubel Herrera was one of the more productive Rule 5 picks you’ll ever see last year, and he’ll get a chance to repeat in center. Aaron Altherr and Cody Asche are the only other 40-man outfielders under club control, though a number of the players discussed above (e.g. Galvis, Hernandez, Sweeney) have outfield experience. Altherr had an impressive debut, and could get a shot at regular playing time, while Asche has often been talked about as a trade piece since he might have more value to other teams that would put him back at third. There’s certainly room here to add a future-oriented piece, though it wouldn’t be surprising if the team simply brought back Jeff Francoeur and added another veteran free agent. This may be a place for the team to take a shot on a veteran who might like the idea of hitting at Citizens Bank Park and receiving everyday playing time. Austin Jackson comes to mind, as does Matt Joyce, a left-handed hitter who could platoon with Francoeur.
In the aggregate, a variety of positions — including, at least, second base, first base, catcher, and the corner outfield — remain unclaimed for the future. That’s not to say there aren’t down-the-line options in the organization, as prospects such as Scott Kingery (second base), Jorge Alfaro (behind the dish, if he can return to health and stick there), and Nick Williams, Cornelius Randolph, and Roman Quinn (in the outfield) are all filtering up. But those aren’t super-premium prospects of the Crawford variety, and prospect depth is always a good thing to have; if nothing else, of course, it provides trade chips when a team finally does reach contention (as the Astros and Mets both demonstrated this summer).
As with the position-player side of things, the rotation has a few interesting youngsters, some less-than-inspiring depth options, and an increasingly interesting group of prospects who might not quite be ready. Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff were both solid in their late-season rotation runs, and ought to open the year with the big league staff. Beyond them, there’s little certainty. Adam Morgan should get a look this spring after posting a respectable-enough 4.48 ERA over his first 15 MLB starts. But ERA estimators suggest he was much worse, and his minor league track record isn’t terribly inspiring. None of the other returning pitchers who made starts last year for the Phils —Alec Asher, David Buchanan, and Severino Gonzalez — managed a big league earned run average of lower than 6.99. Matt Harrison could ultimately provide some frames, but his back issues are so serious that it’s hard to count on him for much.
There are more arms coming, some of whom (e.g., Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Ben Lively) could factor into the mix next year. But the Phillies don’t want to rush those pitchers to the majors — and start their service clocks — out of necessity. Dangling open rotation spots is a great way to attract buy-low free agents who’ll eat innings and could turn into summer trade chips. While CBP is a turn-off for pitchers, the leash should be relatively lengthy. Though last year’s choices of Aaron Harang and Chad Billingsley didn’t turn out so well, the organization will almost certainly add two or three rotation arms in free agency (and/or via trade). Doug Fister and Mat Latos might be drawn elsewhere, but pitchers like Mike Pelfrey, Trevor Cahill, Rich Hill, Alfredo Simon, Dillon Gee, Ryan Vogelsong, Kyle Lohse, Bud Norris, and Edwin Jackson are among the other hypothetical options. Some might require modest but not-insignificant comments, while others could even be minor league free agent targets.
There will be some open bullpen spots, too, though the unit had some useful performances last year. Young closer Ken Giles led the way, of course, taking over in the ninth after the departure of Jonathan Papelbon. Many have suggested that it could be an opportune time to cash in on Giles, and the club will have to consider it if a good offer can be procured. (It hurts to give up bright, young players, and it can be painful to part with a high-end closer, but Philly can move Giles if the Braves can trade Craig Kimbrel.)
Otherwise, the aforementioned Gomez joined pitchers like Luis Garcia, Elvis Araujo, and Hector Neris in posting sub-4.00 ERA campaigns. Dalier Hinojosa was even better, though he greatly outperformed his peripherals. The club just added Dan Otero from the A’s via waiver claim. Southpaw Mario Hollands, who underwent Tommy John surgery in April, could come back on line at some point in the year. All told, compared to the rest of the team’s issues, the bullpen looks plenty solid. But that’s not to say that a veteran addition or two wouldn’t be worthwhile. That’s especially true, of course, if Giles is dealt, in which case the Phils may be able to draw some free agents with late-inning experience who would be intrigued at the possibility of acting as closer.
Broadly speaking, it’s hard to imagine the new front office trying to spend its way into immediate contention, given that it’s starting with one of the league’s weakest current rosters. Indeed, the club finished with the game’s worst record in 2015.
On the bright side, Philadelphia was able to finish on a high note with a decent second half while still landing the number one overall pick in next summer’s draft. With plenty of bonus money to spend in the draft and on next year’s international market, much of the organization’s attention will remain on accumulating young talent. The Rule 5 draft could again prove fruitful. And the Phils’ incredible payroll flexibility could open the doors to more creative routes, such as taking on expensive veterans packaged with talented young players from other organization that need to shed salary.
That’s not to say that there’s no merit to considering MLB additions of more significance than were made last year. There’s plenty of appeal to the idea of spending money to improve competitiveness and — in some cases — to tamp down future arbitration earnings and add potential trade pieces. It would be surprising, really, were Philly to completely ignore that possibility this winter. I’d expect the team to look for opportunities as players fall through the cracks amongst a talented group of free agents.
In truth, though, it’s not yet known whether the Phils will follow a slower course (like the fellow big-market-dwelling Cubs) or instead try for nearer-term competitiveness with a more blended approach. Some have suggested a more aggressive approach to infusing MLB-level talent into the system: chasing younger free agents who will contribute when the club is ready to contend. There’s a new TV deal and fans to be appeased, and it’s hard to argue that the Phils don’t have the capacity to spend. In theory, that strategy could include position players such as Jason Heyward and Justin Upton and pitchers like Mike Leake, Brett Anderson, and Kenta Maeda (if posted by his NPB club). Should the club decide to dump Howard, moreover, a run at Korean slugger Byung-ho Park (who’s in the middle of the posting process as we speak) could make sense.
There’s certainly some merit to the idea, at least if good value can be achieved, but the new front office has said it doesn’t intend to build through open-market signings (at least yet). It will also be difficult to woo top players into a rebuilding situation. And it’s always dangerous to pre-commit. Though the organization has deep enough pockets to take some risks, it surely wants to avoid handcuffing itself again with bad contracts.
My own expectation is that a more modest offseason lies ahead, particularly since Hamels has already been shipped out. Creative trade concepts ought to be pursued, and value sought on the open market, but it wouldn’t be surprising if something like a Giles swap ended up being the biggest move of the winter. Then again, with brand new baseball ops leadership in place, anything seems possible again in Philly.