Winter report card: Philadelphia Phillies
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
2012 Results: 81-81, 3rd place in NL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: RHP Jose Contreras, RHP Josh Lindblom, OF Juan Pierre, 3B Placido Polanco, OF Nate Schierholtz, C Brian Schneider, IF/OF Ty Wigginton, RHP Vance Worley
Key arrivals: RHP Mike Adams, RHP Aaron Cook, LHP John Lannan, OF Ben Revere, 3B Michael Young, OF Delmon Young
After a half-decade span in which they averaged 95 wins and took home five consecutive NL East titles, the Phillies’ run came to an end last year. Age and injuries caught up to them, with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley both missing about half the season and Roy Halladay out for seven weeks. At the All-Star break, the Phils were just 37-50, but despite general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. trading away Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton in late July and early August, they rallied to graze the periphery of contention for the second wild card slot before ultimately falling short.
Faced with upgrading a roster whose position players were the league’s oldest by nearly a year, Amaro has succeeded in getting Young — not once but twice — if not significantly younger. In December, he traded Lindblom, a reliever acquired from the Dodgers for Victorino, as well as pitching prospect Lisalverto Bonilla to Texas in exchange for 36-year-old Michael Young, whose performance collapsed to .277/.312/.370 in 2012, his worst slash line since 2002. He’ll take over third base in place of Polanco, who to be fair is a year older and about half as durable, but at least able to do something besides imitate a matador at the hot corner. If there’s good news, it’s that the Rangers are paying $10 million of Young’s $16 million salary.
Not Young enough? To rebuild an outfield depleted not only by those trades but by the free agent departure of Pierre, Amaro went out and signed 27-year-old Delmon Young to a one-year, $750,000 deal, with incentives that can take it to $3.5 million. The money is inconsequential enough, but it looks like an overpay for a player who hit .267/.296/.411 with 18 homers last year with a −0.9 Wins Above Replacement Player mark even while being limited to just 31 games in the field, all of them in left. His 2012 wasn’t an isolated incident; once the top prospect in the game, he has been worth all of 1.2 WARP in a career of 3,575 plate appearances, suitable for the short half of a platoon (.307/.341/.483 lifetime against lefties, .275/.307/.401 against righties) but not much more, and that’s without considering his non-hitting problems. In his infinite wisdom, Amaro doesn’t plan to platoon Young, he plans to make him the everyday rightfielder — a position Young hasn’t played since 2007, when he was still a Devil Ray. Oh, and he’s coming off surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle and has a weight clause built into his contract.
All of which is a kick in the head to toolsy 25-year-old Domonic Brown, once the Phillies’ top prospect but now more of a suspect after hitting .236/.316/.396 in 212 PA last year, with a similar line over 492 PA strewn across the past three seasons amid injuries and organizational yo-yoing. Brown’s long swing and his defense have been questioned, but if there were ever a time to find out whether the man who ranked among the game’s five best prospects as recently as 2011 (number four on Baseball America‘s list) could find a niche in the bigs, it’s now. Instead, he’s going to have to battle both Young and the less youthful late-bloomer John Mayberry Jr. — who after a strong rookie half-season at age 27 sank to .245/.301/.395 in 479 PA last year — for playing time at the outfield corners. Twenty-six-year-old Darin Ruf, who hit .317/.408/.620 with 38 homers (and a 10.8 percent walk rate) at Double-A, could squeeze into the picture, but he has just 45 career games in leftfield including his brief September callup and the reviews aren’t good.
Amaro did actually acquire some youth in the form of speedy 24-year-old center fielder Ben Revere, who stole 40 bases last year but hit a thin .294/.333/.342 with just 19 extra-base hits (none of them homers) and 29 walks in 553 PA for the Twins. Mayberry, Revere and Young do have one thing in common: a near-complete inability to take a walk, with lifetime unintentional pass rates of 7.0 percent, 5.2 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively — which again helps to explain why Brown (9.6 percent) is on the outside looking in; as Amaro said at the press conference to announce Delmon Young’s signing, “I don’t care about walks, I care about production.” As Earl Weaver whirls in his grave, it’s worth noting that Philadelphia ranked 13th in the league in walks last year while producing 684 runs, its fewest since 1997, when Amaro himself was busy hitting .234/.320/.314 for a 94-loss team. Ah, the good old days.
Revere cost the Phillies the services of Worley, their number four starter behind Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, leaving an opening in the rotation that will be filled by Lannan, who was limited to just six major league starts due to the clear superiority of five other Nationals starters. The 28-year-old lefty owns a career ERA of 4.01 (103 ERA+) in 144 career starts, but he has struck out just 4.9 per nine (as opposed to Worley’s 7.7), and will get no favors from an infield featuring Howard at first base and Michael Young at third base. Neither will Cook, a minor league free agent who struck out a microscopic 1.9 per nine in 18 starts for the Red Sox last year; in unrelated news, he walked more than he struck out and was lit for a 5.65 ERA.
Adams, who signed a two-year, $12 million deal, will be the team’s top righty setup man, but he’s questionable for the start of the season due to mid-October surgery to alleviate his thoracic outlet syndrome. Given what they’re paying, the Phillies have to hope that the neck and shoulder woes linked to that problem explain why after a lights-out four-year span with a 1.71 ERA and 9.9 strikeouts per nine, he regressed to being merely good (3.27 ERA, 7.7 strikeouts per nine), though that’s a relatively small concern in the grand scheme of things.
Unfinished business: Sudden Impact. With the exception of another middle relief arm or two of the type that every team typically spends late January and early February digging up, Amaro has checked most of his boxes, but none of his winter acquisitions project as an impact bat that can supplement the sagging production of the once-mighty Howard and Utley in the middle of the lineup. Only one Phillies player, catcher Carlos Ruiz (who will start the year serving a 25-game suspension for using a banned stimulant), slugged higher than .450 in at least 250 plate appearances last year, and only one, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, hit more than 20 homers. The team’s offense has been trending downward for years even as the payroll has increased, and the groundwork laid by former general manager Pat Gillick and the team’s player development system has eroded.
Any notion that Ruf is the answer to those problems rests on the belief that an unathletic 20th round 2009 draft pick who hit nine homers in 2010 and 17 in 2011 — all of it at various levels of A-ball, where he was old for his league — can maintain last year’s gains while climbing two levels and playing serviceable defense at an unfamiliar position. Amaro would be better off finding a way to add another outfielder with some guaranteed thump, but the last lifeboat from the free agent ship sailed away once Scott Hairston signed with the Cubs. Amaro would have to get creative with a trade while armed with a farm system that’s been depleted by years of efforts to sustain the team’s run with midseason acquisitions such as Pence, Lee and Roy Oswalt. Good luck with that.
Preliminary grade: D. Though the trade for Revere gives the Phillies a cost-controlled centerfielder to grow on, they’ve taken steps backward with most of their other moves, and are more likely to repeat last year’s middling showing than contend in a division where the Nationals and Braves have upgraded in impressive fashion.