No team is off to a faster start in baseball’s annual autumnal free-agent free-for-all than Ruben Amaro’s free-wheeling Philadelphia Phillies. Carlos Ruiz got a three-year, $26-million deal Monday, six days after Marlon Byrd got $16 million over two years.
Byrd will be 36 years old in 2014, which should help him fit in well with the Phillies. Ruiz will be 35; so will Chase Utley (whom Amaro re-signed this summer) and Jimmy Rollins (who can guarantee himself $11 million in 2015 with 434 plate appearances and a healthy finish to this season). Ryan Howard will be 34. If Rollins does manage to make his option vest, all five of them will be back in 2015, too.
The trademark traits of Ruben Amaro, at this point, appear to be the ones captured by those two signings. He is an avid believer in retention, minimizing turnover, keeping a team together. He also loves veterans, and he likes to get a jump on a market. He also doesn’t care very much about defense.
The convergance of those preferences has been ugly over the past two seasons. The 2012 Phillies finished 81-81, but that belied a much worse season. The 2013 team had the National League’s worst run differential, which belied nothing. They were really that bad.
Ruiz and Byrd, a catcher and a corner outfielder, respectively, are conspicuously unlikely to age well on a profile basis. Byrd served a 50-game suspension in 2012 for PED use, and Ruiz missed 25 games in 2013 after a second positive test for Adderall, absent a prescription. Another GM, one who had earned a bit more benefit of the doubt, might get some leeway from the punditry, as we all try to determine whether post-PED guys are a market inefficiency, their value unfairly damaged by the stain of that problem. Amaro hasn’t earned that, though, and anyway, neither deal feels like a bargain in the making, even if each guy bounces back a bit in 2014.
It’s not impossible, though, that those acquisitions will end up helping, and that the Phillies could still hang around in the NL East. Despite their ages, Utley and Byrd had solid seasons in 2013. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels still head the rotation. Domonic Brown’s emergent 2013 saved him from being discarded as a bust, and indeed, he could be in line for a true breakout in 2014, at 26—though even despite his (extreme, for a member of the Phillies) youth, he’s a terrible defender. With one solid little OBP guy (Cody Asche) and one potentially impact power prospect (Maikel Franco) at the one spot on the diamond (third base) thus far unaccounted for, the Phillies have the makings of a decent offense, in theory.
It won’t come together that nicely. Injuries have been a major problem for two years, and they’re going to keep being a problem, because injuries are always a problem for old teams. The back end of the rotation is ugly, and unlikely to get pretty by Opening Day. That Amaro is rumored to be shopping for a relief pitcher indicates that he can identify a weak spot on his roster when he sees one, but also augurs badly for the team, because Amaro has been pretty bad at proactively building bullpens. He’s already overspending on Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams. There’s nothing saying he won’t overspend again when he tries to plug the hole left by Adams’ major arm trouble.
An OBP Problem
While it looks like Cody Asche will draw his walks, the Phillies as a team are going to struggle to do the most important thing for an offense to do: avoid making outs. In 2013, the team finished 10th in the NL in batting average and 11th in slugging, but what really killed them was a .306 team OBP that ranked 13th. You can almost ignore the ranking; an OBP that low puts an absolute and unforgiving cap on offensive production.
It would be one thing if a team this bad at getting on base had a star or two who did it well, then a series of sinkholes. The Phillies aren’t so lucky:
2014 Philadelphia Phillies, Projected Lineup, With 2013 OBP
Jimmy Rollins – SS
Chase Utley – 2B
Marlon Byrd – LF
Ryan Howard – 1B
Domonic Brown – RF
Carlos Ruiz – C
Cody Asche – 3B
Ben Revere – CF
It’s hard to upgrade your team when no one is truly awful, but no one even cracks a .350 OBP. That’s a problem. This is a balanced, relatively deep lineup, featuring five left-handed batters and a switch-hitter. What it lacks, though, is a real, live good hitter. Utley and Rollins have lost the power that made them impact offensive players. Ryan Howard can no longer even put up a fight against left-handers, and his power is muted, too. No one but Asche walks at much more than the league-average rate, while several guys walk much less than that. It’s as if Amaro set out to build a low-OBP/high-SLG offense, but forgot to add the power.
Roy Halladay’s 2014 option only started to look iffy late in 2012, but by May of 2013, it was blown out of the water. Now Halladay is gone, and Roy Oswalt is a fast-fading memory, and Vance Worley and J.A. Happ have been revealed as frauds (not that they’re Phillies anymore, anyway), and Tyler Cloyd and Jonathan Pettibone couldn’t even pull off Worley-Happian cons. The Phillies, two years removed from one of the best rotations in MLB history, have two solid front-line guys, and then a whole lot of nothing.
Kyle Kendrick will be back at the back of the rotation, although at this moment, he’s actually in the middle. Migual Alberto Gonzalez, in whom the team almost invested $48 million as he defected from Cuba, might yet pitch for them in 2014, although injury concerns have nearly decimated the value of that contract, which is a gigantic red flag. Pettibone will probably get a starting job, too, barring a free-agent signing.
Since Amaro is clearly doubling down on 2014 and 2015, he might as well get aggressive, and give those seasons a real chance to be good. I don’t think that can happen without some substantial additions to the pitching staff, and it would be better to spend on the starting rotation than on the bullpen. The names that jump out to me, for the Phillies, are Matt Garza and Josh Johnson. Those are guys who can miss bats, thereby avoiding the pain of watching balls bounce past ancient infielders or land between outfielders taking miserable routes.
I can’t believe I’m counseling this. It’s a terrible idea. In even the 90th-percentile projection of the 2014 season from the Phillies’ perspective, the Braves and Nationals would be better. Spending a ton of money (even though they have it, thanks to their new local-TV deal) to finish third does not make sense, and will only worsen the situation as the team gets old(er) in 2015.
That’s what Amaro has committed to now, though. There’s no reason to turn back. Ruiz and Byrd and Utley and Adams and all the other medium-term, medium-money deals have left the Phillies in an awkward position, and I can’t see any benefit to pretending that those deals don’t exist, or in trying to rebuild around them. The Phillies are in trouble, and nothing will really save them, so Amaro should do the fan base the service of investing enough in the team to keep them interesting, or at least watchable, as they fade into irrelevance.Next post: Free Agency Begins, For Really Real: Tim Hudson to Giants, Carlos Ruiz, Skip Schumaker, LaTroy Hawkins, Brendan Ryan
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