Winter Report Card: Philadelphia Phillies
With little more than five weeks 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 2014.
2014 Results: 73-89 (.451), fifth place in NL East (Hot Stove Preview)
The Phillies' decline from 102 wins in 2011 to 73 in 2013 sent a clear enough signal that it was time to turn the page on the nucleus that helped the team to five straight division titles, two pennants and a championship, but general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and the rest of the Phillies' brass didn't get the memo. Thus an aging and expensive squad — one with the majors' third-highest payroll at $177.8 million — beat a hasty path to nowhere, but despite being 14 games below .500 at the trade deadline, Amaro held on to all of his big contract players. His asking prices for key players were too high for anyone else's liking, and while it's fair to point out that injuries and no-trade clauses (full and partial) made them more difficult to deal, it's not as though those contracts were the making of some other team.
Belatedly, the need to rebuild has become clear to the Phillies. Jimmy Rollins, who turned in a surprisingly solid season (3.9 WAR) at age 35 and was owed just $11 million contract for the final year of his contract, waived his 10-and-5 rights to be dealt to the Dodgers in a three-way trade that brought back a pair of quality pitching prospects (righty Zach Eflin and lefty Tom Windle) who spent the 2014 season in High A. The two youngsters don't figure in the team's 2015 plans, but Eflin is generally seen as a potential No. 3 starter and Windle a fourth starter or good reliever.
Also dealt for young pitching were Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo. The 37-year-old Byrd, coming off a 25-homer, 2.6-WAR season and affordable at $8 million for 2015, was traded to the Reds for 22-year-old righty Ben Lively, who split last year between High A and Double A; his stuff is less special than the aforementioned pair, but he's closer to ready, a back-end starter or swingman/reliever who could reach the majors at some point in 2015. The 29-year-old Bastardo, the team's top lefty reliever for the last four seasons, is heading into his final year of arbitration eligibility; he brought back Rodriguez, a lefty with a low-90s fastball who spent last season getting rocked in Double A due to his subpar secondary pitches, so he's somewhere between project and organizational depth. In dealing all three, Amaro trimmed roughly $22 million from the team's payroll, eating $5 million of it — a small price to pay for restocking their system.
As for the other departures, the 38-year-old A.J. Burnett, who was roughed up for a 4.59 ERA and a league-high 18 losses while pitching through a hernia, saved them some money by turning down his end of a $15 million mutual option as well as a $12.75 million player option. With an eye on one more chance at reaching the playoffs before he heads into the sunset, he instead chose to return to the Pirates, with whom he signed for just $8.5 million. Kyle Kendrick, who threw 199 innings of 4.61 ERA (80 ERA+) ball for the team, remains a free agent at this writing, but nobody who will be missed as more than an eater of innings. Also free agents at this writing: Mike Adams, who gave the team just 43 2/3 innings over the course of his two-year, $12 million deal due to shoulder and hernia surgeries, and Wil Nieves, a 37-year-old backup catcher with a 34/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 128 PA as a Phillie. Move along.
With a need to replace more than 400 innings in the rotation, the team signed the 36-year-old Aaron Harang to a one-year, $5 million deal on the heels of a solid season — 204 1/3 innings, 3.57 ERA (102 ERA+), 7.1 K/9 — with the Braves. As things currently stand, he'll line up along with Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, David Buchanan and Jerome Williams (a late-season acquisition re-signed to a one-year, $2.5 million deal) among the starting five. Another potential challenger for a back-end spot, with middle relief more likely, is Jeanmar Gomez, a former Indians and Pirates swingman who spent all of last year in Pittsburgh's bullpen, pitching to a 3.19 ERA but with just 5.5 whiffs per nine. Also potentially in the bullpen picture is Andy Oliver, a former Tigers prospect who stalled out in Triple A as a starter but whiffed 12.0 per nine in 64 innings as a reliever at that level last year; he was plucked out of the Pirates' system in the December Rule 5 draft.
Speaking of late-season acquisitions who re-upped, outfielder Grady Sizemore signed a $2 million deal with another potential $3 million in incentives. After missing two full years and most of two others due to injuries, he returned to the majors last year, struggling with the Red Sox before being released but proving more solid in part-time work with the Phillies. Less likely to crack the outfield is Jeff Francoeur, who went just 2-for-28 in limited duty with the Padres but made headlines for his experimentation as a mop-up reliever in Triple-A; he made eight appearances totaling 7 1/3 innings with a 3.68 ERA and five strikeouts.
Unfinished Business: Big cost-cutting deals
At this writing, the Phillies have $123.2 million committed to just 10 players for 2015, and it certainly sounds like Amaro is working to reduce that. Hamels and Ryan Howard came into the winter marked as obvious trade candidates, but their circumstances are mirror images. The ace lefty, who's owed $96 million over the next four years, is coming off a strong season featuring a career-best 2.46 ERA, 8.7 strikeouts per nine and 6.6 WAR. He's drawn heavy interest from the Padres, who have a surplus of outfielders after GM A.J. Preller's wheeling and dealing, with the Cardinals and Red Sox often mentioned in rumors as well. He does have a partial no-trade list of 20 teams, with Boston said to be on the list, but the marginal cost of waiving that could be $14 million — the net from picking up his 2019 club option ($20 million) instead of paying the $6 million buyout. All in, that's still considerably cheaper than what Max Scherzer will cost in dollars, though it will take a considerable package of prospects and young players for Amaro to bite.
Howard, who's owed $60 million through 2017, is at the other end of the value spectrum despite putting up his best counting stats since his 2011 Achilles injury (23 homers, 95 RBI, 153 games played). The rate stats and advanced metrics aren’t so pretty; he hit just .223/.310/.380 for a 93 OPS+ with dreadful defense (-10 Defensive Runs Saved) en route to -1.1 WAR. After the season, it came to light that he's been involved in a behind-the-scenes drama involving a nasty intrafamilial fight over control of his finances, something that almost certainly weighed on him in addition to his physical woes. Having reached a settlement on that front can't hurt, but dealing him will still be tough unless the Phillies are willing to eat most of his remaining salary. The team's best bet may be to hope that he knocks the stuffing out of the ball in spring training, convincing somebody to take him on as their DH.
Also a trade candidate is closer Jonathan Papelbon, who will make $13 million in 2015 and is set up for his $13 million option for 2016 to vest; unlike the other players thus far, he clearly wants out of Philadelphia, as both his words and his crotch-grabbing gesture to Citizens Bank Park fans suggest. Harder to deal is Lee, who is 36 and coming off a 13-start season wrecked by a flexor strain. He's owed $25 million for 2015, with either a $27.5 million salary or $12.5 million buyout for 2016, an option that could vest with a 200-inning season that doesn't conclude with him on the DL for either an elbow or shoulder injury. Oh, and he's got a partial no-trade clause involving 20 teams, too.
Perhaps the biggest potential trade chip after Hamels is 36-year-old Chase Utley, who stayed healthy enough to play 155 games in 2014, his highest total since 2009. While his offense (.270/.339/.407/109 OPS+) was below his career standard (125 OPS+), he was still worth 3.6 WAR thanks to above-average defense. He's owed $15 million for 2015, with $15 million vesting options for the next three seasons; those convert to club options in he $5-$11 million range if he spends substantial time on the disabled list. It's up to Utley to say he wants out of Philadelphia, as he has full no-trade protection via the 10-and-5 rule, and thus far he's given no indication that he does, so the point may be moot.
Preliminary grade: C+
Conceding that a rebuild is in order — however belatedly — means that the Phillies finally have a definable direction, and Amaro hasn't done badly thus far by adding depth to the system. He's still got some heavy lifting to do, with a potential Hamels trade more likely to define the process than anything else he's done to date, so this grade is even more preliminary than most, though it’s worth noting that even this is a big step up from the D+ and D- final grades the team has earned here in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
In the meantime, the signing of Harang suggests that Amaro recognizes the expensive mistake of last year's Burnett addition. If he can find other low-cost additions who may have value to a contender come July 31, he could accelerate the rebuilding process.