The Phillies are in an interesting and unfamiliar position this offseason. Finishing at 81-81, they watched the playoffs from home for the first time since 2006, a result of a rash of injuries and under-performing players, particularly the young arms in the bullpen. With one of baseball's largest payrolls, they have the capacity to quickly bounce back from yesterday's mistakes by acquiring premier talent via free agency.
It isn't as simple as paying the most money for the best players, however. Some players come with risks, some aren't worth the money they are requesting, and some aren't very likely to be as productive going forward. That is why the Phillies, eager to reclaim the NL East throne from the Washington Nationals, need to be cautious and studious this winter. Here are five strategies the Phillies should utilize for a more successful 2013 season.
5. Avoid Josh Hamilton
Hamilton is reported to be expecting Prince Fielder money. That is, a contract in excess of $200 million. Back in January, Fielder signed with the Tigers on a nine-year, $214 million contract. Hamilton won't get anything close to nine years because he turns 32 in May, but as one of baseball's best hitters, he can put the onus on other teams to prove how much they need his bat.
The Phillies don't need to think very hard to come up with a contract given to a player older than 30 that hasn't turned out very well. In April 2010, GM Ruben Amaro agreed to a five-year, $125 million contract extension with first baseman Ryan Howard that covers his age 32-36 seasons. Lauded at the time, it has since turned out to be the signature blunder of the Amaro era, hamstringing the Phillies in many ways.
It isn't as if Hamilton is an outlier older player worthy of the risk. His injury history is long and mysterious. Just in the past two years, he has missed time because of your standard foot and groin injuries, but also sinus problems and migraines. Older players don't become more durable, even with today's era of incredible medical knowledge and technology. Signing Hamilton to a long-term deal not only has problems at the end of the road, but right at the start as well.
4. Embrace the platoon
When you think of platoons, you probably think of the 2012 Oakland Athletics, utilizing platoons at catcher, first base, second base and designated hitter. Sometimes it is borne of necessity; other times of luxury. The Phillies are somewhere in between in that they don't have players thought of as ideal for the situation, but neither do they have players so bad in one matchup that they would be shooting themselves in the foot otherwise.
Third base is one position where they should platoon, simply because there aren't any reasonable full-time options available in free agency and their internal options are less than stellar. The Phillies re-signed Kevin Frandsen, who had a breakout year in 2012 in just over 200 plate appearances. However, Frandsen had a .980 OPS against left-handed pitchers compared to just .762 against right-handers. Eric Chavez, a left-handed hitter who faced mostly right-handers with the Yankees in 2012, would be a cheap, non-risky platoon partner with Frandsen. Chavez posted a .908 OPS against right-handers and a shockingly low .382 mark against lefties.
With Domonic Brown in one corner, the Phillies should use a platoon in the other, sandwiching a newcomer in center. Nate Schierholtz and John Mayberry would be an easy in-house pairing. Last year, Schierholtz tagged RHP for an .826 OPS and lefties just .444 while Mayberry was at .626 and .811 respectively. Schierholz was non-tendered, but could still be brought back.
Here's a controversial one for you: The Phillies should platoon Howard at first base. It would never happen, as it would be admitting in the second year of Howard's five-year deal that they made a grievous error, but Howard has been subpar against lefties for a few years now, and he is only trending downward. Since 2010, his OPS against southpaws has gone .826, .634, .604. If the Phillies don't utilize Mayberry in an outfield platoon, they could pair him up with Howard at first base. Otherwise, they could find someone in free agency or give breakout prospect Darin Ruf a shot. Ruf posted a 1.593 OPS against lefties in the minors and 1.326 in 22 chances at the major league level in September.
3. Rely on young bullpen arms
This strategy backfired early in the season for the Phillies, but in fairness, so, too, did their reliance on veteran arms such as Jose Contreras and Chad Qualls. Antonio Bastardo did not follow up a breakout 2011 with similar results, while Michael Schwimer disappointed, and Mike Stutes and David Herndon succumbed to season-ending injuries. The only consistently bright light was closer Jonathan Papelbon, who finished with 38 saves and a 2.44 ERA in his first season after signing a four-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies last offseason.
There was reason to believe that several of the young arms were simply victims of bad timing and bad luck. Bastardo might have had a 4.33 ERA, but his strikeout rate improved and his walk rate didn't change. Pitchers have a lot of control over strikeouts and walks, whereas they tend not to have much control over the conversion of batted balls into outs. His SIERA -- Skill Interactive ERA, which is a "retrodictor," telling you what a pitcher's ERA should have been based on factors in his control -- was 2.47, almost two full runs per nine innings lower than his ERA. So there is plenty of reason to think Bastardo will rebound in 2013.
Jeremy Horst, Phillippe Aumont, and Jake Diekman are three more who finished with a SIERA below 4.00, creating reason for optimism going forward. The Phillies were reported to have traded for Astros reliever Wilton Lopez, but it reached a snag because of his elbow. If the trade does fall through, the Phillies shouldn't scramble to find someone else such as Mike Adams; they should be content to roll into the next season relying on a group of young arms that have as much talent and potential as anyone else out there.
2. Get Angel Pagan
Three of the six leaders in WAR (per Baseball Reference) among center fielders since 2009 are free agents this offseason: Michael Bourn (1st, 19.0 WAR), Pagan (t-5th, 13.9 WAR), and Shane Victorino (t-5th, 13.9 WAR). Why, then, is Pagan preferable to Bourn and Victorino? As you may have heard, Bourn is expected to take home quite a hefty contract on the heels of an extremely productive 2012 season with the Atlanta Braves. As for Victorino, he should be utilized as a platoon player as I noted on Twitter recently:
Victorino OPS as a LHB... 2010: .681, 2011: .787, 2012: .629. As a RHB... 2010: .921, 2011: 1.032, 2012: .906.
— Bill Baer (@CrashburnAlley) November 29, 2012
Pagan is viewed as the Plan A for smaller market teams, and the fallback option for teams that miss out on the likes of B.J. Upton, Hamilton, and Bourn. Pagan should get a three- or four-year deal in the $50 million range, so the Phillies would save themselves a bit of money and commit less to a player who will put up similar production.
Pagan fits in well with the Phillies, too. He would make for a great leadoff hitter as his .338 OBP was nearly 30 points better than the league average, and he stole 29 bases in 36 attempts as well (81 percent). They have been using Jimmy Rollins in the leadoff spot, but his on-base percentage has left a lot to be desired in recent years. Additionally, Pagan would provide power they wouldn't get from Bourn -- 35 percent of Pagan's hits went for extra bases in 2012, compared to Bourn's 26 percent.
1. Give Chase Utley and Howard scheduled days off
In each of the past two years, the Phillies expressed the desire to give their franchise cornerstones more scheduled days off given their advancing age and injury histories, but it never happened. Last year in particular, the Phillies called Utley's presumptive schedule "two on, one off" but it ended up being more like "two on, two more on, two more on, two more on ..." You get the picture. Utley made his his season debut on June 27. Starting on July 6, he would play in 35 consecutive games. He returned on August 20, then played in another 41 consecutive games. Utley is the breed of ballplayer who gives 110 percent every second he's on the baseball field, so he is not someone who can be trusted to pace himself; the Phillies need to intervene on his behalf and tell him to take a breather.
It was painful to watch Howard run the bases when he returned from an Achilles injury in July. Once-routine doubles required too much effort and he went first-to-third less often than he did when he was healthy (which wasn't much). Despite looking less-than-100 percent and hitting like it, too, Howard was in the lineup most days, starting in 66 of the 77 games in which he appeared. Howard didn't improve with time, either, as he posted a .601 OPS in 104 plate appearances in September and early October.
Depending on what the Phillies do at third base, Freddy Galvis will likely be on the bench most days, so he would be a suitable stand-in for Utley once a week. He doesn't have a major league-ready bat and might never, but his defense is already among the best at the position. The Phillies wouldn't lose too much relying on Galvis for 25 starts at second base during the season. And, as mentioned, Howard hasn't handled left-handed pitching well over the years, so sitting him against a tough lefty starter (such as Gio Gonzalez) in favor of Mayberry or Ruf has the two-sided benefit of giving Howard rest and getting a more productive player in the lineup.
Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.