Familiarity, Contempt, and the 2014 Phillies Lineup

Rich Schultz

With half a lineup of pricey, unmovable veterans, and half lineup of guys who might produce beyond what they cost, the Phillies might well be stuck bringing back this year's uninspiring group en masse

Generally when teams fall far, far short of expectations in a given season, such as the Phillies have done this year, the lineup looks much different when the team takes the field the following April. Consider the 2012 Red Sox, a decent comparison for the 2013 Phils as an expensive veteran team that face-planted in spectacular fashion. The chart below shows the most plate appearances per position, including DH, plus the most-used hitter beyond the first nine, last year and this year for Boston.

Pos.


2012 Red Sox


2013 Red Sox

C

Saltalamacchia

Saltalamacchia

1B

Gonzalez

Napoli

2B

Pedroia

Pedroia

3B

Aviles

Drew

SS

Middlebrooks

Middlebrooks

LF

Nava

Gomes

CF

Ellsbury

Ellsbury

RF

Ross

Victorino

DH

Ortiz

Ortiz

U

Ciriaco

Nava

Not all makeovers are successful, but this one sure was. About half the lineup turned over, with the biggest driver the massive dump trade with the Dodgers in August 2012 through which the Sox cleared nearly a quarter-billion dollars of payroll. They used that payroll to add Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino and others, and have rebounded from a 93-loss disaster to first place in baseball’s toughest division.

By comparison, here are your most-used hitters on the 2013 Phillies by position, and best-guess projections for next year:

Pos.


2013 Phillies


2014 Phillies

C

Ruiz

Ruiz*

1B

Howard

Howard

2B

Utley

Utley

3B

M. Young

Asche

SS

Rollins

Rollins

LF

Brown

Brown**

CF

Revere

Revere

RF

D. Young

Ruf**

U

Mayberry

?

*not under contract for 2014

**possible switch (Ruf to LF, Brown to RF)

If they wind up bringing back Carlos Ruiz on a free-agent deal, the Phillies would return six of their eight regulars by plate appearance from this season. Considering that July call-ups Cody Asche and Darin Ruf are now playing more or less every day, we could make an argument that were Ryan Howard and Ben Revere healthy, it would really be eight of eight.

The results don’t exactly justify this. The Phillies are 14th of the 15 NL teams in runs scored (480) and runs per game (3.75)—ahead of only the Marlins—and they’ve fielded the second oldest set of position players in the NL, behind only the Dodgers. If you substitute Asche and Ruf in for Michael Young and Delmon Young, it gets a bit better: Ruiz/Howard/Utley/Asche/Rollins/Brown/Revere/Ruf average out to 29.3 in 2013. Of course, next year they’ll all be a year older… and the lineup average age will be 30.3, which again would be close to the league’s oldest.

This is really a tale of two half-lineups. Four of these eight players remain from the 2008 world champions, with an average age of 34.75 in 2014. Three of the four—Ruiz, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley—have to be considered very likely to miss at least a month or so over the course of the season. Jimmy Rollins has stayed healthy the last couple seasons, but is on pace to finish with career-worst numbers across the board. Howard might or might not improve upon what he did while healthy enough to play in 2013, and the team obviously has made a substantial bet on Utley in his best year since 2009.

The other four guys will be counted on to improve as they approach their actuarial peak years. The overall meltdown of this Phillies season, and the fact that he did his best work during his Player of the Month run in May, might obscure just how good Domonic Brown has been this season. Since June 1, Brown has hit .279/.333/.500 with 12 homers, a decent baseline for expectations going forward. Ben Revere’s awful first month followed by two very good months lifted his full-season line a bit above his career numbers and suggests his likely performance over the next few years. Ruf has hit in good fortune on balls in play--.364 BABIP through his first 196 career plate appearances—but his power and strike zone judgment suggest the strong possibility of a plus hitter earning the minimum. For a team like the Phillies with so many old, expensive players, that’s a very valuable guy. Asche has been just okay in his first few weeks, but the pattern throughout his professional career has been initial struggle at a new level, followed by gradual adjustment and eventual solid production. He’ll have every opportunity to prove that in 2014.

So that’s your possible-to-likely 2014 lineup: four guys trying to recapture their glory years, and four more trying to reach theirs.

The vexing part is that digging into either half of the lineup requires a tradeoff that Ruben Amaro is unlikely to make. Rollins and Utley have 10/5 no-trade rights, and Rollins has given no indication that he’s willing to cede his; even if he were amenable to going elsewhere, the return likely would be slight, and presumed replacement Freddy Galvis almost certainly would represent a downgrade even from Jimmy’s declining offensive production. Howard remains all but untradeable with his contract. The team might choose to part ways with Ruiz, but bringing him back on a short deal seems wiser than overpaying for Brian McCann—yet another lefty bat with a lot of mileage who will require at least a four or five year commitment at no less than $15-18 million per year—or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who’s likely to stay with the Red Sox.

Of the four younger guys, Brown is a lock, and should be. Asche might have to compete with a veteran, but given his intangibles—always a big deal with the Amaro-era Phillies, who seem to value the guy who runs hard on weak contact over the one who jogs to first after watching four off the plate—and the presence of top prospect Maikel Franco a year or so behind him, he’ll have a clear shot at the job. It’s hard to argue with that too. New manager Ryne Sandberg has given some hints that he might try a Revere/Ruf platoon in left field; if that happens, I propose we call them MasterBlaster. But if they’re both going to offer league average or better production at team-controlled prices, don’t you want them both playing every day?

I expect Amaro will make a push to add a "low-risk, high-reward" (a term he’s brought me to hate) player such as Michael Morse, Jason Kubel or Corey Hart, someone coming off injury and/or looking to rebuild value on a one-year deal. It’s possible he’ll go after bigger fish on the FA market, Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran or Jacoby Ellsbury or Curtis Granderson—but all but Beltran are lefty bats, all would exacerbate the team’s age problem, and all but Ellsbury (the least likely of the four to leave, and the one most certain to cost a draft pick and a truly absurd contract) could represent a defensive downgrade replacing Revere or Ruf. I’m also not sure why any of these guys would want to come to Philadelphia. This holds for McCann, the prize of the catching market, as well: if he’s leaving the Braves, it’ll be for a more likely contender with equally deep pockets—think Yankees and Rangers.

If there’s big change coming for the Phillies, it’ll be on the pitching side. But that’s another story for another day. When it comes to the lineup, Amaro’s past mistakes constrain his future options.

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