It’s mid-January, the Eagles have gone to sleep for six months, and this is the moment when the yearning for baseball should be most acute. This year, though, I find myself almost totally indifferent to thoughts like "pitchers and catchers report in a month." I am painfully bored with the Phillies.
I think the reason I’m so unenthused about the season is that the range of possible outcomes for the 2014 Phillies seems so small. If most things go wrong in terms of player injuries and underperformance, they’ll win around 70 games. If most things go right—good health and guys playing up to their abilities—they’ll probably win in the low 80s. I'd probably set the over/under right at 75 wins.
Even worse is that, absent some major change, it’s difficult to see how this gets better in 2015 or 2016. There’s some youth on the roster, but few opportunities for them to show what they can do thanks to a raft of big-dollar commitments to veterans. The Phillies have a couple near-ready prospects in Jesse Biddle and Maikel Franco, but as we’ve seen with the recent rash of injuries in the minor leagues, today’s hopes can quickly curdle into tomorrow’s disappointments. And while both might have above-average upside, neither looks like the sort of player who could change the overall trajectory of the organization.
So I’ve tried to think what they could do to shake things up, change the story and introduce a little more variance into the possible outcomes, not only for this year but over the next few. Below are three, only the first of which is particularly armchair-GM-ish. I should note my starting point is that the odds of success in 2014 seem sufficiently long that my moves are more about positioning the team to compete for the playoffs in a year or two. I’d be very interested in hearing other out-of-the-box ideas to change the narrative in the comments below.
1) Sign a pitcher, trade a pitcher
We all know that the Phillies have a rotation problem. Specifically, they’ve got two ace left-handers, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, and then a bunch of question marks. I suppose it’s possible that some combination of Kyle Kendrick, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Roberto Hernandez and Jonathan Pettibone can make 90 or so starts at league-average performance. But that’s the upside, and it’s way too easy to imagine a set of outcomes like "Kendrick reprises his 2013 second half, MAG gets hurt, Fauxto surrenders two homers per start and Pettibone performs like Tyler Cloyd." As it is, they’re a couple bad elbows away from reliance on the likes of Jeff Manship in the rotation, rather than playing some filmic role like "Strapping Repairman #2."
It’s also the case that the free agent market for starting pitching has been slow enough to develop that we’re starting to reach the point in the calendar when bargains are secured. Big-name guys who began the offseason dreaming of five-year, $80 million contracts are realizing they don’t know where they’ll be in a month’s time, and their agents are starting to worry about reputational damage.
Even if it’s all a consequence of the protracted Masahiro Tanaka story—and no, he’s not coming to Philly—as of mid-January there remain three viable mid-rotation arms with proven track records in Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana. (Toss in Bronson Arroyo too, if you like.) Jimenez is the guy I’d target: he’s the one who’s actually shown ace upside, and his current public ask is for $14 million a year—which might mean he’d take a deal for less, perhaps something like three years, $39 million. That he comes at the cost of a draft pick, which for the Phillies would be their second-rounder, is surely depressing his market.
Were I calling the shots for the Phillies, I’d make that offer yesterday, and I might go to a fourth year or at least include one of those option/buyout clauses the organization so enjoys. I’d put the same offer in front of Garza—maybe a bit more, since he wouldn’t entail ceding a pick—and whoever jumps at it is our new #2 starter.
I say #2 because the second part of this, the move that really changes the story for the Phillies over the next couple seasons, is to trade Cliff Lee to a team looking to win now, and to maximize the talent return by covering as much of the financial obligation as is left when you subtract what we’ll be paying Jimenez or Garza over the duration of Lee’s remaining two years plus buyout. Lee to the Orioles for a package led by Dylan Bundy? To the Cardinals for Carlos Martinez and Joe Kelly? To Boston for some of their abundant young talent? Any team open to making a "compression trade" should be on the Phillies’ speed dial.
Again, we’re playing for 2015 and beyond here. Lee might well be diminished or done by the time the Phillies are ready to contend again. The idea is to get a major league ready arm with ace or near-ace upside who will work out his growing pains—hopefully just figurative—while the team is gearing up toward its next run. The opportunity to land one of baseball’s best starters and big-game pitchers, significantly subsidized no less, will create a hugely lively market. And they can afford it: particularly with the newly signed TV deal, the financial advantage is the last one the Phillies have.
A 2015 rotation of, say, Hamels/Jimenez/Bundy/Pettibone/Biddle probably wouldn’t quite match up with the Nationals or Braves. But it would represent vastly more upside than we’re likely to see on the current track.
I want to be clear here that I’m not one of the many Jimmy haters amongst the fan base. In fact, he’s one of my all-time favorite Phillies. I’d love to see him enjoy a late-career resurgence that one day takes him to the Hall of Fame.
Nonetheless, he embodies some of what’s wrong with the team at this point. Rollins seems to feel entitled to his starting job, entitled to his preferred spot in the lineup, and certainly entitled to his place on the roster. He wants to stay put so he can chase team records. If he’s performing, that’s all well and good. But last year was his worst healthy season, not just at the plate but in the field, where Baseball-Reference had him worth -1.0 Wins Above Replacement—by far his worst career mark.
Galvis may or may not ever be a viable starter for a contending team, but at 24 years old with a few more seasons under team control, this would be a good time to find out. His defense is so well regarded that you probably can put up with his anemic bat if everyone else is hitting (which admittedly isn’t the case here). At the same time, his bat isn’t quite as anemic as it was: Galvis has sneaky power and occasionally shows a solid approach. If he can raise his offensive game a bit more beyond last season’s .234/.283/.385 line—and with a BABIP last season of .273, it might not take more than decent luck—that’s a contributing regular.
It might seem cold and heartless to make Jimmy Rollins win his job. But after dropping 29 games in two seasons while the payroll remains in the stratosphere, I actually think the Phillies would do well with a bit more cold and heartless.
3) Top-Step Ryno
Maybe it’s because this is so at odds with my perception of the guy, but I’d love to see Ryne Sandberg take the more hands-on managerial approach he showed last year after replacing Charlie Manuel to the next level. I mean the whole Gene Mauch/Tony La Russa/Bobby Valentine—oh yes, I went there—mode of grasping for every tactical advantage, however small. Bat the pitcher eighth and Ben Revere (or Galvis) ninth. Deploy defensive shifts like a madman. Pinch-hit, pinch-run and change pitchers like there are credit card points for frequent lineup card changes.
Some of this is simply to keep things interesting and, again to dispel the sense of settled entitlement that I think has descended on the team. But the bigger point is that Sandberg has a lot to discover about many of the guys on this roster. Who among Phillippe Aumont, Jake Diekman, Brad Lincoln, Ethan Martin, Kevin Munson and B.J. Rosenberg are viable bullpen arms for 2014 and beyond? Is Cody Asche a guy for whom "average regular" represents upside or floor? What might Darin Ruf do with 300 plate appearances? Is Cesar Hernandez serviceable as a utility reserve?
It’s likely that, to paraphrase a profound thinker, all these players are who we thought they were. Again, though, we’re looking for surprises. And if there’s a player in the reserve or bullpen mix for the Phillies who might emerge as something more than a marginal major leaguer, why not find that out in a season of minimal expectations? Likewise with any tactical proclivities Sandberg might be curious about. Much as I loved Charlie Manuel, he was clearly a poor fit for a marginally talented team because his style wasn’t conducive to taking every action that might help steal a victory. Loaded rosters don’t need activist managers; this is not that.
The 2014 Phillies seem poised to suffer a dearth of storylines as stark as their shortage of talent. Shaking things up on the roster, in the clubhouse and between the lines isn’t likely to immediately reverse the team’s sharp decline. But at least it might keep us watching, and speed the day when they’ll be ready to win again.