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Hard Choices, pt. 2: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

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Free agents-to-be (contracts end 2006, team might consider retaining)
P Rheal Cormier Best comp: Dennis Cook
P Ryan Franklin (Best comp: Elmer Dessens)
P Cory Lidle Best comp: Mike Smithson
P Arthur Rhodes Best comp: Kent Mercker
P Randy Wolf: Best comp: Pedro Astacio
C Sal Fasano Best comp: Mark Parent
C Mike Lieberthal Best comp: Jason Varitek
3B David Bell Best comp:  Davey Johnson
OF David Dellucci Best comp: Bubba Trammell

Last time, we looked at keepers and goners. In this installment, we look at the players whose contractual ties to the Phillies will end after the close of the 2006 season. (There is some overlap, in the persons of Cormier and Franklin.) These are the "rent-a-players," whose appeal to a current playoff contender is that they won't impact the budget beyond this season; as such, guys like these often have more trade value than their counterparts whose deals extend into future seasons, sometimes (Pat Burrell, I'm looking in your direction) at a cost beyond what their production would suggest is fair.

Though there are no superstars in this collection of Phillies mercenaries at the level of, say, Carlos Beltran, whose move from Kansas City to Houston two years ago helped push the 2004 Astros into the playoffs, the group is heavy with role players and contributors. At least superficially, Rheal Cormier is having a fantastic season; that 1.16 ERA jumps out much more readily than the fact that he's allowed about a dozen inherited runners to score. And Cormier, fellow lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes, third baseman David Bell, outfielder David Dellucci, and starter Cory Lidle all have playoff experience; granted, Ed Wade isn't currently serving as GM for any playoff competitor, but surely he isn't the only baseball executive who ascribes value to the fact that some guy once played meaningful games in October.

(For that matter, Bobby Abreu is a playoff baseball veteran--just not with the Phils. As a 23 year-old backup for the 1997 Astros, Abreu went 1 for 3 with a steal in the Division Series. As they say, you can look it up. We'll get to Bobby in the next installment.)

Three factors somewhat complicate the question of whether to trade several of these players.

First, there's the question of whether or not they could contribute to a Phillies contender in 2007 or beyond. Cory Lidle, for instance, should never be your "ace," as he was by default during the Phils' late-June death spiral. But he's the sort of pitcher who could remain a serviceable rotation option deep into his 30s; if he's your #5, you're probably in great shape. Then there's the question of whether any trade would bring more value than simply offering arbitration and collecting draft picks next spring. Dellucci is the consideration here. Coming off his strong 2005, when he hit 29 homers for Texas, and his excellent 2006 performance in a limited role, he could be classified as a Type A free agent. (Elias Sports Bureau makes this determination after the season, using a statistical formula.)  Making less than a million dollars this season, Dellucci would be a very good bet to sign a two- or three-year deal elsewhere; if he did after the Phils offered him arbitration, the team would recoup a first- or second-round draft pick from the team that signed him (depending upon where that team finished in the standings), plus a compensation pick between the first and second rounds. For the Phils, who likely will be players themselves in the free-agent market, having one of their free agents sign elsewhere would allow the team to go after an impact starter or position player without worrying about being shut out of the early rounds in next June's amateur draft.

The final consideration is whether any of these guys might be needed to replace, on a short- or long-term basis, a player with a bigger contract who gets dealt in the next few weeks. Again, Dellucci is the interesting case: if Bobby Abreu really is traded--and the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Tigers and Astros, among others, are supposedly interested--the Phils could well go to Dellucci and try to take him off the free-agent market with a deal to make him their lefty-hitting right fielder for the next two years or so. Similarly, if the Phils were able to move Jon Lieber or decided to trade Brett Myers, they might want to keep Lidle around at least for the rest of 2006 as a hedge against further inconsistency from the likes of Ryan Madson, Cole Hamels, Scott Mathieson and Gavin Floyd.

In other words, some of these decisions are easier than others. Rheal Cormier is 39; he's been a Phillie for six seasons. Three of them, including 2006, have been decent or better; three have been bad-to-awful. He makes seven figures; he's not part of the future; and if you offered him arbitration, you'd probably be stuck with him. If you can move him even for a B prospect, you do it; maybe lightning strikes and you get a Bagwell-for-Andersen deal. Same goes for Arthur Rhodes, though Rhodes' lousy numbers might depress his value. And needless to say, if you can move David Bell for anything--a bullpen catcher, discount tickets to Six Flags, some old socks--you do it. Same goes for Mike Lieberthal, though it seems far-fetched to think that a team would want to add an aging, injury-prone catcher whose defensive skills and power both seem to have preceded him into retirement. (The calculus is similar for Randy Wolf, though unlike Lieberthal, Wolf likely has much less value for 2006 than he does for 2007. What the Phils should do with Wolf is try to get him on a low-base, high-incentive deal for next season.) As for Sal Fasano, I'd want to move him just to let Carlos Ruiz get the majority of the starts the rest of the way--and to eliminate the temptation to make a "fan-friendly" move in bringing him back for '07. Yecch.  

For Lidle, I'd look to move him, just because the pitching market is so thin. It doesn't sound like he particularly wants to come back; if offered arbitration, you might have to pay him $4 million for well-established mediocrity. A team like the Dodgers, who still need rotation help and have a truckload of young prospects, might be the best fit. Both Lidle and Jon Lieber, whom we'll also talk about next time, might have more value as trade commodities now than they would as Phillies in 2007.

That leaves Dellucci, the toughest call because all the factors are in play. If you can get a massive return for Bobby Abreu, it's probably best to keep "Looch" as a much cheaper, lesser version of the same hitter (minus the speed and on-base skills; maybe with a bit more power at this point). If Dellucci is still a Phillie at the end of the season, it's almost a no-brainer to offer him arbitration--so the question, if you do want to move him, is whether the return looks better than one or two high draft picks next spring. In most cases, my guess is that it wouldn't.