Throughout this golden era of Phillies baseball, the outfield had always been a position of strength. From 2007 to the trade deadline just a few days ago, the Phillies outfield had combined for nearly 70 fWAR, ranking 4th in MLB in that time period. Five individual seasons were at 5 fWAR or greater, including Aaron Rowand's 2007, Shane Victorino in 2011, and Jayson Werth from 2008-2010. Though LF was a relative weakness, with only Ibanez's first half in 2009 as a highlight, both CF and RF were among the best in MLB every year.
Now, a little over a week after the Phillies traded away both their right and center fielders, the picture for the Phillies' 2013 outfield looks incredibly unclear. Domonic Brown is likely to have a spot, but his performance is a huge question mark for the moment. He could end up at any of the three positions, and his ceiling and floor remain vastly different. Beyond Brown, the others still under contract include part-time or platoon players: Nate Schierholtz, Laynce Nix, John Mayberry Jr., and uh, Michael Martinez. Out of that group, not a one has even had a 3 WAR season. Mayberry's 2011 was the closest at 2.5 and Nix's best is 1.5. They're a good collection of 4th and 5th outfielders, and a platoon is still possible between the righty-mashing Nix and the lefty-mashing Mayberry, but none of them are capable of being a regular. At the minimum, the Phillies are going to need one more outfielder.
To find this outfielder, the Phillies will have three options to pursue. They could acquire an outfielder (or two) in free agency, promote a player out of the minor leagues, or they could trade for one. In reality, the only path is through free agency. The Phillies simply don't have a major league ready OF waiting in the minors. Tyson Gillies was having a good year, but other issues have arisen and he's only compiled about 200 ABs this year. Leandro Castro is putting up a .753 OPS, but he's been scuffling since the beginning of July and has never stood out to scouts. His progress is certainly commendable, but giving him a position in the outfield would be a blow to his development and would be unlikely to yield much production. Jiwan James would struggle to hit at all in the majors, with his .662 OPS in AA. And those three are the closest. As for a trade, while players like Justin Upton are incredibly enticing, the minor league system as a whole is too depleted to be thinking about trading away any more prospects. They might not even have the pieces to swing a trade even if they wanted to. Free agency it is, then.
So, which free agents should they be pursuing? Find out below the jump.
The list of free agents include some familiar names, as well as some unfamiliar ones. Below is a graph for the six best outfielders on the market, tracking their fWAR by age.
Now, Josh Hamilton is the clear star. His 2010 MVP season is the best of the group by far, with 8.5 fWAR in only 133 games, and since becoming a starter his only bad season was in 2009. He comes with issues, including his struggle with alcoholism and his age, but he'll be looking at a big contract when he hits free agency. How big? It'd be hard to imagine him not getting at least 100 million/5 years, and he'll probably get well over that. Hamilton is essentially unique, having only played full time for five years at age 31, and having his MVP level of performance be overshadowed by his drinking. The Phillies will be in on him, and they should be. However, for what it'll take to get him, there exists the risk of him blowing up and leaving them with little to no production and no more room in their budget. He's the marquee name, with the production to boot, but he's not the safe bet that his numbers alone would make you think he is. Still, that level of production is hard to find. The Phillies could sign him and by himself he could account for enough production that they could stash a cheap, defense-only player at 3B if they wanted to.
Behind Hamilton sits the 29 year old Michael Bourn. After being trading twice, once from Philadelphia in the Brad Lidge deal, and then to Atlanta last year, Bourn has put up an impressive season on top of an already strong career. In the past four years, Bourn has put up at least 4 fWAR in every year, owing mostly to a strong defensive performance and speed on the bases. This year, he'll likely reach 6 WAR, just in time for free agency. Bourn won't be getting anywhere near what Hamilton will, but it'll still take a significant chunk of change to sign him. Somewhere in the range of 75 million/5 years to 96 million/6 years seems to be what he'll end up with. That's a lot, but the Phillies will have the money to spare and are in desperate need of an outfielder. However, in order to be worth the contract he'll get, Bourn will have to continue to be a 3-4 WAR player throughout his contract. It's possible that he'll be there, and he might even exceed that slightly, but for a player that succeeds based on his speed, age is a much more pressing concern than it would be with other players. Speed is the first tool to decline as players age, and it supposedly peaks well before power does. Michael Bourn uses speed in every facet of his game, from his high BABIP, to his high stolen base total and SB%, to his baserunning and defense. If, by age 31, he's closer to the 70th percentile in speed in MLB than the 90th, his production will crater. By signing Michael Bourn, they'd be risking a lot of money in the hope that Michael Bourn's speed will defy expectations and see little decline into his mid-30's.
The next player, Melky Cabrera, may to hard to spot on the graph, mostly because his line tracks towards the bottom edge until his age 26 season in 2011. Cabrera, who sits in 2nd in the NL race for the batting title with his .352 average, was an unlikely candidate to be a highly sought free agent. Just this offseason, he was traded by the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez. The same Jonathan Sanchez who they designated for assignment this season. And yet, here he is. He's had a inflated BABIP this year, with his .386 BABIP well above his career average (.309) or even his previous career high (.332, last year). However, it's pretty clear that some of that difference comes from a real improvement in his hitting ability, and an above average BABIP seems to be reasonable to expect for the future for Cabrera. However, his hit tool is by far the best of his abilities, as he has only average speed and mediocre power. At 27 years old, he's the 2nd youngest of the group, 10 days older than B.J. Upton. Any contract he signs will likely cover his peak years in addition to his early 30's. However, as in the MVP-voting, a high batting average indicates a player ripe for an over-payment on the free agent market. He won't be had cheaply, and his contract may rival the one Bourn receives. With only two years of actual production, it'd be a big risk to take on. The hit tool is one that lasts much longer than speed, but Cabrera's hit tool is uncertain, at least in comparison to Bourn's speed or Hamilton's power or hit tools. If the Phillies were to sign him, he'd be able to fit in any OF position, having played center in 2011 with the Royals and left with the Giants. In comparison to either the production that Bourn or Hamilton could provide, however, Cabrera seems to have a much lower peak. He's a good bet to be an above-average player, but not all that far above average. Given the contract it'll take to get him, it's hard to imagine him exceeding it's value by much, and much easier to see him regressing back to his pre-2011 state.
The other young player left on this list is B.J. Upton. Upton, who's in the midst of his worst season since 2006, has been a solidly productive player for the Rays, even if he never approached the heights predicted by his prospect status. Upton has a mix of skills, with no one tool standing out. He's always been among the leaders in stolen bases, his career BABIP is .325, and he has two seasons of more than twenty home runs. He has had an issue with strikeouts, with a K% always in the mid to upper twenties, but he gets his fair share of walks as well, with an 11% BB% in his career. With the down year, it's seems unlikely that Upton will ever truly put it all together and become a superstar, but his peak seasons remain and he'll be productive throughout them. He won't cost quite as much as any of the previously mentioned players, and might come at a discount after this year's struggles, but he'll probably still get a contract paying him 11-14 MM/year for 4-5 years. His varied skill-set lends me to believe that he'll be able to produce at least that much, if not more. He still has an enormously high peak, if he were to fully realize his potential, but even his floor is that of a center fielder with decent patience, power, speed, and a high number of strikeouts. The issue with signing Upton is that, although he's a good player, the value he provides isn't exactly a big splash in itself. The Phillies would likely want to find some further production at third base, which would be harder to find, or even elsewhere in the outfield. For the length of his contract, though, Upton would be a very smart play.
After Upton is the most familiar member of this list, Shane Victorino. He'll be 32 by spring training, but his tenure in Philadelphia was a highly productive one, up until this year. He won't take a huge contract to grab, perhaps 36MM/3 years, or a lower annual value for four. Victorino has similarities to Bourn in that he'll likely see his speed decline precipitously over his next contract. Unlike Bourn, Shane hasn't relied solely on his speed, as while he'll steal bases and hit triples, he'll occasionally hit the ball out, with 18 homers in 2010, 17 in 2011, and 9 so far this year. At the same time, he isn't as BABIP dependent as the others on this list, with his career .296 BABIP unlikely to decline much. Instead, Shane relies on contact skills, striking out only about 11% of the time. His production isn't likely to be all that high going forward, but he's not going to require a huge contract and could still provide some surplus value. Signing Shane, as with Upton, isn't a move that could stand on its own in the offseason, like signing Hamilton would, and so the Phillies would still have to find production elsewhere on the free agent market if they were to sign Shane.
As for Swisher? I'll say this. Do you really want the Phillies to employ both of the players who starred in this @#$%ing commercial? He could go and hit 50 homers in August and September and I'd still rather commit seppuku than see Nick Swisher on the Phillies. I mean, have you seen his face? C'mon.
So, with all the options out on the table, what exactly should the Phillies do?
1. Let Domonic Brown try to prove himself during the rest of this season. That means no pinch-hitting him, Charlie. Even if he struggles, slot him in for a spot next year.
2. Establish a full platoon in RF between John Mayberry and Laynce Nix, who would be combining for a wRC+ of 112 this year if they were hitting only against LHP and RHP respectively.
3. Sign one of Upton, Victorino, or Hamilton. If they sign Hamilton, stop, advance directly to spring training, do not collect $200. Otherwise, sign one of the FA third basemen, or try to trade for Chase Headley without giving up the rest of the farm.
4. Do something with Nate Schierholtz, I guess.
Now, it's your turn. What do you think the Phillies should do? Go all out and sign Hamilton, Bourn, and Cabrera, while trading Brown to the Yomiuri Giants? Clone Nick Swisher and have him man the entire outfield? Whatever it is you've come up with, go ahead and leave a comment with your thoughts.