The Phillies pulled off a solid yet risky deal last week to solve their centerfield dilemma but simultaneously created another area of need. By including Vance Worley in the Ben Revere trade the Phillies current rotation would feature Kyle Kendrick and likely one of Tyler Cloyd or Jonathan Pettibone behind The Big Three. That isn’t the most appetizing back-end of a rotation, especially not for a team with hopes of contending.
While Kendrick is a capable #5 starter, he shouldn’t be relied on for more than that, and Cloyd showed little last year that would make one suspect he can perform at a league average level over 30+ starts. Pettibone and other top pitching prospects — Jesse Biddle, Adam Morgan, Brody Colvin, Ethan Martin, etc — could thrive if given the opportunity but they all carry significant risk since their major league talent level is unknown. The Phillies are in a position to minimize risk in the rotation so a Kendrick-Cloyd back-end is suboptimal.
The Phillies, plain and simple, have to do something with the rotation.
They don’t have to sign Anibal Sanchez for 4-5 years at $14-$15 million per year, but they no longer have the luxury of waiting until next year to bolster the rotation, when the free agent market looks abundant with good, reliable starters. Luckily, there are still several intriguing names on the market that could help the 2013 Phillies without requiring much of a commitment beyond next season. The Phillies could make a short-term move right now and look to make a bigger splash next offseason, or they could forego next year’s market and look to sign a better starter right now.
The Phillies are faced with a very interesting decision that really boils down to their thoughts, both in the short- and long-term, on Roy Halladay.
With Halladay’s future very much in question here, it’s possible that the Phillies enter the 2014 season with just Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee under contract in the rotation. Some of the young arms may start to emerge as viable major league starters by then, but it’s likely that the Phillies will need another reliable arm to round out future rotations. The decision really depends on Halladay’s health, production, and potential willingness to stick around beyond this season at a reduced rate.
If Halladay rebounds the team could spend less in the rotation this and next year, bolstering it with your typical #3/#4 starter on a short-term deal. If the Phillies don’t believe he will stay, or opt not to re-sign him, it might make more sense to go for a stronger starter now on a multi-year deal who will help form a new Big Three next year. The benefit of the first scenario is that it wouldn’t preclude the team from making a rotation splash next season.
Splashes are risky since baseball contracts are guaranteed. However, the Phillies are in a tough spot because they have to make a present decision based largely off of future information. With that in mind, it’s probably better for the Phillies to avoid a larger deal with a starter now, instead opting for a short-term stopgap on a 1-2 year deal.
In doing so, they avoid doling out a lucrative contract now when it’s possible that a cheaper Halladay could provide more value than anyone else next year. In that scenario, they would have a productive short-term stopgap as the #4 starter both years, while the less expensive Halladay proves better as a #3 than anyone else they could sign for more money.
Below are, in my opinion, the best available options for each scenario. These aren’t comprehensive lists of everyone available, nor are the players listed in order of preference. These are the guys who I consider realistic fits based on what we know about the Phillies finances and Amaro’s modus operandi and the idea of minimizing risk at the forefront.
The Short-Term Stopgaps
Roberto Hernandez: The artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona isn’t the flashiest of starters, but he is a big-time groundballer who can limit walks. Some of his surface numbers look better when translated to the National League and he isn’t going to cost much coming off of an identity- and injury-shortened season. Since 2009, he has a 13% strikeout rate, 8% walk rate and 55% groundball rate. His 4.46 SIERA is middle of the pack in this group.
Jair Jurrjens: Has a similar strikeout and walk profile to Hernandez — 15% strikeout, 8.5% walk — without the benefit of a top-notch groundball rate. Has the lowest ERA of these pitchers over the last four years at 3.54. However, it’s unclear if he will continue outperforming his peripherals or if he will continue to regress like he did last year. His 2012 was disastrous, but we don’t know if that was an aberration, and he is an interesting low-risk, medium-reward candidate even if he never gets back to his 2008-09 productivity.
Shaun Marcum: Was essentially every bit as good as he was in 2011, only over a smaller sample of innings given his health issues. Over 21 starts last year, he put up a 3.70 ERA and 4.02 SIERA, with a 21% strikeout rate and an 8% walk rate. His walks were up, but that’s compared to his usually excellent control, and he could prove valuable on a two-year, $14 million contract similar to the one Brandon McCarthy just signed. Health is a concern with Marcum, especially since the Phillies will look to minimize risk here. It could be argued successfully that 32 starts of a slightly lesser pitcher is more valuable than 22 starts from Marcum and health is a clear reason why the Phils should avoid Erik Bedard. If Marcum is healthy he is the best pitcher in this group. However, if he was clearly healthy, there would have been more of a market for him thus far.
Kevin Millwood: Don’t laugh, he has been a lot better recently than you might think. He spent 2008-09 with the Rangers, averaging 3 WAR over 183 innings. He spent the 2010 season in Baltimore and tallied 1.3 WAR over 190.2 innings. He pitched much better than a 4-16 record would indicate. He spent much of the 2011 season in the minor leagues, but threw impressively over nine starts with the Rockies, producing 0.7 WAR in 54.1 innings, with a 16.2% strikeout rate and just a 3.6% walk rate. Which leads to last season, when he was a perfectly league average pitcher with the Mariners, putting up 2 WAR over 28 starts and 161 innings. He isn’t exciting, but he’s a good bet to give the Phillies 25-30 starts and 175+ innings of at least 1-1.5 WAR, and maybe more than that. On something like a one year, $3 million contract, that is pretty valuable.
Joe Saunders: If he can be had for $5 million or less, Saunders is an interesting pitcher. We know his floor is in that 1-1.5 WAR range, but he tallied 2.5 WAR over 174.2 innings last season, posting the best strikeout and walk rates of his career. If teams shy away from him out of fear of regression, but he actually has improved, his signing could pay dividends. He is another pitcher that minimizes health risk, even if he isn’t the best of the bunch.
Carlos Villanueva: A few years ago, I remember telling Corey and some friends that Villanueva was bound to breakout. That assessment was mostly due to his stellar performance against the Phillies when he was a Brewer. He never really took that next step until last season, when injuries forced him into a rotation role in which he thrived. He is too talented to be relegated to pure relief duty, but after pitching out of the bullpen for so long there are natural and justifiable concerns about his durability. He wants to get paid like a starter but that seems unlikely. If the Phillies can sign him at a reliever’s rate and use him as a starter, this could turn out to be a solid, creative, under-the-radar move.
More Lucrative Deals This Offseason
Ryan Dempster: The Phillies haven’t been mentioned at all in connection to Dempster, considering his age and his contractual requests. This isn’t to say they couldn’t get involved in the sweepstakes late, but it seems more likely than not that Amaro would look to go younger when doling out a longer-term deal to a starting pitcher. Dempster may have been one of the most underrated starters over the last several seasons but it isn’t exactly prudent to pay a 36-year old $13+ million per year over three years with more pressing issues to solve elsewhere on the diamond and viable pitching alternatives available.
Edwin Jackson: Everyone thought Jackson put himself in a decent spot last year by signing a one-year deal with the Nationals that set him up for a bigger payday this offseason. However, it’s starting to look like he might have to settle for something similar this year, which hurts given how deep next year’s market looks. It isn’t that he pitched poorly, as he fell just shy of 3 WAR over 31 starts and 189.2 innings. It’s just that he didn’t blow anyone away with his performance, and is surely seeking a $12 million annual salary. For that type of salary, the Phillies would look for more than just durability and solid performance. They would want the 4 WAR Jackson from the prior three seasons, which might not be in the cards.
Kyle Lohse: I wrote about Lohse in the 2013 The Hardball Times Annual, noting that he might actually have become one of those guys who induces weak contact with his new repertoire. That’s important because his BABIPs have been relatively microscopic the last two seasons. While it’s easy to brush him off as being lucky, note that he wasn’t successful the same way Jeremy Hellickson of the Rays was successful.
The Cardinals had a decent defense, but their team BABIP was close to .300, whereas the Rays team BABIP was closer to .275 over the last two seasons. While Hellickson was more a product of superlative defense, Lohse was doing something other Cardinals pitchers weren’t, and while one year might signal a fluke, it has now been two years of similar results. Again, it’s risky giving a lucrative, long-term deal to an older pitcher, but Lohse shouldn’t be written off based on a lazy first glance at his numbers that assumes he will completely regress towards a league average BABIP because that’s what happens.
Part of what makes this situation so interesting is what the Phillies could do in the rotation next year. The 2014 free agent crop includes Gavin Floyd, Matt Garza, Dan Haren, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Ricky Nolasco and Ervin Santana, among others like Ted Lilly, Paul Maholm, Tim Hudson and A.J. Burnett.
The Phillies could do some serious damage in next year’s market if the rotation requires a substantial upgrade, and sacrificing future flexibility to sign someone like Dempster, Jackson or Lohse right now seems foolish in the circumstances.
On the other hand, the Phillies have to do more than give Zach Miner an invitation to spring training. Millwood on a short-term deal, followed by a big signing next year, could go a long way. Or signing Marcum for two years and bringing Halladay back at a reduced rate next year is another feasible option. The wiggle room the Phillies have as a result of solving the centerfield issue for under $500,000 shouldn’t be wasted just because it’s available.
The Phils have to exercise fiscal responsibility with the rotation right now, and luckily, there are several short-term options that could produce better than Cloyd, Pettibone, et al, while not precluding the team from upgrading the bullpen or getting a legitimate offensive threat for a corner outfield position.