Philadelphia Phillies: 5 Ways to Come Back Even Stronger in 2013
After winning five consecutive National League East titles, it’s hard to imagine the Philadelphia Phillies deciding to completely rebuild after just one down season.
Especially with a payroll in excess of $170 million.
So if the Phillies decide not to start over from scratch, and are even willing to push their payroll past the $178 million luxury-tax threshold, their best option is to use this offseason to come back even stronger in 2013 in hopes of having a season more reminiscent of 2011 than 2012.
But how do the Phils do that?
Do they trade Cliff Lee, or do they keep their three aces at the top of their starting rotation? Do they spend big on a free-agent third baseman or scan the trade market for their next acquisition? Just how many new outfield starters do they even need?
These are the types of questions that the Phils must answer this offseason in order to guard against another season like the one they are currently having.
Here are five ways the Phillies can come back stronger in 2013.
Be Strategic If They Decide to Trade Cliff Lee
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Lee has 15 fewer wins this season than he did last season, and only one fewer loss.
However, he is still just one season removed from going 17-8 with 238 strikeouts and a 2.40 ERA on his way to a third-place finish in NL Cy Young voting.
But that doesn’t make it any easier for the Phils to pay between $87.5 and $102.5 million over the next three to four years to a pitcher who is 2-7 this season.
Lee was already claimed on waivers by the Los Angeles Dodgers following the trade deadline. That was an opportunity for the Phillies to allow Lee and the at least $87.5 million still owed to him to change teams, while they received a boatload of payroll flexibility.
But Lee is still a Phillie.
If the Phils passed on what was likely their only chance, prior to next season, to have a team take on Lee’s entire salary, chances are they would rather receive players in return instead. A quick glance at the team’s roster explains why.
Besides Lee, few Phillies’ players could be dealt in a trade that would fill multiple needs for the team.
With players needed at third base, at least two out of three outfield spots, the bullpen and possibly the starting rotation, the Phillies may have a difficult time hitting all of their goals through free agency.
When it comes to trades, Lee is likely the only Phillie whose trade value (if the Phillies pay part of his salary) could result in the team filling at least two needs in one trade in terms of acquiring above-average major league talent or minor league prospects.
Roy Halladay? Possibly, but would the Phillies trade him, and what kind of offer would a team make for a recently injured 35-year-old pitcher?
Would any teams be willing to take on the salaries of Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Howard or Jimmy Rollins? Chances are no, plus any trade involving these players could leave the Phils with more holes.
Trading Lee may or may not be a good decision. But what’s more certain is that, if the Phillies do trade him, they must be strategic in order to strike big with their best trade chip.
Fix the Bullpen
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A good start to the month of August has raised the Phillies’ bullpen’s ERA to 4.36, which ranks 11th in the National League.
However, a member of the Phils’ bullpen has still taken the loss 19 times this season, the fourth-highest total in the NL.
The Phillies are currently 18.5 games out of first place.
The team’s bullpen primarily consists of players who are 26 years old or younger, which has likely played a role in the high ERA. But it is still too risky to ignore the bullpen during the offseason and hope that a year’s worth of experience will equal great improvements.
Adding a proven veteran or two to the mix would help the bullpen—and team as a whole—come back stronger next season.
Players such as Grant Balfour, Brandon Lyon, Mike Adams and Randy Choate are all potential free-agent relievers.
Adding one or two of these players to the bullpen with Papelbon could allow the Phillies to see if players such as Michael Schwimer, Jeremy Horst and Jake Diekman improve after having spent multiple months in the big leagues.
This would also allow the Phillies to rotate any of their young relievers into their major league bullpen that would already feature proven veterans.
The Phils could use their new depth in the bullpen to their advantage and possibly include various relief prospects in trade offers, as well.
There’s a chance that the Phillies’ young bullpen that has struggled this season could be much improved in 2013 simply after having gained experience. But just in case, adding one or two veterans would make the team stronger for next season.
Trade for a Third Baseman
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If Placido Polanco’s $5.5 million option is not exercised, the Phillies will officially need a new starter at third base next season.
And the free-agent market may not be the best place to find a replacement.
A recent article by Matt Gelb on philly.com contains a quote from Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. in which he talks about possibly trading for a third baseman instead.
“I’m not all that anxious to move young players,” Amaro said. “But I think with a couple of the moves we’ve made, we have added some talent to our system. It may allow us to do some things we maybe wouldn’t have thought about doing earlier in the year. We have some catching depth now. We have some more pitching depth. We may be able to deal from a position of strength.”
Gelb’s article points out that Kevin Youkilis may be the best available third baseman during free agency. However, at 34 years old, Youkilis would not help the Phillies’ lineup get any younger.
In order to do that, a player such as Chase Headley would have to be targeted through a trade.
Dealing prospects from a position that they have depth at in order to acquire a proven third baseman that is signed through next season could be a move the Phils are willing to make.
The Phillies may be able to acquire outfield help through free agency, but a young third baseman must be acquired through a trade.
Acquire Right-Handed Hitting Outfielders
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When the Phillies traded Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants at the trade deadline, they not only traded their starting right fielder and Ryan Howard’s protection in the lineup, but also one of the few right-handed bats in the lineup.
Out of the five outfielders currently on the roster, only John Mayberry Jr. bats from the right side.
If the Phils start Domonic Brown and Nate Schierholtz next season, that leaves only Carlos Ruiz and whoever starts at third base and the remaining outfield spot as potential right-handed hitters in the lineup.
In order to balance their lineup, the Phillies must acquire at least one right-handed hitter this offseason, whether through free agency or a trade. And with a potential lack of options at third base, finding a right-handed hitting outfielder is the best option.
Players such as Melky Cabrera, B.J. Upton and Ryan Ludwick are potential free-agent outfielders who are either switch-hitters or bat from the right side.
Adding one or two right-handed hitting outfielders to a lineup that features left-handed batters in Howard, Chase Utley and Brown would give the Phillies a nice blend. The team would have more lineup options, rather than using four left-handed batters in a row against right-handed pitching.
Having a right-handed power hitter to bat behind Howard again could be crucial in helping the Phillies come back stronger next season.
Receive Counseling from Pat Gillick Before Adding Depth
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Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick seemingly had a knack for making moves that were outside of the spotlight but proved to be invaluable during postseason runs.
Jamie Moyer, Greg Dobbs, J.C. Romero, Matt Stairs, Jayson Werth, Geoff Jenkins and Joe Blanton were all acquired by the Phillies when Gillick was GM, and they all played roles in helping the team either reach the postseason or win the World Series despite not receiving the same amount of attention as recent acquisitions by the team. A number of these players provided crucial depth during postseason runs.
For an aging team that has been injury-prone, having solid depth becomes essential.
The Phillies must be sure to get counseling from Gillick, who is now a senior advisor with the team, when finding players for reserve roles next season.
Rather than trading players such as Wilson Valdez and acquiring players such as Michael Martinez and Chad Qualls, the Phillies must acquire reserve players who can help the team avoid another slow start due to injuries to the starters, and also allow the team to give starters time off without sacrificing too much offense or defense.
If Ty Wigginton, Martinez and Juan Pierre do not return, the Phillies will have three bench openings next season.
Although they have a better bench than last season, following Gillick’s guidelines could give next season’s roster even more versatility.