Fixing the Philadelphia Phillies: 4 Steps Back to Dominance
Despite being one of the few remaining fools refusing to give up on the 2012 season until the door is actually slammed shut, I also realize this this Phillies team has glaring holes that need correcting this winter.
Their fall from the pinnacle of baseball—102 wins and an all-but-certain trip to the World Series—has been sudden and epic, but their return to the top of the mount can be just as quick and dramatic.
With a few tweaks, instead of a major overhaul, the Phillies can easily continue contending for World Championships.
A lot of what went wrong in Philadelphia this year—Ryan Howard missing the first half of the season; Roy Halladay injuring his shoulder and struggling to find his grove; Cliff Lee’s absolutely astonishing season—are unlikely to repeat themselves in 2013.
(Please note there was no mention of Chase Utley, who I fully expect to be ready to go until the last moment, when it’s decided he needs two to three months of rehab in order to play the game at half the player he once was.) And most of the other issues the Phillies faced this year are easily fixed, especially for a club with money to spend in free agency.
In recent seasons a lot has been made of the Phillies' ownership group’s apparent refusal to exceed the luxury tax threshold (not that it has stopped them from adding payroll when needed). With the trades of Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton this summer, the team will avoid paying the fine once again this year.
However, they have almost no chance of doing so again in 2013, and with the tax threshold raised for the 2014 season to $189 million (from $178 million), that gives the Phillies an extra $11 million in “cap” space.
Without any big-name arbitration-eligible players (i.e., Cole Hamels, Hunter Pence), the Phillies theoretically could add two or three impact players without exceeding their budget. However, not all that ills this club can be corrected in free agency.
Without any further adieu, here are the four steps I believe the Phillies must take in order to return them to the National League powerhouse they were only a year ago.
The Coaching Staff Is a Problem
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Despite Ruben Amaro already stating that Charlie Manuel will return in 2013, it is far past time the manager has been relieved of his duties.
Manuel has done a lot of good things during his time in Philadelphia. He is the winningest manager in team history, has guided them to five straight division titles and is the only man to take the team to multiple World Series.
However, he has made his fair share of mistakes, and was clearly out-managed by both Bruce Bochy and Tony LaRussa is his last two playoff series.
His absolute refusal to adapt—by either moving pop-up machine Jimmy Rollins out of the leadoff spot, or failing to pitch his ace(s) on short rest when everything is on the line (how different would the Phillies fortunes be had Manuel simply given the ball to Halladay in Game 4 last year, instead of setting up the epic duel with Chris Carpenter in game 5?)—should cost him his job.
When Manuel originally came here he was hailed as an offensive genius, yet has watched his club slowly deteriorate from an offensive juggernaut to one that struggles to score runs.
Why has he been unable to recognize, and correct, that the Phillies' biggest offensive issue is Strike One. All year long fans have been subjected to watching nearly every Phillies' batter stepping into the box and watching the first pitch—typically a down-the-middle fastball—whiz by for strike one. (Fan-favorite Chase Utley is the ultimate culprit, and has been his entire career).
More often than not it is the best pitch they see in the at-bat, yet hardly anyone ever swings at it. Is this their idea of becoming more patient? I don’t know, but it’s a practice that has led them to playing catchup—at the plate and in the standings—all season long.
Similar as to when Charlie Manuel was hired (despite an allegedly “exhaustive” search) the new manager’s identity is no secret. Ryne Sandberg, a former Phillies farmhand, has been groomed for the job since the day he was hired.
As a Hall of Fame player, Sandberg has more than earned his chance. Unless he receives a major league manager’s job this offseason, Sandberg will likely take a seat next to his future predecessor as the Phillies' bench coach in 2013, and then assume the role of manager either in 2014 or when Manuel is fired during the season.
It hasn’t always made sense, but it’s been a great ride, Charlie. However, it’s far past time for it to end. See you at the reunions.
Fix the Bullpen
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The Phillies have had a number of issues this season. The offense has been extremely inconsistent, the starters have failed to live up to their reputations, and the defense has not been what fans have come to expect in recent years.
However, the biggest issue that has plagued the team all year has been the atrocious bullpen. Other than Jonathan Papelbon—whose use has been perplexing, to say the least (another reason Manuel needs to go)—no one else in the bullpen has done much more than raise fan’s blood pressure.
After splurging on the closer last offseason, Amaro tried to patch together a unit and hope for the best. That cannot happen this year.
The Phillies can—and should—bring a number of young arms to spring training. The likes of Michael Stutes, Antonio Bastardo, Phillippe Aumont, Justin DeFratus and David Herndon (among others) should be given every opportunity to win jobs with the big-league club.
However, for a team with World Series aspirations and a payroll approaching (and probably exceeding) the luxury tax threshold, they absolutely must have proven, veteran arms in the bullpen—even if that means overpaying to get them.
The two best free agent relievers (not counting Mariano Rivera, who, if he does pitch in 2013 will only do so for the Yankees) are the Rangers’ Mike Adams and Ryan Madson (whose option in Cincinnati is unlikely to be picked up with the emergence of Aroldis Chapman).
The Phillies should make every effort to sign both of them to stabilize their bullpen. It would cost a significant amount of money—in the neighborhood of $20 million over three years for Adams, and another $7-9 million for Madson for 2013 alone (I doubt Madson would be willing to sign for multiple years unless it was as a closer, and despite the bad-blood between him and the team, Philadelphia may be the best place for him to prove his health and worth).
There are several other relievers on the market who should interest the Phillies, but only on incentive-laden contracts. Pitchers like Jonathan Broxton, J.J. Putz and even Jose Contreras should interest the Phillies if the price were right.
They could possibly end up with too many arms in their bullpen, but that’s a nice problem to have.
Add Some Offense
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The Phillies need more offensive weapons, that much is clear. The questions are what type of player do they need to add, and at what position.
With significant dollars already tied up throughout their infield, and the scarcity of available third basemen, any free agent dollars the Phillies spend will be on outfielders.
With John Mayberry Jr., Nate Schierholtz, Laynce Nix and Dominic Brown all expected back, none has a guaranteed spot in the starting lineup, and the Phillies could potentially open the 2013 with three new starting outfielders.
While fans can dream of Josh Hamilton patrolling Citizens Bank Park, overpaying for an over thirty, injury-prone outfielder, regardless of his talent level, is not the smartest use of money. The money and years it would take to bring Hamilton to Philadelphia would be bad business, and hurt the franchise going forward. (How many fans are thankful the Cubs outbid them for Alfonso Soriano several seasons ago?)
One name that has gotten a lot of traction lately is B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay’s super-talented center-fielder. His right-handed bat, immense offensive tools and strong defense would fit nicely in Philadelphia.
However, over than a few flashes, Upton has never lived up to the status of being the second pick in the country. And signing him would not be easy either. With a lot of clubs looking to the type of impact player Upton could be, he may be able to fetch $15 million per season on the open market. Heck, his agents could find a team willing to guarantee $126 million over 7 years, although Upton is probably a better long-term investment than Jayson Werth.
Former Phillie Michael Bourn is also a player worth considering. He has improved as a hitter in recent seasons, can steal bases with the best in baseball, and is arguably the game’s top defensive outfielder.
Bourn could potentially be the most attractive player on the market this offseason if it weren’t for a couple of issues: his agent is Scott Boras (which means the price will never be right) and the specific offensive tools he brings are not exactly what the Phillies are looking for (they already have enough players with low on-base percentages and far too many strikeouts).
If the Phillies decide to add a top-of-the-lineup type player, Angel Pagan is a likely target. Although he gets on base about the same amount as Bourn and isn’t as good defensively (still a good outfielder, Bourn just happens to be fantastic), Pagan is a switch-hitter, strikes out less and will command significantly less dollars.
Cody Ross would be an interesting pickup, but rumors are he’s likely to stay in Boston. Most of the remaining candidates on the free-agent market are either too old (Torii Hunter), too inconsistent (Rick Ankiel, Matt Diaz) or simply not worth the trouble (Delmon Young, Melky Cabrera).
Shuffle the Lineup
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Throughout the first half of the season Charlie Manuel adjusted his lineup on a near daily basis. However, he never changed from his “core” lineup.
Certain players hit in certain spots—Rollins hit first or third, Ruiz (until it became obvious he was the team’s best player) batted sixth, seventh or eighth, and Ty Wiggington, Shane Victorino and John Mayberry Jr. somehow comprised the middle of the order.
That has to change. Unless Jimmy Rollins somehow has an epiphany and suddenly learns what being a “leadoff hitter” means—getting on base, setting up the lineup, scoring runs, etc.—and not continually popping up or striking out while trying to hit home runs, he should never see the top of the lineup again. In fact I would be willing to let Rollins hit anywhere in the lineup besides first or fourth.
Chase Utley is also no longer a three-hole hitter, and arguably had his best seasons batting second anyway. Ryan Howard is an ideal candidate to hit third. Typically reserved for the team’s “best” hitter, some managers—like Tony LaRussa—used the three-hole for their biggest impact bat.
For years LaRussa hit Mark McGwire third, thereby forcing opposing pitchers to face him in the first inning; Manuel should do the same with Ryan Howard.
How the Phillies set their lineup in 2013 is obviously impacted by who is on the team, but no matter who they sign or trade for they cannot keep the status quo.
If the Phillies are able to pull off some minor changes and potentially major acquisitions, they stand a good chance to retake their place at the top of the National League East standings for years to come.