The Philadelphia Phillies decision not to sign any players to long-term free agent deals this offseason shows that the team is relying on its current core to bounce back and have a healthy 2013 season.
The Phillies could’ve offered more money for B.J. Upton, offered Kevin Youkilis a multi-year deal or waited around for Michael Bourn’s decision. Instead, the Phils turned to either younger players, or players who could be acquired on short-term deals, in order to give themselves flexibility going forward.
Regardless of whom the team acquires this offseason, their best chances for improving are contingent on players such as Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay coming back strong from injuries and having seasons closer to their career norms.
Of course, that’s a big gamble to take.
Having these three players healthy could go a long way in determining next season’s level of success, but what about future seasons? The Phillies are currently set to enter next season with Halladay, Utley, Carlos Ruiz and even manager Charlie Manuel in the last years of their respective contracts.
Combine the expiring contracts with the health status of current players, and the job of general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. over the next few seasons will be far from easy.
Here are five bold predictions for the Phillies over the next three years as they work through various options while trying to keep a perennial contender on the field.
Darin Ruf has yet to play consistently above the Double-A level. But the 41 home runs he hit this past season were enough for the Phillies, as of now, to leave left field open heading into spring training.
In a whirlwind of a season, Ruf went from having never played above Single-A to finishing the year in the major leagues. Combined between Double-A and the major leagues, he managed to bat .325 in 151 games.
Ruf also spent part of this offseason playing in the Venezuelan League, where he hit 10 more home runs.
The former first baseman turned left fielder batted .317 with 38 home runs and 104 RBI in Double-A action, and added three more home runs and 10 RBI in 12 games with the Phillies in September.
Judging by his power numbers and the fact that he bats right handed, Ruf fits the mold for the kind of player that the Phillies are in need of this offseason.
However, Ruf also did not make his major league debut until the age of 26, and has played a grand total of 46 innings in left field at the major league level.
That hasn’t stopped the Phillies from possibly including him in the starting lineup next season. As Corey Seidman on CSNPhilly.com recently wrote, Amaro has said that the Phils could use a double platoon at the corner outfield spots.
If that’s the case, Ruf will receive regular playing time in left field, and would only have to beat out the likes of Domonic Brown and John Mayberry, Jr. to potentially start everyday at the position.
If Ruf plays every day and hits even half the number of home runs he did this season while keeping his batting average at or above the .280 mark, he’ll turn out to be the Phillies best new power addition to their lineup.
And win the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year award in the process.
Chase Utley has missed 121 games during the past two seasons, causing his batting averages in that span to dip below the .266 mark for the first time in his career.
However, in 2011, his 4.0 WAR value was the second best in the National League among second baseman with at least 400 plate appearances, according to fangraphs.com. This season, his 3.2 WAR value still ranked sixth among NL second basemen with at least 300 plate appearances, also according to fangraphs.com.
Utley recently turned 34 years old, and is entering the last year of a seven-year, $85 million extension he signed in 2007.
The Phillies infield has gotten older instead of younger this offseason but, if healthy, can still be one of the best in the NL. However, it’s Utley whose contract is winding down and who will cause the Phils to make a decision.
Freddy Galvis filled in well defensively at second base, but his offense must continue to progress, as he batted just .226 to start this season. Would the Phillies rather go with Galvis or Cesar Hernandez, sign Ben Zobrist or shatter the bank for Robinson Cano next offseason rather than re-sign a healthy Utley?
If Utley is healthy on Opening Day and can remain in the lineup throughout the season, he’ll make it difficult for the Phils to look anywhere else for a second baseman.
Chances are high that the Phillies will also have one of the best offensive second baseman in the NL in that scenario.
If Utley comes close to matching the .299 batting average that he had in September, not only will he be re-signed (on a much shorter and cheaper deal than his last seven-year, $85 million extension), but he’ll also be a top-5 offensive second baseman in the National League for the next few years.
The Phillies had the tenth best bullpen ERA in the National League this season.
Among relievers other than Jonathan Papelbon who appeared in at least 15 games, only Jeremy Horst and Raul Valdes had ERAs under 3.60.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the average age of the relievers likely to be competing for bullpen spots besides Papelbon is 27.
Pitchers such as Phillippe Aumont, Jake Diekman, Horst, Antonio Bastardo, Justin De Fratus, Michael Stutes and Valdes are set to compete to fill out a bullpen that will feature Papelbon and Mike Adams who, according to Todd Zolecki on the Phillies’ website, recently agreed to a deal with the Phils.
The Phillies bullpen made it difficult to feel secure with any league this past season. While Papelbon racked up 38 saves, it was handing a lead off to him in the ninth inning that was a challenge all season.
As Matt Gelb on philly.com wrote in a recent article:
The Phillies craved stability in the eighth inning. They lost 12 games, the most in the majors, when holding a lead entering the eighth inning.
If Adams’ deal becomes official, the Phils will have two veterans in the back end of their bullpen, meaning that young relievers won’t have to pitch in situations as high pressured as they did this past season.
Meanwhile, the Phils bullpen actually finished the season strong, with Papelbon, B.J. Rosenberg, Bastardo, Horst and Diekman all having September ERAs under 2.00.
With more time to grow and acclimate to the big league level, the Phils young relievers will have a chance to improve next season and move up the league rankings.
At some point in the next three years, they’ll have the lowest bullpen ERA in the major leagues.
The Phillies have done something that has become rare in recent offseasons by deciding not to spend big on free agents.
Heading into the offseason, Amaro had to fill at least two holes in the outfield, a hole at third base and a hole in the bullpen. By trading Vance Worley to the Minnesota Twins, Amaro created another hole in the starting rotation.
Not only has Amaro filled nearly all of these needs, but he’s done it while keeping the payroll below the $178 million luxury tax threshold.
After this season, however, the luxury tax threshold will increase to $189 million. But after 2015, well, $189 million could look like pocket change.
According to Jon Heyman on twitter:
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) November 25, 2012
The Phillies current television deal runs out after the 2015 season, but starting a new sellout streak and improving on this past season’s television ratings wouldn’t hurt in the meantime.
To do so, the Phillies should maximize their strengths. Payroll has few limitations besides the luxury tax threshold, meaning that the Phils payroll can always be among the highest in the league. Prospects, on the other hand, continue to dwindle.
With the Miami Marlins and the New York Mets acquiring more minor league talent this offseason and the Atlanta Braves continuing to have a strong minor league system, it makes sense for the Phils to spend rather than trade prospects.
Next offseason will give them the opportunity.
Batters such as Mike Morse, Martin Prado, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz and Corey Hart are all currently set to become free agents. As for pitchers, Matt Garza, Dan Haren, Josh Johnson, Jon Lester, Tim Lincecum, James Shields and Adam Wainwright are all either set to become free agents, or could hit free agency through options being declined or bought out.
This offseason, few free agents were available that could improve the team independent of the status of Utley, Howard and Halladay. Next offseason appears to be a different story.
Even if it means negotiating with Scott Boras, the Phillies will make a big splash on the free agent market next offseason.
Manager Charlie Manuel is entering the final year of his contract, and newly promoted third base coach and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg could be a candidate for one day replacing him.
If a change happens after next season, it will be after Sandberg racked up over 430 wins in six minor league seasons as a manager, and spent another season as a coach in the major leagues.
In an article by Jerry Crasnick on ESPN.com, Manuel was complimentary of Sandberg and his major league managing prospects:
When I first met him, I liked everything about him, Manuel says. I love talking hitting with him, and I like talking the game. He kind of revs me up.
He’s going to manage in the big leagues without a doubt, because he’s that good. He puts in the time and the work. In some ways, he’s quiet. But he’ll get what he wants, because he’s that good.
Ideally, the Phillies will have a 2013 season that far more resembles 2011 than 2012. If that’s the case, Manuel and the Phillies will have a decision to make.
But if Sandberg does end up replacing Manuel, he’ll be taking over at an interesting time.
The Phillies core is continuing to age, but younger players are also emerging as options. Cole Hamels is signed long term, and players such as Ben Revere, Freddy Galvis, Darin Ruf, Tyler Cloyd and Domonic Brown provide at least some optimism. Minor leaguers such as Cody Asche, Jonathan Pettibone, Tommy Joseph and Ethan Martin do as well.
Sandberg would be taking the reins during an interesting time in which an infusion of cash and young players could be combining with an aging core looking for another title shot, even after next season.
If it comes together just right, having a Hall of Famer take over for a World Series winning manager wouldn’t be the worst managerial change.
So, why not? If he ends up taking over as manager, Sandberg will lead the Phillies back to the World Series with the blessing of the franchise’s winningest manager.