The Philadelphia Phillies are going to have to continue their free-spending ways of recent years if they are to have any chance to climb back into contention in the National League Eastern Division.
It is difficult to believe how a team that already has over $110 million committed to six players could have so many holes in its roster.
Actually, you can read that sentence the other way just as easily—of course a team with over $110 million committed to six players has a ton of holes in the roster.
Unless the Phillies' target payroll is over $300 million (it's not), then the unavoidable consequence of paying diminishing players like Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon and, to a lesser extent, Chase Utley eight-figure contracts is the need to fill other roster spots on the cheap.
That is how you end up with Cody Asche rushed to the Majors to play third base and stuck with perpetually underachieving John Mayberry Jr. in the outfield too often. They may struggle, but they will do so without further straining an already creaky Phillies budget.
The trouble with this strategy, of course, is that when Howard misses half a season, Cole Hamels loses twice as often as he wins and Jimmy Rollins starts to decline rapidly, there is no one on the roster capable of making up for their meager production.
Quick aside: legitimate kudos to Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. for resisting the temptation to overspend on two of last winter's biggest free agent busts.
The Washington Nationals spent $13 million in 2013 to watch Dan Haren win only 10 games with an earned run average closer to five than four.
Compared to B.J. Upton, though, Haren looks like a fantastic signing.
A .184 batting average, the second-lowest average in the entire sport among players with at least 400 plate appearances (beating out only his own teammate, that .181-hitting Dan Uggla) … a .289 slugging percentage...0 for the entire season (0-for-28, 18 strikeouts) with runners on third base …hitting .157/.227/.222 against left-handed pitching … a mind-boggling .108 batting average (10-for-93, with 42 strikeouts) with runners in scoring position.
Can you even imagine what the calls for Amaro's head would sound like if the Phillies' current center fielder was Upton instead of Ben Revere?
The Phillies' biggest roster hole, unfortunately, is at first base. With Howard set to receive another $25 million in 2014, expect the Phillies to fake it until they make it with a platoon of Howard and inexpensive labor Darin Ruf at that power position.
The biggest name on the free-agent market is Robinson Cano. Do not count on Cano ending up in Philadelphia, as he Buster Olney reported that he's looking for a massive contract.
It probably does not matter anyway, since the Phillies re-signed Utley to hold down second base for two more seasons.
The Phillies can probably survive another season with Asche, Rollins, Utley and Howard/Ruf in the infield. They will not survive another season with Mayberry Jr. and Ruf figuring prominently in the outfield.
All three of them have injury issues (and Cruz has that PED question hanging over him), but the Phillies might need to chance it with one of them given their abject need for an offensive boost.
In the starting rotation, the Phillies have two aces and three lesser cards.
Hamels and Cliff Lee would lead 90 percent of the rotations in Major League Baseball. As the Phillies proved in 2013, though, those two cannot do anything about what happens on the days they do not pitch.
The Phillies will have to do a lot better than what the possible end of Roy Halladay's career offered in 2013 as a third starter.
Matt Garza has been linked to the Phillies in the past, but I do not see Amaro, Jr. taking a chance on Garza missing more time with injury while banking tens of millions of the Phillies' free agent dollars.
My vote here continues to be for Ervin Santana. His performance in Kansas City this season suggests that he has rediscovered the form that made him so dominant in Anaheim a few years back.
The Phillies should also look to bring in one of the myriad former closers on the market for relatively short money on a one- or two-year deal and try to get lucky.
If the Phillies conclude the winter with one more legitimate outfielder and one more credible starting pitcher, they should be better than they were in 2013.
Then again, it would be hard to get too much worse.
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