Now that the pages have turned and the book has closed on the Philadelphia Phillies' 2011 season, one that was supposed to lead them to a World Series title with their ace-studded rotation and dangerous offense, the only thing remaining between this season and the next for the Phils is the offseason.
While the offseason isn't necessarily the most interesting part of baseball to fans, it is arguably one of the most significant. Impending free agents are re-signed or move on to new teams, and players can sign mega contracts bigger than a lottery payday. The free agency process can bring out either the angels or demons within players, agencies, and teams alike.
In the case of the Phillies, they will have an offseason that could be more important than any in recent memory. For the last few years, the Phillies have made few moves, albeit surprising. In 2008, they signed outfielder Raul Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million contract. After the 2009 season, they traded deadline acquisition Cliff Lee in a series of moves that netted them eventual-NL Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay. And last season, they brought Lee back in a move that endeared both Lee himself and GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. in the hearts of Phillies fans.
Whether a free agent signing or a trade, whether at the trade deadline or in the offseason, the Phillies have made moves that they believe are necessary to make the team better. This season the Phils had a gap in right field; they filled it by acquiring Hunter Pence from the Astros. Four years before revolved around starting pitching; Kyle Lohse, Joe Blanton, Lee, and Roy Oswalt were acquired in the years that led the Phillies to division titles.
This offseason will be the same as those in the recent past, as the Phillies will be looking to fill the holes potentially left by impending free agents, specifically in left field, at shortstop, and in the bullpen, namely the closer's role, and also first base with Ryan Howard possibly being out for a good chunk of next season. How the Fightins handle their newest challenge is impossible to predict, but there are always possibilities as to who they could bring to the City of Brotherly Love.
But who could be on the Phillies' radar? Here are some possibilities.
Remember this guy? If you've been one of the Phillies faithful over at least the last ten years, you'll remember Jim Thome, the man who started the trend of signing in Philadelphia almost ten years ago.
It's been a while since then. In the time since Thome signed, we've traded him to bring up Ryan Howard, Thome's hit 600 home runs, and the Phillies have gone from rock bottom to a World Series title.
Earlier this season, Thome was placed on trade waivers and he said his team of choice would be the Phillies. The Phillies were in need of a left-handed power bat off the bench, which just happens to be exactly what Thome is.
This coming offseason, the Phillies have a handful of bench players off the books, including first baseman Ross Gload and catcher Brian Schneider. Gload, who was playing with an ailing hip labrum, and Schneider, who starts for the back-of-the-rotation starters, have been integral parts of the Phillies over the last two years since their signings. Gload was the most reliable lefty off the bench in 2010, while Schneider was a reliable fill-in for Carlos Ruiz when needed.
In the case of Gload, whether the Phillies choose to re-sign him or not is unclear. With Ryan Howard's ruptured Achilles, though, there is even more uncertainty as to who could play first for the team, and if there isn't another suitable replacement out there, Gload may stay. However, Thome could come back to Philly, whether just as a pinch hitter-type or as a backup first baseman. But in the event that a backup first baseman is needed, Russel Branyan, Jorge Cantu, Brad Hawpe, and Mark Kotsay could all be decent options. All can still hit to a degree and are fairly healthy. I'd go Cantu only because he's younger than the rest.
In terms of Schneider, he's really the go-to guy when Ruiz is hurt or has a day off. What's more is the chemistry he and rookie starter Vance Worley developed this past season, which alone may be reason for Schneider to return. If he doesn't, Ramon Hernandez could be a good option to backup Chooch at the backstop. He hit fairly well this season and if his trend continues, he'd be a fantastic backup to have next year.
Although Ryan Madson is the only impending free agent out of the bullpen for the Phillies right now, they did see a couple of cuts during the season. Southpaw reliever J.C. Romero was released by the team in late June, and in late July, righty reliever Danys Baez packed his bags. Even 2008 hero Brad Lidge could have to clean out his locker if the Phillies decline his club option for next season (which seems inevitable).
However, Madson is the most important of the bunch. He's the current closer for the Phils, following a slew of changes to the role. First Brad Lidge was supposed to have the role, then Jose Contreras took over, and then Madson. And since then, Madson's shined.
Re-signing Madson—easy, right? Not so fast. He's got an agent that Phillies fans despise, and agent who goes by the name of Scott Boras. Why the Phillies faithful don't like him is a story for another day, but he's an agent who's good at what he does—he finds the strengths in his clients and outlines them so much that teams give those clients huge contracts.
And it's not that Madson isn't worth the money. He's been extremely consistent and reliable throughout the season. But the Phillies aren't going to be overpaying him if they can sign someone else for cheap. Someone like Jonathan Papelbon, perhaps?
In a press conference yesterday, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro stated that if Madson should leave, he wants a veteran presence in the closer's role. Among the best (with Madson) in the top of the free agent market of closers are Papelbon, Heath Bell, and Francisco Rodriguez, also known as "K-Rod." Bell has stated that he wishes to remain in San Diego and will even sign for less because of it. As for K-Rod, his status is uncertain, but he probably won't be back in Milwaukee. And then there's Papelbon and Madson. With Madson likely wanting money, Papelbon has said that he'll sign for less and wants to go to a team that's contending to win a World Series. Is that not Philadelphia?
With Boston's slew of recent managerial changes (manager Terry Francona and possibly GM Theo Epstein), things are somewhat uncertain in Beantown. If Papelbon feels the same, we could see him in Phillies pinstripes next season.
Despite a minimal need for bullpen pitchers with the minor league depth the Phillies have, some potentialities for bullpen replacements could include Chad Qualls and Jon Rauch for righties, and Javier Lopez in the lefty department. All three would be considerably good targets to acquire along with Papelbon, and their additions could finally strengthen a Phillies bullpen that has lacked the final puzzle pieces it has needed for so long.
As was heavily publicized over the course of the season, the Phillies have one of the best starting rotations in the game today. With Roy Halladay, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, leading the way, lefty aces Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels follow, with right-handed ace Roy Oswalt and rookie Vance Worley rounding out the rotation.
This could change, though, as Roy Oswalt has a $16 million mutual option remaining on his contract, meaning that both Oswalt and the Phillies must agree to the terms of the option. If either side declines, then the option is annulled, and Oswalt is paid $2 million and becomes a free agent.
In the likely event that the Phillies decline Oswalt's option, they could do one of two things: let him walk via free agency, or re-sign him for a cheaper price. With Oswalt still one of the potentially premier pitchers available on the free agent market this season, he could still make decent money elsewhere, so in the event that he leaves, the Phillies will have a spot open in the rotation.
Although the Phillies have Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick available in case a rotation spot becomes vacant, let's assume for a second that the Phillies will sign a free-agent starting pitcher. In a relatively weak market, the starting pitcher free-agent class is headed by potential free-agent CC Sabathia assuming he opts out of his contract. After him is Texas Rangers staff ace C.J. Wilson, a converted reliever, and Mark Buerhle, a veteran pitcher who has spent his entire career with the Chicago White Sox. Behind these three southpaws is very little raw talent, although any pitcher could be worked with and improved.
So let's say for a second that Ruben Amaro realizes that he is unable to work out an extension with Cole Hamels and signs Wilson to a lucrative contract—say, five years, $80 million. Wilson would then take the vacant slot in the rotation and pitch as the fourth starter. In a rotation that would now be dominated by lefties, as it was in 2008 and 2009, Wilson would add depth in the spot that Oswalt would leave, in addition to youth and vitality.
Wilson's advantage is that he's only been a major league starting pitcher for two seasons, so he's got little wear on his arm and could last for quite some time. Signing him to a deal of sorts wouldn't be an extremely risky move, and if the Phillies found room in their payroll for him, Wilson could come to the Phillies and yet another surprising move. If the Phillies aim lower, then pitchers such as Chris Capuano, Bruce Chen, and Javier Vasquez could be attainable, although the Phillies would probably just stick to Blanton or Kendrick in such a situation.
Of all the outfield positions available on the free agent market this coming offseason, left field has by far the biggest selection, but the depth available is slim. Although names such as Ryan Ludwick, Josh Willingham, and Juan Pierre are available, they aren't sure bets by any measure, and any team looking for outside help in left field will have to look closely at every available option.
The Phillies could be one team in the hunt for a free-agent left fielder. While they do have John Mayberry, Jr., Domonic Brown, and Ben Francisco available to play left field, Amaro said in his press conference that he'd like to see Brown play a full season in Triple-A and that Mayberry might be used at first base due to Howard's injury. Francisco is also a potential non-tender candidate.
Now that Raul Ibanez's three-year, $31.5 million contract is up, he'll be a free agent at age 40. He could retire or try to sign a deal, probably with an American League team as a DH since he doesn't field nearly as well as he did when he was younger. With his departure, the Phillies will need to look for a replacement left fielder, and Ibanez's time as a Phillie has probably come to an end.
Let's assume that all three options above occur: Brown plays the season out at Lehigh Valley, Mayberry plays first base, and Francisco isn't a Phillie next season. Who would the Phillies play in left field?
An option is veteran Johnny Damon. Damon, who will be 37 at the start of next season, isn't the youngest player available by far, but he's shown that he can still put up offense by hitting 16 homers, driving in 73 runs and batting .261 this season. He's aged and isn't nearly as good as he was in his prime, but he's not a bad option out there and could come for a pretty penny. While his track record could net him some more cash, he could come to a contender for less if his heart desired.
Damon is not the best option available on the market, but he could be one of the most well-rounded should the Phils look for outside help at the corner outfield position. He's got a good idea of what to do, both offensively and in the field, and any contribution from him could be beneficial to the Phillies. Left field will surely be an interesting case for the Fightins.
Arguably the Phillies' highest priority this offseason is their vacancy at shortstop. With their longest-tenured player Jimmy Rollins becoming a free agent, the Phillies will have to assess the options available at the middle infield position.
Rollins, who is hitting free agency for the first time in his 11-year career, has won an MVP award and three Gold Gloves as well. However, his offensive production has decreased every year since his MVP season in 2007. His defense is still unparalleled by most, and is the best of the available shortstops.
What the Phillies must look at, though, is his offensive production. Since it's gone downhill the last few seasons, whether due to injury or just lack of hitting (or both), it's an issue that needs to be addressed. With Ryan Howard, the Phillies' most primary power hitter, now out for a good portion of next season, the Phillies will have to see whether they view offense or defense as a priority. With the rest of the lineup getting older as well (notably fellow infielders Chase Utley and Placido Polanco), the offense has decreased, and although defense has remained superb, offense is what drives in runs and wins games.
The best offense-producing shortstop available via free agency this year is Jose Reyes of the New York Mets. While he doesn't possess the same team spirit and leadership that Rollins does, nor does he possess as consistent a defensive ability, he won the NL batting title this past season, hitting .337. Like Rollins, he's fast and steals a good number of bases each season, and he can hit doubles and triples like there's no tomorrow.
Also like Rollins is his injury tendency. Reyes is younger than Rollins, 29 to Rollins' 33, both have had a recent injury history. Rollins missed a significant part of the 2010 season with a calf injury, and he also missed a few weeks this season because of a groin strain. Reyes had a hamstring problem this season as well that caused him to miss some playing time.
The Phillies must prioritize whether offense or defense matters most. With Utley and Polanco manning the infield along with Victorino and Pence in the outfield and Chooch at catcher, defense seems okay, but with Howard down and the offense declining, Reyes might be the best option to bring the hitting back up. Regardless of whether Rollins chooses to leave or the Phillies think he is asking for too much, Reyes could be the better option for the team now. Keeping Rollins is a priority, but if it doesn't work out, Reyes wouldn't be a terrible option either.
Is this the future face of the manager for the Phillies?
This is Ryne Sandberg, the Phillies' Triple-A manager this past season. Sandberg, who was part of one of the worst trades of all-time for the Phillies (he is a Hall of Famer, and his return lasted only two or three more seasons in Ivan DeJesus), took the IronPigs to their first-ever postseason appearance, and they made it all the way to the semifinals under Sandberg.
When the Chicago Cubs, the team Sandberg played for during his career and hoped to manage, chose Mike Quade as their skipper last season, Sandberg took the reigns for the Phils' Triple-A team (no, not the Astros) and exceeded expectations with the little talent he was given. Imagine what he could do with the Phillies lineup.
A friend of mine brought up to me the other day that he'd like Charlie Manuel out as the Phillies' skipper. While I don't necessarily agree with him, I think it's worth exploring his point. I do agree with him that Sandberg would be a good Phils manager, but with Manuel locked up for another two years, he's only going to be ousted if he's fired or retires, both of which are unlikely since he won us a World Series and he signed his extension, implying he intends on managing for a little while more.
Sandberg, on the other hand, will most likely want to manage a major league team, and if he gets any opportunity, he'll likely jump on it. We've already seen Double-A Reading Phillies manager Mark Parent leave for the Chicago White Sox as their new bench coach, and Sandberg could be next.
I don't see Manuel's job becoming available any time soon, but in the event that it does, Sandberg, along with a few other candidates, could become the Phils' new skipper. Terry Francona heads the pack of available managerial candidates, but given his history as the Phils' former manager, he probably won't be coming back to Philly any time soon.
Who would come to Philly to take the place of Charlie Manuel behind Sandberg is uncertain, so it's difficult to speculate as to who could given that Manuel's job is secure. But it's fun thinking about, isn't it? Should Manuel leave the team, his replacement would be the most interesting endeavor of all.