The Phillies Look to Run…Fast

On June 3rd the Phillies signed outfielder and serious speedster Willy Taveras to a Minor League deal. He will report to the team’s Triple-A squad. However, it would be a big surprise if Taveras lasts a month in Lehigh Valley. The reasons include but are not limited to right fielder Jermaine Mayberry hitting .286 and the Leftfield spot belonging to top prospect Dominic Brown. Taveras will be on the big league team sooner rather than later because simply put, he can produce. In the five full seasons Taveras has played he’s averaged nearly 39 steals a season (including 68 in 2008) and has a lifetime average of .274. Even in his last two seasons, during which his batting slumped he racked up more than 90 steals. His speed, and defense will surely help the Phillies, especially in Leftfield where Raul Ibanez can be a liability.

Also interesting to note are the ramifications for the current Phillies’ roster. To date the Phillies have used Ben Francisco and Ross Gload as outfield substitutes. With the arrival of Taveras, it should be expected that he will become the number one defensive replacement. And as Greg Dobbs continues his two-year hitting slump and Ben Francisco shows no improvement at the plate, Taveras will have the opportunity to become the primary pinch-hitter.

Long-term could this mean the Phillies are preparing to move or jettison Raul Ibanez? I’d say no, but the Taveras signing could be one of those wait, see, and hope for the best scenarios. Raul’s settled pretty nicely into a .240-.250 batting average, which certainly pleases the organization as he hit below .220 through May  1, but his defense will continue to be average and it seems clear that he will not hit like the Raul Ibanez we saw in the Spring of 2009. If the Phillies really are intent on re-signing Jayson Werth,  and all reports say they are, Raul Ibanez and his $11-million salary may have to go. Willy Taveras is seven years younger than Ibanez a plus defensively and on the base-paths so if he can hit like his career numbers dictate don’t be surprised is Ibanez becomes expendable.

 

Endnotes

- Insta-Bond: In one of the most rare of occurrences, pitcher Armando Galarraga one out from a perfect game became the victim of one of the most typical occurrences in a baseball game; a bad call by umpire Jim Joyce. Bad calls happen every game.  But in the mire of the events we got to see how two real men act facing adversity. When the call was made, Galarraga’s teammates argued, as did his manager Jim Leyland. Galarraga simply smiled; not a smirk, or sneer just an understanding smile as if to say, “quis ero, ero [what will be, will be].” Then in true Man fashion he walked back to the mound and got the next guy out, completing his game, his shutout, and his path to the Hall of Fame. It was class personified. A strange dynamic will now play out between umpire and pitcher. They will be linked forever in history, and I expect at some point, maybe not this year, maybe not next year, Jim Joyce will call a Galarraga game. We should watch it closely as Jim Joyce knows he owes Armando ‘man of the year’ Galarraga some serious love.

More Matter for a May Mourning

The weather in the northeast has been unseasonably warm this spring. It was 13 degrees above the average today (nothing new), and the Phillies look to be feeling the heat (something new). Since the beginning of May the team has gone from ‘the best’ to ‘the rest’ and their seemingly insurmountable lead in National League East is gone. Beginning May 16th the team’s three wins in the last 11 games has the Philly faithful fretting. (Well they’re fretting quietly while the Flyers continue their inspired playoff run)

 

But, is it as all as bad as it appears? The simple answer is yes.  It looks as if like we’ve been sending ghosts to the plate right? Since the Phillies’ ship capsized against the Pirates on May 16, the team has failed to score more than two runs in 8 of 11 games. Even in Roy Halladay’s fantastic perfect game (the 2nd in the franchise’s 127 years), the Phillies’ lone run was scored on a Cameron Maybin fielding error.

 

A lot of people (and I mean a lot of people) point towards Jimmy Rollin’s absence at the top our lineup.  Rollins is a sparkplug and an absolute necessity if this team hopes to win in October, but the fact is J-roll has played only 2 weeks all season. After an injury in the first week of April, Rollins came back on May 12th. That same day he started a five day run, during which his average dropped 50 points he had one walk and zero stolen bases. Where his fielding is missed Wilson Valdez and Juan Castro have filled in adequately. Neither has made the costly errors that we could point to and say, “well Jimmy would’ve made that play.”

 

Looking elsewhere it’s clear our offense is in a rut. Both Chase Utley and Jayson Werth are the most obvious victims of our recent toils. Chase’s average has dropped 17 points, his OPS 108 points. He’s walked 6 fewer times and watched his On base percentage drop 45 points. At .277 he is hitting at his lowest clip since 2004. His at-bats recently have looked putrid. Chase Utley is the most professional hitter on this team, and it is certianly disconcerting watching him flail away at the plate.

 

The Jayson Werth, who reports say is in contract talks with the Phillies, has had the most precipitous fallout. Since hitting .325 at the beginning of the month his average has dropped 30 points (more than 50 since mid-May) and his OBP fallen 48 points. He shaved his bear last week but it did little to stop him from walking five fewer and striking out nine more times than April, including a lovely 4k showing in Florida. For the Phillies’ front office and their pending contract talks, this month has been good, but for the team and its fans, not so much.

 

However, in baseball rarely do two players’ troubles cost a team so greatly. In many ways the rest of the lineup has compensated for Werth and Utley’s struggles. The Valdez/Castro combo hit a steady .250. Shane Victorino hit 32 points better in May than April, while Raul Ibanez and Carlos Ruiz have both added 26 points to their averages.

 

Ryan Howard has been steady if not better than ever. He’s hit .280 thus far and increased his average six points in May. For the month overall he improved his OPS and on base percentage. He struck out 6 more times this month last but also drew six more walks. Still, there is no denying the apparent woes of the Phillies and their 3-9 record the last half of the month is proof of something.

 

Call it a rut, a slump, swoon or funk something is happening or not happening. While the Phillies fans have been faithfully holding their prayer beads and chanting the mantra “It’s a 162 game season – It’s a 162…”, the talk radio stations, water cooler conversations, blogospheres, and social networks, rumble with discontent. The team is in a funk and there is no single person to blame. But, and I say this as much for myself as all Phillies’ fans, we should be very far from losing hope. This same team that closed out May with a skid still went 16-12 for the month, a win better than April with the same number of losses and almost matching ’08 and ’09 when the Phillies went 17-12.  If that isn’t enough, the Phillies’ pitching staff has allowed more than 30 fewer runs this year than the previous two, meaning not if, but when the bats come back the league had better take notice. One thing that can be said about this Phillies team is that it never gives up and has faced significantly greater obstacles. With recent history as our guide, let’s just hope that June represents a quick change in fortune for the Phils and the expected second half fall-offs for rest of the NL East.

 

184 Million Reasons to Sign Ryan Howard Now!

As Ryan Howard continues his Ruth-like assault on Major League record books there must be serious trepidation in the front office about what the 2011 off-season will be like for the Philadelphia Phillies. Most experts on the subject believe the conversations have already begun and of course weighed in with their opinions. Should Jayson Werth get the big bucks? Should the team allow him to test the market, insuring to an extent the front office’s ability to re-sign the best homerun hitter in the league?

Over the weekend the Twins added to this pressure signing stud catcher Joe Mauer to an eight year, $184 million dollar contract. In fact the Twins put pressure on the league when they eschewed the notion that Mauer was destined for the Big Apple, Boston, or another major market team. And what should give the Phillies consternation is not the number of years or the total amount but the staggering $23 million per year salary. Howard is in the second year of a contract that pays him $18 million and will certainly be looking for an annual salary in excess of $23 million.

I personally don’t know what the Phillies are waiting for. In fact for the past four years I’ve wondered what they were waiting for. The Phillies like to play the arbitration game, and a look at the recent success and ability to retain players would say that they play the game well. However, as the team’s profile grows so do players’ and unfortunately arbitration is no longer an option and the Phillies are at the mercy of the market.

The Phillies should not for a second question whether or not they need Ryan Howard. They absolutely need him. He’s not an excellent fielder and he strikes out more than… well let’s just say he strikes out a lot; but Howardhas demonstrated through improved conditioning and performance that he is willing to do what it takes to be the best. Over the past three seasons Howard has hit .301 with a 1.003 OPS and averages approximately 20 Hr and 60RBI’s in August and September.  In the past three years Howard has Homerun, RBI and Slugging totals matched by only one man in history. He is named Babe or George Herman something.

Frankly the Phillies don’t have a budget that compares to the Yanks and Sox or even the Dodgers so financially there are constraints. But the biggest problem the Phillies face is that for every player who signs a big deal (Mark Teixeira, Matt Holliday, Mauer, Jason Bay, and soon Albert Pujols) the pressure as well as the financial commitment grows.  The Phillies should consider two things;

1)      Never negotiate when the market absolutely determines the parameters (i.e. It’s always better to negotiate before a contract expires)

2)      They absolutely need Ryan Howard for reasons not limited to his on-field performance

I despise writers or bloggers who pose problems without solutions so here are a few I can think of…

Raul Ibanez (signed a 3-year $36 million contract in ’09) will be a free agent the same year as Howard. The Phillies should consider signing Howard to an extension NOW before the economic climate changes and inflation (well inflates). They should also consider signing Jayson Werth to a short extension (3-5 years) and just suck it up and commit to the money they’d be spending on both Ibanez and Werth in 2011 and then simply allow Raul to walk.

Or

Take the deferred money route. Did you know Bobby Bonilla will make $1.2 million a year from the Mets through the mid 2029? Matt Holliday’s new deal insures a paycheck from the Card’s ’til he’s 72 years-old. It’s not popular or often used but it can be effective and in the situation of Ryan Howard, who wants to be here, may be very feasible.

 

Endnotes:

-Unbe-Lee-vable:  If there was ever an in-auspicious start to a season Cliff Lee is in the thick of it. He entered Spring Training with a boot on his broken foot, was suspended for five games for (allegedly) throwing at a player’s head. Now it is reported that Lee has a moderate-to-serious abdominal strain.  I can’t jeer Cliff Lee after all he did for the Phillies last season, but every day Ruben Amaro looks smarter and smarter for shipping Lee out West.

Re-alignment – Schmi-alignment.

Professional baseball has few problems. That of course, is a subjective statement. Compared to the NFL, NBA, and the NHL who are each facing major crisis; the most MLB can complain about is sluggish attendance in a slow economy — Except for the Phillies!

Ken Rosenthal however, believes that baseball is facing a major crisis in the form of ‘disparity’. Well to be fair he doesn’t say it’s a huge problem. He seems to only suggest that most owners will agree that baseball could achieve better competitive balance by realigning its divisions. I respect and always read Rosenthal’s work (on FOX and MLB) but I disagree entirely.

But Rosenthal does seem to suggest that, because teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the playoffs over the past decade and half, realignment of the baseball leagues is necessary. It’s drastic and detailed (Realignment Map). But I question not only necessity but the efficacy of such a move.

How does splitting up the Red Sox and Yankees? The dominant teams win because they have better players. The Orioles, Blue Jays and Rays will not necessarily have a better shot of making the playoffs by removing the Sox. And do we really want a division in baseball consisting of the D-backs, Padres, Rockies, Astros, and Rangers? Why should one of those teams get an automatic bid to the playoffs? No disrespect to any teams. The D-backs and Padres don’t make the playoffs for reasons other than simply playing in a division with the Dodgers and Giants.

And what about the rivalries? Splitting up the Sox/Yanks or Phillies/Mets means we get more Blue Jays/Phillies and Yankees/Nats. Bring it on! Take away the 15 games that make up part of a 120 year-old rivalry. And financially do the Mets and Yankees really want to split television ratings 15 games a year? I admit a north and south side rivalry in Chicago is intriguing, but that’s what Interleague Play is for. 

If you wanted to create parity in the league, look no further than the NFL. A salary floor and a salary cap are the answer. I’m not necessarily in favor of either – the Phillies are looking for third straight NL Pennant. I have no qualms with baseball; however, a salary cap would tether the over-spenders. 

A $180 million dollar salary cap would help in keep the Yankees from dropping $20 million dollar salaries on any player with a .300 average or 15 win season. A cap might stop the Red Sox from paying $50 million dollars for the privilege of negotiating with a pitcher (How’s Dice-K turning out anyway? Worth $50mil?).

Look, I don’t suggest the Yankees are the only ones at fault. Just as much as they ‘make it rain’ on the league every winter; teams like the Pirates, Marlins, and Royals have a responsibility to field quality teams. The owners in those respective cities consistently pocket hundreds of millions of dollars by keeping a payroll beneath $50-60 million. The Marlins consistently grow blue chip talent (Miguel Cabrera, Josh Beckett) only to sell it for new seeds. The K.C. Royals could have had a roster with Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Johnny Damon in addition to young talents like Alex Gonzalez and Josh Greinke. A salary floor at say $100 million would make sure that these teams don’t sell the farm, and therefore be obligated offer big free agents contracts or re-sign burgeoning players.

Some might say a free market and player loyalty is the problem. Loyalty is not the issue; Derek Jeter has been on the Yankees for half my lifetime. Money isn’t the issue. Did you know the Pirates consistently rank among the top teams in revenue? Did you know the Yankees consistently rank nowhere near the top?

 MLB shared revenue dishes $450 and million to each team, so not being able to turn a profit is nearly impossible. I believe Michael Scott had the same issue with a budget surplus.  The Yankees take that surplus (shared revenue) and buy fur coats, while the Pirates buy a used down coat at the local Farmer’s Market. So who is to blame when the guys with fur coats look better than the Farmer’s Market coat?

Remember I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with MLB’s current structure. I enjoy seeing whether or not the big spenders get their money’s worth. I enjoy seeing underdogs like the Rays make a Cinderella like run. And I enjoy the way the Phillies have dominated the NL East the past few years, but if Ken Rosenthal thinks simple realignment will solve the issue of competitive balance or lack thereof he is wrong.

 

Examining the Phillies Bullpen

As pitchers and catchers amp it up in Florida, I’m pondering long and hard as to the grade I’d give the Phillies pitching staff. Every good team has a strong pitching staff. I like the rotation even the shakiness at 5-spot. There are lots of questions about the end of our rotation but plenty of potential answers. I’d love our pitching prospects if our bullpen didn’t wasn’t such a huge question mark.

The top of the rotation looks solid. In fact aside from the questions at the five spot the starters seem pretty set. Considering JA Happ, a ROY runner-up, is your four-man the Phil’s must be pleased. The five spot is a question. Is it Jaime Moyer, Kyle Kendrick, or a dark horse who will take that permanent role? Is it possible Pedro Martinez might be on speed dial? Could one of these young farm system studs be the answer?   Those are the questions; here is the answer. Regardless of the our starting rotation, to give it a solid base, we need to strengthen the pen.

The Phillies lost easily their best reliever in Chan Ho Park, who I’ll talk in a little more detail about later. Scott Ayre is somewhere between Route 66 and Highway 61, I imagine with a set of longhorns on the front of his RV. Park was their best reliever but Mr. Ayre was without a doubt our most important. Being the sole reliable lefty his performance was always immensely important.

So where are the Phillies now? Resting our hopes on the return of the mercurial J.C. Romero and young unproven arms like Yohan Flande, Sergio Escalona, and Mike Zagurski. If concern or doubt isn’t creeping into your mind, I want a sip of your Kool-Aid.

As far as right-handed relievers go the Phillies seem set. Chad Durbin, Jose Contreras, Lidge, and Madson provide plenty of depth as well as firewalls. But in baseball the left-handed reliever is as important as shut down corner in football, the three-point specialist in basketball, or an NHL goon. The season is around the corner, but the pitching market remains surprisingly deep. I won’t go into every available free agent pitcher, but I’ll name a player who is should be on the short list of as the best LH reliever pitcher.

SEE: Joe Beimel– A 6’3, 33 year-old lefty who’s spent the last 3 seasons as the lefty specialist in Los Angeles before being traded to Washington and Colorado

SEE: Joe’s stats over the past 3 years– 3.48 Era, 1.5 strikeouts for every walk and a very impressive 1.336WHIP.

Beimel has been a Philly killer. Consider Chase Utley, easily the most professional hitter in the lineup is a career .167 hitter in 15 plate appearances against Beimel. Most important he hasn’t made more than $2 million dollars in a season. With opening day less than 40 days away, he can’t hold out hopes of getting his ideal contract.

The Phillies aren’t a team with a lot of glaring needs but losing Scotta Ayre will prove to be a bigger snag in the quest for a third straight NL crown than most think.  Beimel may not be THE man but the Phillies can’t do much worse in suring up their pen.

 

Endnotes:

-       Chan Ho Park: Is anyone as disappointed in the way Park’s offseason ended as I am? He wanted to be a starter. Offered $3.25 million by the Phillies to be a reliever, Park turned it down. Three months later he signed with the Yankees for $1.2 million, to be a reliever. My mind still can’t wrap itself around this one.

- Salvation in Theory: Much was made of Cole Hamels sudden and drastic fall from dominance. He was clearly a different pitcher in 2009 compared to his MVP effort in ’08. We hope with hard work and dedication he’ll back to form for 2010; however, writer Tom Verducci says it may have less to do with his work ethic and more to do with science. “The Verducci Effect” sites a drastic drop in performance for pitchers who increase their innings pitched by 30 innings from one year to the next. In this case we’d examine Cole’s ’07 year (183.1IP) and ’08 (227.1) as well as the 27 postseason innings he threw. Check this out (http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2010/02/verducci_effect.php). Perhaps this can explain 2009 and help us rest a little easier in 2010. 

This Winter’s NL Winners and The Building of A Dynasty

First Phillies fans should applaud the work of their front office. They can go back a little over a decade with the drafting of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins. Look at the incredible free agent signings and rule 5′ers such as Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, etc. But most of those moves were conducting by either Ed Wade or Pat Gillick. The two were quite good at evaluating young talent and realizing (in physics talk) the potential energy of under the radar players.

Ruben Amaro has the most difficult job of any of the recent ‘Fightin’s’ general managers. He is bestowed with a good to great team, with young talent. Now his job is to make sure it maintains if not continues it’s meteoric rise. It’s easy to be good when little is expected of you (Ed Wade). It even easier to be good when following an act that was chased out of town (Pat Gillick). The hardest thing to do is sustain success while comparisons to your predecessors are always close at hand.

The Phillies will enter 2010 the odds on favorite to retain the National Crown. The Phillies unlike the Dodgers or Mets have not been hampered by domestic drama as in LA or financial, health, and the normal city drama that surrounds the Mets.

Most figured the Mets to make some moves. As of posting this I am aware of two moves and both players are expected to miss extended time with injury. The Dodgers have been a little more active this off-season but if Frank McCourt had to do a book report on “How I Spent My Winter Vacation”, it would read as such; Chaptor 1…Randy Wolf re-signing, Juan Pierre leaving; Chapter 2-10…the on-going tabloid stories surrounding his crumbling marriage.

The Cardinals have been silent and I’d call the ghost town of the off-season if not for the Cubs, who seem so gunshy about making another mistake; they’d allow their biggest mistake to be inactivity [heck that would be better than another Milton Bradley'esque signing].

The Giants have done nothing to prove that they are more than a one trick pony, unless Matt Cain learns to pull a rabbit out of his hat. The Astros, while always a fun team and one not to overlook still lack pitching up and down.

So with the off-season nearly half-over (pitchers and catchers report in less than two months) the Phillies are the winners of this off-season.

Don’t Worry Be HAPPy

The rumor mill sprang to life this week as the Blue Jays announced that they would consider offers for 32 year-old, former Cy Young winner Roy Halladay. The Phillies, and any other team who figures they are in contention, are chomping at the bit for a chance to land the ace and it’s not hard to understand why.

First let me sing the praises of Doc Halladay. He is easily one of the Top 5 pitchers in the league. He is the definition of dominant, durable (2nd in innings pitched since ’07), overpowering (a low to mid 90′s fastball), and cunning (he throws a palmball…seriously a palmball).

The Phillies have officially taken the lead as far as suitors go (or as official as rumors go). The Jays reportedly want young, cheap, infield and pitching talent. And yet a deal has not happened and in my opinion, as one of the Philly faithful, it should not happen as long as the name J.A. Happ is in the mix.

I concede a comparison of Halladay and Happ is an unfair one. But we in Philly need to look at exactly what we’d get rid of. Since ’07 when J.A. made his big league debut he has lost 1 game. Again people 1 LOSS. Granted this is in only 14 starts, but there is not a pitcher in my recent memory that has been as impressive. This year he is 5-0 with a 3.04 era winning 1 game for every 2 starts. A simple projection across 162 games, and if ends up with 30 starts and we are looking at a 14-0 or 15-0 pitcher. That sounds like an ace to me and at 27 years-old with a cap hit of around $425,000, he is easily the best pitcher for the buck.

Again Halladay is an almost incomparable pitcher. His addition to the Phillies rotation would give them the best 1, 2 in the National League if not all of baseball. But the Phillies don’t need a Top 5 pitcher. A bumpy June has seemed to jade Phil’s fans to the fact that they have the modern day Murderers row (Werth, Howard, Utley and Ibanez are all on pace for 30+hrs and 100+RBI’s), a good to great bullpen and a mid-level rotation. What the Phillies need is consistency, a right-handed bat on the bench and a quality 5th starter.

Josh Johnson in Florida is the type of pitcher the Phillies could throw in any part of their rotation without selling the farm [system]. Or how about the Pirates who like a Sunday Flea Market consider any and all trades. Zach Duke is a stud waiting for a good offense to give him support. Hell last night Red’s pitcher Homer Bailey kept Phillies batters more off-balanced than our American economy (Do’h!). The likes of Oswalt, Garland, Bedard, Cain, and Haren have all been mentioned as trade fodder.

So one last time everyone, Halladay is great! He would give the Phillies a great shot to win a title this season and in 2010. But don’t forget the Phillies are a World Series team and J.A., who might not be as obviously dominant as Tim Lincecum or have the bright shiny packaging (aka “hype) of a David Price, has been the best pitcher on the Phillies staff this year. Ruben Amaro we know you’re aggressive and we know you want to push all your chips to the middle. But please think long and hard about J.A. Happ because, while there are no guarantees in baseball (Ahem…2002-2009 Yankees please step forward) J.A. has proven himself more than reliable in a rotation with plenty of questions.

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