Featured, Sports, The SportsTalk Shop

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies’ Off-Season Countdown Clock is Ticking

Share This Post

The Phillies organization is at a crossroads. After seeing the team steadily decline each year since their 2008 World Championship, the team hit rock bottom this summer. Finishing last in their division and wincing from a sharp drop-off in attendance, the Phillies must swing into action to recapture the city’s interest. They need to give fans reason to think the Sixers won’t be relevant more quickly than the Phillies, and I’m not buying in to Acting CEO Pat Gillick’s suggestion that the team is content to wait until 2017 to make a playoff run. With the Delaware Valley nearly universally disappointed that Ruben Amaro, Jr. is coming back as the General Manager, the focus on off-season moves will be even more scrutinized than ever, and Amaro’s future is clearly resting on what he does over the next few months.

With that in mind, here’s an itinerary of issues that must be addressed before we (hopefully) see many dominos fall this winter. Or, if they don’t make major moves, here’s why.

1) A. J. Burnett – One of the biggest underperformers of the 2014 season is going to have a huge effect on what the Phillies can do this offseason. He is contemplating retirement and, five days after the World Series concludes, he must decide if he is going to return or not. If he does, he’s guaranteed $12.75-million (more with incentives) and his decision will largely affect what else the team does this winter.

If he does return, the Phillies’ available cap space would be slashed from over $30-million to around $17-mil, which will drastically change who the team tries to target via the free agent market, or if they can somehow swing a deal for a big-name player. If Burnett does NOT return, they’ll need to find a new “#3 pitcher”…although replacing Burnett’s numbers from this past season shouldn’t be too difficult. There’s a handful of players (Ervin Santana, Ryan Vogelsong, Brandon McCarthy and others) that should bring you better quality at a lower per-year cost. The downside is that it will detract from what should be the team’s top priority (and should have been for the last several winters), which is improving the lineup. From my sources, I would lead towards Burnett’s return, which is why they already spent money re-signing Jerome Williams to bolster the back end of the rotation (see more below on him).

2) Ryan Howard – The Phillies have already decided what they’d “like” to do with their former All-Star slugger. It’s a question of ‘can the team unload him in the “right” deal?’ They’re willing to each money, and they’d like to get at least something in return for him, but other teams are well aware of their strategy. It will be difficult to swing any deal in which other franchises don’t try to take the Phillies to the cleaners. Whether or not Howard returns is also a major factor in the team’s offseason priorities…dealing him increases their long-term salary relief, plus they’ll have to find another #4 hitter (Yasmany Tomas?) and figure out who will take over first base (Maikel Franco, Darin Ruf, Chase Utley?) BTW: If the Phillies don’t get Yomas but do unload Howard somehow, don’t be surprised if Pablo Sandoval becomes a target. Not likely to happen, but he would be your next, best offensive upgrade.

3) Dominic Brown/Antonio Bastardo – Two former golden boys with the organization that turned in a less-than-stellar 2014 campaign. Both have members of the Phillies’ front office championing their cause, fighting to give them one more chance in 2015, but both could also use a change of scenery. The problem in trading them is similar to Howard’s situation: you’re not going to get much in return, and they’re both young enough that they could one day hit their stride (raise your hand if you’re tired of seeing ex-Phillies players making contributions on playoff teams!) It might just be in the organization’s best interest to hold onto both of them, especially Brown. However, doing so means you’re giving up a roster spot to a potential improvement and cutting into your team salary by about $3-million per player.

4) The Bench – Another glaring weakness of the ’14 team that needs a major boost—seeing the declining ability of aging vets like Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd as the season wore on only heightens their need for improvement. Following the re-signing of Grady Sizemore, the decisions on Howard and Brown will affect which direction the team goes for the remaining reserve spots this offseason, and what positions they’ll need to target in acquiring players. Personally, filling in bench personnel has been almost as under-executed as developing pitching through their farm system. Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis might be decent “day-off” players when spelling Utley or Rollins, but having to force John Mayberry or Carlos Ruiz into the heart of the batting order shows a serious lack of depth in the power department…and there are very few free agent options available. Also, and this will be even more necessary if one of the relievers is moved, the team could use another veteran with experience for the bullpen to add stability in case one of the younger pitchers takes a step backwards in 2015.

5) Pap – Jonathon Papelbon continues to be a wild card—in more ways than one—to the Philllies’ future plans. On the one hand, he’s been a steady mentor to the younger players both on and off the field, he’s still one of the game’s top closers and has been a hallmark of consistency and has remained injury-free during his time in Philadelphia. On the other hand, he commands a ridiculously outrageous salary, he’s seen as blocking the development of Ken Giles and Jake Diekman and also has shown a propensity to act like a horse’s…uh, rear end. Detroit is probably lamenting declining the Phillies’ offer to ship him to the Motor City, since the Tigers’ faulty bullpen leads directly to the team’s undoing in the playoffs. The fact that Detroit was afraid he’d be a clubhouse disruption shows to what extent other teams will go to NOT acquire Pap. And perhaps, with everything considered, it’s not the worst thing in the world to have him return.

Right now, this is how your 2015 Phillies pitching staff is shaping up.

SP – Cole Hamels
SP – Cliff Lee (if healthy)
SP – A. J. Burnett (or another free agent if he declines his option)
SP – David Buchanan
SP – Jerome Williams
SP/RP – Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez
RP – Antonio Bastardo (if not dealt)
RP – Luis Garcia (or an low-risk/high reward veteran?)
RP (2nd lefty) – Mario Hollands
RP (7th innnng) – Justin DeFratus
RP (Lefty Specialist) – Jake Diekman
RP (Set-up Man) – Ken Giles
RP (Closer) – Jonathan Papelbon

Keeping Papelbon, whether they really have a choice or not, adds stability to the overall staff. Also, I do like the signing of Jerome Williams which took place last week (one-year, $2.5-million). I know a few people complained to me that they spent money on a pitcher who only had a good two-month stretch with the Philllies (and a horrific first four months with other teams). However, for his “small cost” (by modern day pitchers’ salary numbers) he gives you someone that you can count on to fill out the rotation and also has versatility to help out in the bullpen. Think a younger, cheaper version of last year’s Roberto Hernandez, who actually pitched pretty well during his time in Philly last year. Assuming everyone is healthy, you now have a decent-enough pitching staff and can devote the rest of your offseason to tweaking the offense.

One more thing…Cole Hamels. It would definitely be a game-changer if they trade him this winter. I wouldn’t think—if it happens at all—that this is likely to happen early in the hot stove season as the loser(s) in the Max Scherzer/James Shields/Jon Lester free agency races will be more desperate (and willing to ante-up more) for a top quality, #1 pitcher like Hamels. Of course, the Phillies could still enter the “buy-an-ace” sweepstakes  as I had suggested during the season.

OK. Wind your clocks and start watching the transaction roll-in. But remember to keep an eye on the items mentioned above if you start scratching your head wondering when the ‘what-the-heck-are-they-doing’ moves start to take place.