Phils giving some 2011 exit-interview type press conferences this week. Jimmy Rollins, Ruben Amaro and Shane Victorino (why?) today, and apparently Charlie Manuel tomorrow. After some days away the press finally gets to hammer away on the principles about what happened and what will happen this off-season. For a team that appeared to be stable and successful this season, the Phillies find themselves with a lot of questions. The way I see it, it breaks down into the following sections: Who’s staying, Who’s going, and What will we do differently. I’ll start with the last one.
Ruben made it clear he wants a new approach on offense. He acknowledged that the team is not what it was in 2007-8, but maintains they can be successful with a change in philosophy. Essentially no more swinging for the fences, no more giving away at-bats, Ruben wants good at-bats, he wants inflated OBP numbers, he wants the ability to manufacture some runs without the home run. He said he’s challenging Charlie Manuel and hitting coach Greg Gross to implement this change in philosophy. I think Manuel will be the much tougher convert on this front. If you remember back to early this season the more patient, quality AB approach was something that was stressed in Spring Training. Then the Phillies came out of the gate singling teams to death for two weeks before Charlie complained that the team wasn’t scoring runs the way he wanted to, meaning they were scoring, but not hitting enough homers. Next thing you know, Ben Francisco had uppercutted himself into a 4-month slump and the team started averaging 3 runs a game.
The problem with changing approach is that it’s easier said than done when you have the same manager and the same players. I can say on the first of every month that I want to eat healthier, but if by the end of the first week I’m wrist deep in a half-gallon of Turkey Hill, my promises don’t mean much. Is Charlie going to be able to give up the ice cream? Is Ryan Howard, or Rollins if he stays? It’s not easy to take a veteran with a .345 OBP and turn him into a .380-.390 OBP guy. If there was a coach that could do that, he’d be making 10 million a year. The Phillies do have guys that can do a better job of getting on-base, but they could also use a high OBP guy or two to come in and set a positive example. Quality at-bats tend to be contagious.
Who’s Going/Who’s Staying?
The question marks are, Lidge, Ibanez, Madson, Rollins, Oswalt. Barring a very, very reduced rate from his previous contract Raul Ibanez is gone. And, even if Ibanez hardly gets a nibble elsewhere and wants to toil on the Phils’ bench for 1 million or something, he might not be the right move. A platoon outfielder is the perfect place to insert a high-OBP guy. Brad Lidge is in a similar boat to Ibanez, likely too old and too diminished to come back to Philly. There’s a chance he could be back at a bargain rate, but the Phillies will want to spend very little on their bullpen aside from the closer, so expect more youth in the set-up roles and little room for a guy like Lidge.
Ryan Madson is the player the Phillies can least afford to use. Sometime around mid-season, some Philly fans were envisioning bargain basement closer Antonio Bastardo in 2012, but that’s not happening. Amaro was very candid that there wasn’t a pitcher in the organization aside from Madson who he’d trust closing next season. That’s the bind they’ve got themselves in with being a pitching-oriented contender. You can’t save money on the closer position. That has to be as close to a sure thing as possible. While the Heath Bells of the world will create a somewhat flush closers market, I think Madson is the best option. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t come back to the Phils next year.
As far as the other two guys are concerned (Oswalt and Rollins), they typify the problem that Amaro has put himself in with his trades/signings and choices. The Phillies appear to need to get younger. But, because of existing contracts they have very little flexibility to do so. And, if they want to give themselves the best chance to win in 2012, it might mean committing even more long-term money to aging players. Jimmy Rollins does not deserve a 5-year deal, he’s not near the player he was, but if you let him go, you are almost certainly looking at a downgrade at shortstop. The same goes for Roy Oswalt. Is he worth 16 million next year? Absolutely not, but how much more ordinary does this team become if Kendrick and Worley, or Blanton and Worley are in the rotation? The ideal situation would be to bring Oswalt back at a reduced price, an incentive laden deal, but with pitching always in demand, he’s likely to draw decent offers from somewhere if the Phillies decline his option.
My instinct is that Oswalt will not be back and Rollins will return. I don’t think there is a team out there that will give Rollins 5 years. San Francisco, Atlanta or anyone else interested don’t seem like teams who cough up that kind of deal. If Rollins stays true to his word, and doesn’t just reach for the money, I’d expect to see him back. No one in the Phillies organization can actually think Galvis or Mikey Mart is the everyday answer at short. And, Jose Reyes is a pipe dream right now. Money will have to go before Reyes could land here, and dropping a huge deal on Reyes is a whole other issue anyway.
What I don’t think anyone asked at the press conference and what I would have liked to hear is someone asking Ruben if he regretted the position his own contracts had put him in. He’s finally got the Ibanez contract off the books, but we’ve still got money going to Blanton. To Polanco. There was the premature signing of Ryan Howard. Does anyone think Howard would have brought 25-million in the open-market this winter–even if healthy? That’s the deal that looks so alarming now with Howard suffering a major injury before the extension even kicks in. If that contract wasn’t given to Howard the Phillies would be sitting in prime position right now as perhaps the main player in the Fielders sweepstakes. Of course, it’s likely that the Phillies would have signed Howard eventually, but even if they could have saved 5-million a year that would have put them in better position. You get rid of Polanco and Blanton and save some money on Howard and that adds up to a heck of a player. But Amaro’s always been an aggressive guy, sign the guy he wants at that moment and then deal with the financial restraints later. This winter could be the first time Amaro has to really get creative instead of just handing out fat deals.
What else? Howard’s injury? He’ll probably be out until mid-season, or at least you won’t be able to count on him to be anywhere near himself until that point. It’ll be a big loss, but one I’m almost curious to see the impact of in terms of wins/losses and run production. With Howard out, I’d expect some mix of Mayberry/Gload and Utley at 1st base. Considering the Phils will have at least their 3 aces next year, I don’t expect them to be in dire straits without Howard. Like I said above, one of the worst parts of this is the wasted money. Do I want to play whole year without Howard? No. But, consider the Phillies missed 2 months of Chase Utley this year and still won the division with ease. Is Utley/Mayberry that much worse than Howard/Valdez? Assuming Mayberry is close to the type of player he was at the end of the year, I think they’re better off next year than they were at the start of 2011, especially considering Pence will be in right and not Benny San Fran. The concern with the Howard injury is all long-term. Can he be anything close to a 25-million dollar player? And if he can’t, can the Phillies shake off that wasted money?