While there is not a lot to report on the free agent front, we can relay a report from FoxSports.com's Ken Rosenthal, who mentioned veteran righthander Koji Uehara as a reliever who interests the Phillies.
Here's why he would make sense:
Uehara is an extreme fly ball pitcher. And by extreme, I mean his flyball rate is nearly double the major league average. Even when you subtract his infield fly balls, which he induces at an above-average rate, his ground ball rate is still well below average. That being said, Uehara has pitched his entire career in home run parks (Camden Yards and the Ballpark at Arlington), and he has pitched pretty well. While his home run and extra base hit rates are above league average, they aren't brutal (3.3 percent home runs compared to 2.6 percent league average, 7.9 percent XBH compared to 7.6 percent league average). That's because the rest of his rate stats are ridonkulous (sp?). Last year, the right-hander averaged 10.8 K/9 and 0.8 BB/9 with a 1.75 ERA. In four major league seasons, he has a 9.8 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 and 2.89 ERA. And, keep in mind, he spent all four of those years in the American League.
At 37 years old, Uehara clearly is not a guy you'd want to hand significant money over multiple years, particularly when you consider his injury history. But he is the kind of guy the Phillies might have to target. As we wrote a couple of weeks ago, there is reason to believe that general managers will be hard-pressed to match the restraint they have displayed over the past few offseasons, thanks to an influx of national television money that will soon bolster the coffers of every team in the majors. In short, that could affect the Phillies because they are already operating at close to maximum payroll capacity, at least as it is defined by the luxury tax threshold. If a slew of mid-to-small market teams suddenly have $10 million to $20 million extra to spend on payroll each year, economics suggest that they will bid up the prices on free agents, including those who may have been in the Phillies price range in previous offseasons.
In our earlier look, we used Torii Hunter as a potential case study, and the 37-year-old veteran ended up signing for two years and $26 million. Keep in mind that, four years ago, the Phillies signed 37-year-old Raul Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million deal. And Carlos Beltran signed a two-year, $26 million deal last offseason after posting numbers that were superior to the ones Hunter posted in 2012. Beltran was also two years younger than Hunter.
My belief is that the price inflation will be felt most in the middle tier of free agents: the impact of the new TV money probably isn't enough to turn a small-to-mid market team into a huge spender that engages in a bidding war for the elite free agents. But it will enable them to pursue an extra piece or two. And the bullpen, where the Phillies would seem to be in the market for more than one arm, is a likely place for those extra dollars to flow.
Thus far, the only free agent reliever to sign is Jeremy Affeldt, a 33-year-old lefty who re-upped with the Giants for three years and $18 million. It is too early to label such a deal as the new normal. But consider that in the last three off seasons combined, only five relievers signed deals worth more than $16.5 million total, and all five of those were closers: Aroldis Chapman (6/30.25 million after 2009), Rafael Soriano (3/35.0 million after 2010), Mariano Rivera (2/30.0 million after 2010), Jonathan Papelbon (4/50.0 million after 2011), and Heath Bell (3/27.0 million after 2011).
Not to belabor the point, but consider that after the 2010 season, free agent lefty Scott Downs signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Angels. Over the previous three seasons, the veteran combined to post a 2.42 ERA, 177 ERA+, 7.5 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and 0.5 HR/9 with 15 saves in 178 2/3 innings.
Affeldt's numbers over the last three years: 3.09 ERA, 117 ERA+, 8.0 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, 10 saves, 175 innings. Affeldt, it should be noted, is a year younger than Downs was when he signed his contract.
Anyway, Affeldt and Downs are pretty similar, so there is reason to believe that a commodity that cost $5 million per season in 2010 will cost teams $6 million per season this offseason. For a team like the Phillies, who have given no indication that they plan on drastically expanding their payroll, that extra $1 million could be significant, especially when you consider that they seem resigned to exceeding the luxury tax threshold, which means they would pay a 17.5 percent penalty on every dollar over $178 million that they spend. If Affeldt's contract is indicative of the current market place, then prices have inflated 20 percent over where they were at two years. Which means that once the Phillies reach the threshold, their dollars could be worth an effective 37.5 percent less than two years ago.
Which brings us back, at long last, to Uehara. Even a conservative projection of the Opening Day roster (league-minimum salaries for four relievers, two corner outfielders, a bench player, and Vance Worley) leaves the Phillies with a payroll of about $152 million. If they end up paying $15 million per year for a center fielder, and their pursuit of B.J. Upton suggests they are willing, that would put them $11 million under the luxury tax threshold for 2013 ($178 million), and $22 million under the threshold for 2014 ($189 million). With that money, they would still need to address third base and two bullpen vacancies. Which means they are likely to be bargain hunting. And at the right price, Uehara could make a lot of sense.