Sunday, July 13, 2014
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Free Agent Watch: A look at the Relievers. . .

In the paper today, we offered a look at the Phillies' strategy for the upcoming free agent signing period, which begins on Sunday. While the bulk of the attention thus far has been focused on Jayson Werth's impending free agency, and the Phillies' options should they choose not to re-sign him, don't be surprised if Ruben Amaro Jr. zeroes in the bullpen over the next couple of weeks. The outfield market could take some time to develop, and the Phillies might not know their complete list of options until teams are required to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players on Nov. 23. We explained the rationale for such a strategy in the paper, but here it is in a nutshell:

Free Agent Watch: A look at the Relievers. . .

J.J. Putz had a 2.83 ERA in 60 games with the White Sox last season. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
J.J. Putz had a 2.83 ERA in 60 games with the White Sox last season. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

In the paper today, we offered a look at the Phillies' strategy for the upcoming free agent signing period, which begins on Sunday. While the bulk of the attention thus far has been focused on Jayson Werth's impending free agency, and the Phillies' options should they choose not to re-sign him, don't be surprised if Ruben Amaro Jr. zeroes in the bullpen over the next couple of weeks. The outfield market could take some time to develop, and the Phillies might not know their complete list of options until teams are required to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players on Nov. 23. We explained the rationale for such a strategy in the paper, but here it is in a nutshell:

With Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels all coming off heavy workloads, it would make sense for the Phillies to fortify the bullpen so that Charlie Manuel doesn't feel compelled to lean as heavily on his starters as he did in 2010.

The club currently has three players under contract for next season -- Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Danys Baez -- leaving at least four open spots and, assuming Baez must compete for a job in the spring, likely five. Expect a slew of young players to get an opportunity to compete for a spot in the bullpen in spring training (Justin DeFratus, Antonio Bastardo, Vance Worley, David Herndon, Mike Stutes, Mike Zagurski, B.J. Rosenberg, Scott Mathieson, etc). But even if they think a couple of them will get spots, the Phillies still will look to bring in an established arm or two. Chad Durbin and Jose Contreras are free agents who the team could consider re-signing, but here is a look at the external options.

Future success for relievers is notoriously difficult to forecast. For example, Contreras was a last-minute, under-the-radar signing who ended up being one of the Phils' most reliable arms this season. So we've broken the free agents down into a few categories, from the likeliest targets to the unlikeliest.

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Potential Targets

1. Scott Downs, LHP, Blue Jays (35)

The Phillies like this guy a lot. And why wouldn't they? In each of the last four seasons, he has appeared in at least 48 games while posting an ERA of under 3.10. This year, he logged 61 1/3 innings with a 2.64 ERA, 7.0 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9 while holding opponents to a career-low 0.995 WHIP. He doesn't have a blazing fastball, but it is an effective pitch for him, particularly when coupled with his curveball. He is a groundball pitcher who allowed just three home runs last season and over the last four seasons has allowed just 13 in 236 2/3 innings (with a 2.36 ERA to boot). His batting average against lefties over the last four years (righties in parentheses): .152 in 89 PA (.243 in 152 PA), .263 in 61 PA (.246 in 139 PA), .194 in 119 PA (.226 in 171 PA), .209 in 226 PA (.238 in 113 PA).

He converted 26 holds last year while blowing just two saves (He also picked up five losses to go with his five wins). He also pitched more than one inning in 12 appearances last season, although that certainly is not his forte.

The Phillies are very familiar with Downs: Over the last four seasons, he has faced them five times -- and he has tossed 6 scoreless innings, retiring 18 of the 19 batters he has faced with five strikeouts.

The biggest question might be his price tag.

2. J.J. Putz, RHP, White Sox (34)

Putz battled a balky elbow in 2008 en route to a disappointing season with the Mets in which he logged only 29 1/3 innings while posting a 5.22 ERA. But he was healthy and effective last season for the White Sox, posting a 2.83 ERA, 10.8 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 in 60 appearances, 54 innings for the White Sox. Phillies assistant GM Benny Looper is well acquainted with him, having drafted and developed him with the Mariners, for whom he posted a 3.07 ERA, 9.4 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 0/9 HR/9 in 308 appearances from 2003-08. Putz throws a mid-90's fastball along with a splitter and a slider.

Putz earned a base salary of $3 million last season.

3. Jason Frasor, RHP, Blue Jays (33)

Frasor spent seven solid seasons with the Blue Jays, appearing in at least 49 games and 47.1 innings while posting a 3.76 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 3.8 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9. He opened the 2010 season as the Blue Jays closer but lost the job to Kevin Gregg after blowing two of his first five save opportunities. He finished April with an 8.38 ERA in 11 appearances while struggling with his command (8 walks, 13 strikeouts). But he pitched well in the final five months of the season, posting a 2.83 ERA with 52 strikeouts, 19 walks and just three home runs in 54 innings over his final 58 appearances. This after a 2009 season in which he went 7-3 with a 2.50 ERA in 61 appearances.

His lefty/righty splits are fairly equal (.247, .671 vs. RHB, .248/.718 vs. LHB), and his groundball/flyball rate is about average.

One concern? He posted a 4.73 ERA and allowed an .839 OPS on the road last season, compared with 2.59 and .499 at the Rogers Centre.

4. Hisanori Takahashi, Mets (36)

According to media reports out of New York, the Mets are trying to work out a contract with their Japanese lefty, butaccording to the New York Times Takahashi is looking for a two-year deal while the Mets are offering one. The Phillies like versatility in all aspects of their roster, and Takahashi brings that. He started 12 games last season for the Mets, but was far more effective as a reliever, where he went 6-2 with a 2.04 ERA, 9.4 K/9 and two home runs in 57 1/3 innings pitched. Lefties hit just .217 with six extra base hits (all doubles) in 115 at-bats with 37 strikeouts and nine walks. Takahashi pitched very well after taking over as Mets' closer in mid-August, allowing two runs in 22.1 innings with 20 strikeouts and 6 walks in his last 20 appearances. He converted all 8 of his save opportunities, including one at Citizens Bank Park in a 5-2 Mets in on Sept. 25. He has a funky delivery with good deception. Throws four pitches, leaning heavily on his change-up to off-set hi fastball.

Warning signs? He pitched much better at cavernous Citi Field (3.12 ERA, .233 BAA) than on the road (4.11 ERA, .270 BAA).

5. Jesse Crain, Twins (30)

When healthy, Crain has pitched very well for the Twins since breaking into the majors as a 22-year-old in 2004. But shoulder inflammation limited him to 18 appearances in 2007 and forced him to spend a short stint on the DL in 2009, after which he struggled for through the remainder of the first half. But he finished that year strong, posting a 2.20 ERA in his final 28 appearances before a solid 2010 campaign in which he posted a 3.04 ERA and career-high 8.2 K/9 against 3.6 BB/9 in 71 appearances, 68 innings. Crain relied a lot more on his slider in 2010, throwing it on nearly half of his pitches, though he is a hard-thrower with a fastball in the mid-90's. He has a decent groundball-to-fly-ball rate.

6. Matt Guerrier, Twins (32)

Guerrier could be an option after logging at least 69 innings and posting better than a 3.40 ERA in five of the last six seasons with Minnesota. In 2010, he appeared in 74 games, tossed 71 innings, and posted a 3.17 ERA, although his strikeout rate (5.3) was pedestrian. Career numbers: 5.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9 with an average groundball-to-fly ball rate. His ERA much better at Target Field (2.61 ERA, three home runs in 31 innings) than away (3.60 in 39), although his strikeout rate, and batting-average-against (.228 BA, .650 OPS at home, .211, .605 on road) were steady. He can pitch multiple innings (17 such appearances in 2010, 21 in 2009). In two career appearances at Citizens Bank Park, he has thrown three scoreless innings with four strikeouts. He throws a fastball and slider while mixing in a curveball and change-up. He pitched well in the postseason in four appearances in 2009 and 2010 with 3.2 scoreless innings, four strikeouts, one hit, and one walk.

7. Jon Rauch, Twins (32)

Rauch converted 21-of-25 save opportunities, posting a 3.05 ERA with 27 strikeouts and nine walks in 38 1/3 innings before losing his job to trade-deadline acquisition Matt Capps. In the final two months of the season, he allowed seven earned runs, 18 hits, five walks with 19 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings (3.26 ERA).

He has a lot of experience at Citizens Bank Park, where he is 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA, 3 HR, 10 SO, 5 BB in 12 games (17 IP). He has made at least 59 appearances in each of last five seasons dating back to 2006. During that time: 3.57 ERA, 2.6 BB/9, 7.6 SO/9.

Other righties available include Kevin Gregg, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, and Octavio Dotel. Gregg might be the best fit of the bunch,

If the Investment is Minimal. . .

1. Chad Qualls, Diamondbacks/Rays

Qualls had a rough 2010, posting a 7.32 ERA that was nearly double his previous career-worst. His numbers improved slightly after the Diamondbacks traded him to the Rays at mid season, but only slightly.

Still, he is an intriguing bounce-back candidate. Qualls won't turn 33 until next August, and he had an impressive track record before 2010. A teammate of Brad Lidge's in Houston from 2004-07, Qualls moved into a closer's role in Arizona and had a solid 2009, saving 24 games with a  3.63 ERA with 7.8 K/9 and 1.2 BB/9. In his first six years in the majors, he posted a 3.32 ERA with 7.3 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9.

Despite his inflated ERA in 2010, neither his velocity (91-93 on his fastball) nor his strikeout rate (7.4 K/9) strayed too far from his career averages. Qualls was coming off of knee surgery that cost him the last three-plus months of 2009, and he'll certainly be looking to pitch himself into a big contract next offseason.

Last offseason, the White Sox took a flier on Putz after a down season, signing him to a one-year contract worth $3 million plus incentives. Putz responded with a terrific campaign (2.83 ERA, 10.8 K/9, 2.5 BB/9).

Qualls isn't the strikeout pitcher that Putz is, but he could be in line to out-perform whatever contract he lands this offseason.

Whether he is a good fit for the Phillies is another story. He has had some rough outings at Citizens Bank Park: In 11 appearances there, he has allowed nine earned runs on 16 hits with four home runs over 10 innings. On the other hand, 11 outings is a small sample size.

Qualls is a groundball pitcher (1.37-per-fly-ball in his career, well above the major league average) and is used to pitching in a bandbox, having spent the first four years of his career at cozy Minute Maid Park. 

2. Kerry Wood, Indians/Yankees (34)

Wood is intriguing because, well, he's Kerry Wood. He pitched very well down the stretch for the Yankees this year, allowing just two runs in 26 innings while striking out 31. And since moving to the bullpen full time in 2007 for the Cubs, he has posted some impressive numbers: 3.52 ERA, 10.3 K/9, 0.7 HR/9. But health will always be the big question mark with the former can't-miss kid. Since becoming a reliever, the only year he did not spend time on the DL was 2009. This season, he was placed on the DL for the 13th and 14th times in his career, once with a back strain and again with a blister on his right index finger. Wood, who will turn 34 on June 16, earned $10.5 million last season.

3. Koji Uehara, Orioles (36)

Uehara thrived in his first season as a reliever, posting a 2.86 ERA, 11.3 K/9 and 1.0 BB/9 in 43 games, 44 appearances. He saved 13 games in 15 chances. But he has a paltry groundball rate (0.31 in 2010) and, more than anything, has a history of injuries, spending time on disabled list in 2010 with hamstring and forearm strains and in 2009 with hamstring and elbow strains.

Cost Prohibitive

1. Rafael Soriano, Rays (31)

Soriano is coming off a stellar season with the Rays in which he posted a 1.73 ERA, 8.2 K/9, 2.0 BB/9 in 64 appearances, 62 1/3 innings while converting 45-of-48 saves. Lefties hit .196, .590 OPS. Righties - .132, .431. Converted 45-of-48 saves. Over the last two seasons, 2009 with the Braves, he has 72 saves (7 blown saves), a 2.41 ERA, 10.4 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9 and an excellent 3.88 SO/BB ratio. He allowed just 10 home runs in those two seasons. Pitched very well in 2006 and 2007 for the Mariners and the Braves.

But Soriano earned more than $7 million last season after accepting arbitration in a move that facilitated a trade from the Braves. It's hard to imagine the Phillies investing significant money in a multi-year deal.

2. Brian Fuentes, Angels/Twins (35)*

Fuentes is deadly against lefties. Over the last three years, he has held them to a .192 average and just five extra base hits -- one of them a home run -- with 51 strikeouts in 167 at-bats. His numbers against righties aren't too shabby either. He battled back pain early in the season posting a 6.23 ERA in his first 18 appearances before finishing the season with a 0.88 ERA in his final 30 appearances. But because he is one of only a few true closers who are on the market, and because he is coming off a big contract with the Angels, there is a good chance a team will give him a salary that for the Phillies would represent an unwise investment.

4. Joaquin Benoit, Rays (33)

Benoit returned from shoulder surgery in a big way last season, appearing in 63 games for the Rays while posting a 1.34 ERA, 11.2 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9. His fastball averaged right around 94 miles an hour last season, and he off set it with a change-up and slider. But there will always be concern about a pitcher with shoulder surgery in his recent history, and Benoit is coming off his biggest workload since his 2007 season with the Rangers.

5. Kevin Gregg, Blue Jays (33)

I'm putting Gregg in this category on the theory that a team in search of a closer could turn to Gregg, who saved 37-of-43 games for the Blue Jays last season, and that Gregg would be unlikely to sign with a team who cannot guarantee him a role as either closer or set-up man.

6. Frank Francisco, Rangers (32)

Nobody can argue with Francisco's numbers:

-Three straight years of at least 51 APP/49.1 IP and 3.83 ERA or lower.
-Impressive strikeout rates (11.8, 10.4, 10.3) over the last three years. Decent enough walk rates (3.7, 2.7, 3.1)
-Career 0.9 HR/9 average despite pitching in Arlington
-Closer experience: Saved 25 of 26 games and converted 4-of-5 holds.
-Lefties hit just .214/.318/.315/.633 against him in his career, compared with righties .234/.305/.395/.700
-After his tough April, he posted a 2.68 ERA with 13 holds in 15 opportunities in his final 42 appearances (40.1 innings).

But Francisco missed the last month of the season and the entire postseason with a strained rib cage muscle that landed him on the disabled list in late-August. In 2009, he had three different stints on the disabled list with right biceps tendinitis, right shoulder tendinitis and mild pneumonia.

Lefty Specialists

The Phillies need to find somebody to replace J.C. Romero as a veteran lefty specialist out of the 'Pen. There are plenty of options to choose from, even beyond the ones listed in the "Potential Targets" section above. Ancient wonder Arthur Rhodes (41 years old) and Mets LOOGY Pedro Feliciano head this list. Others who are available: Dennys Reyes, Randy Choate, Will Ohman, Joe Beimel, Mark Hendrickson, Ron Mahay, Taylor Tankersley, Bruce Chen.

*We omitted Fuentes in our original post.

David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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