There was a lot of head-scratching on Tuesday afternoon when the Phillies traded away Hunter Pence for a package of players headlined by Giants catching prospect Tommy Joseph. In a recent column, esteemed baseball scribe Jayson Stark relays an email he received from a baseball person who wondered, "What the (heck) are the Phillies doing?"
It is a fair question to ask, provided the focus is the totality of their moves over the last few offseasons. The one thing the last few days have shown is that the Phillies' ability to spend on payroll is a serious issue moving forward. Ruben Amaro Jr. consistently deflects questions about his budget, but with a little deductive reasoning, we can get a pretty good idea of the meaning of his maneuvering prior to Tuesday's non-waiver trade deadline. And what I infer is that $189 million is going to be their targeted payroll for the foreseeable future. That is the number of the luxury tax threshold after next season. I infer that they are willing to spend up to that amount next season, meaning they would be subjected to a 17.5 percent tax (an amount that is hardly a deterrent). But they do not seem willing to go over that amount on a consistent basis, as evidenced by the apparent fact-finding mission they conducted with regard to trade interest in veterans like Cliff Lee and Jimmy Rollins. Even the Yankees are trying to get their payroll under $189 million. The new CBA sets up that number as a near-de-facto salary cap, given the penalties for exceeding it multiple seasons in a row.
So, there we have it: $189 million.
As I wrote a couple of days ago, the Pence trade made sense when you considered the cost efficiency of his production when compared to potential replacements. In this instance, I am convinced they did the right thing, as I'll attempt to illustrate in a minute. The real time to ask, "What the (heck) are the Phillies doing?" was last offseason, when they decided to allocate $12.5 million a year to a pitcher who will only log 60 or 70 innings in a season. Or a couple years before that, when they decided to give Ryan Howard a $25 million a year contract extension two years before his existing deal expired, in essence guaranteeing him $164 million over seven seasons through his 36th birthday. When you consider that, the following season, the Red Sox signed Adrian Gonzalez to a seven-year, $154 million extension that runs through his 36th birthday, and that Gonzalez was one year closer to free agency when he signed his deal, it is difficult to argue that the Phillies did not take an unnecessary and potentially crippling financial risk when they handed Howard an extension two years before free agency.
It is even fair to wonder what the Phillies were thinking when they signed Cliff Lee to a five-year, $120 million deal if such a commitment was going to end up being a problem. As far as I can tell, nothing unforeseen has happened since the Phillies made the decision to sign Lee to that deal. They knew Cole Hamels was going to be a free agent. They knew Jimmy Rollins was going to be a free agent and that they would likely have to overpay him because the options for replacing him were so slim. They knew they had already guaranteed Howard significant money. I guess what they didn't know was that Chase Utley would miss five months in 2010 and 2011 because of his knee condition. Still...it is hard to imagine that after only a year-and-a-half the Phillies are suddenly contemplating whether they would be better off without Lee and his salary. Sure, his numbers are down this year. But he was as good as advertised last season. And, frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if, at the end of September, his production for 2012 is right where it has been for his career. The guy has always been streaky, and we might be getting set to enter one of his hot streaks. So again, the question: if the Phillies decided Lee was worth all of that money a year-and-a-half ago, how can they now be thinking that he might not be?
Long story short, you can't afford to overpay at every position if you want to maintain a payroll under $190 million. The Phillies are already overpaying at first base, short stop, closer, and starting pitcher. Which is why Hunter Pence is no longer a Phillie.
The Phillies knew there was a possibility that Pence could ask for upwards of $15 million arbitration after the season. Essentially, they could end up paying him as much as a free agent corner outfielder. It just didn't make sense, because Pence is not a $15 million-a-year player, especially not for a team that has a finite amount of payroll space.
In his calendar year with the Phillies, Pence hit .289 with a .357 on base percentage, .486 slugging percentage (.842 OPS) and 28 home runs in 676 plate appearances. Solid production. But not $15 million-a-year production.
Consider what the Phillies could get by pairing newly-acquired right fielder Nate Schierholtz with a right-handed hitting counterpart in a platoon situation. Below are three candidates who will be free agents after the season: Scott Hairston, Jonny Gomes, and Reed Johnson. I took each player's numbers against left-handed pitchers over the last two seasons and added them to Schierholtz's numbers against right-handed pitchers over the last two seasons.
Hairston/Schierholtz platoon: .286/.341/.486 (.827 OPS), 24 HR, 118 SO, 662 PA
Gomes/Schierholtz platoon: .288/.367/.467 (.834 OPS), 22 HR, 136 SO, 671 PA
Johnson/Schierholtz platoon: .295/.349/.475 (.824 OPS), 18 HR, 114 SO, 639 PA
Now, compare those lines to the one posted by Phillies right fielders this season:
.271/.333/.449 (.783 OPS), 18 HR, 91 SO, 456 PA
They have gotten more home runs (the equivalent of 26 home runs over a 671 plate appearance season), about the same strikeouts, about the same isolated power, and less base-reaching ability.
All three of the hypothetical platoons are making less than $2.5 million combined this season. Schierholtz should be in line for an arbitration raise in the neighborhood of $2.75 million, but a right-handed platoon-type outfielder goes for between $1 million and $1.5 million on the open market (or, at least, it did on last year's open market). How much more does Hunter Pence give a team than the aforementioned platoons? More importantly, is it worth an extra $10 million to $12 million?
Rather than Pence alone, the Phillies would be better off with one of the above situations combined with an extra $10 to $12 million spent on a pair of veteran strikeout arms for the bullpen, or a strikeout arm and a $5 million upgrade in center field (Shane Victorino instead of Rick Ankiel?), or a strikeout arm and a $5 million upgrade at third base (Kevin Youkilis instead of Freddy Galvis?).
The Phillies have made plenty of questionable decisions over the last few seasons. Heck, you can question the return they got for Pence. But the philosophy of the move makes perfect sense, at least now that we know that they have a hard cap on what they can spend.