Got a text from a friend last night. Told her I was in Chicago. She said "awesome." And I really can't blame her. Chicago, after all, is awesome. Belushi, Second City, Oprah, the Lake, every good-looking Midwestern girl who wasn't content to settle down with her high school sweetheart in Fort Wayne. All of that is awesome.
The O'Hare Hilton, however, is not awesome. In fact, it's the opposite of awesome, unless your idea of awesome is Tom Hanks in "The Terminal." Because that is what these GM meetings are like. The hotel is inside the airport. My hotel room overlooks a runway, where at the moment I am staring longingly at a plane taking off and fantasizing about the happy little lives of all the people inside. I'm not sure if the little bottles of shampoo in my bathroom are there because that is what all hotels use, or because they couldn't get the big ones through security.
The only worse place to spend three days is inside a hospital. And even then, at least there is access to painkillers.
I can almost picture the scene that went down in the league offices in Manhattan as they contemplated how to make this year's gathering even more unbearable than usual.
BUD SELIG: I've got it! Let's hold them at a hotel by an airport!
ASSISTANT: I like where your head is at, Allan. But why stop there? Let's hold them at a hotel that is actually inside an airport!
SELIG: And not just any airport!
SELIG AND ASSISTANT (in unison): O'Hare!
Last year, Major League Baseball at least had the decency to stage this annual event at an upscale resort that sits on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Don't get me wrong: whatever the venue, the GM meetings are not a pleasurable experience. Rikers Island is still Rikers Island, despite the waterfront view. You sit around a hotel lobby all day waiting to talk to people who do not want to talk to you, and even if they did want to talk, they wouldn't have much to say, because the free agent signing period does not begin until Nov. 20 and nobody will have any idea about how the market will unfold until then.
"We haven't ruled anybody out," Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said yesterday.
And neither have I, but at least I've had a chance to test the market and eliminate the possibility of raising a family with Jessica Biel.
I don't want to sound too whiny or self-indulgent, so I won't mention the fact that there was no smoked salmon on the 23-dollar breakfast buffet, and I will point out that the GMs dislike these things almost as much as the reporters who cover them. The happiest guys in town yesterday were the assistant GMs who did not have to sit through the 4.5 hour morning meeting.
The one positive? Folks only have to walk about five minutes to get on their planes this afternoon.
And that's good. Because they can't wait to leave.
OK, OK. I was being slightly melo-dramatic above. But I haven't blogged for awhile, and I wanted to give you guys a chance to consternate me for complaining about covering baseball while you are staring at the start of another 9-to-5.
In reality, these GM meetings do provide an interesting chance to gain some insight on how the rest of the world views these Phillies. Which is where I'd like to begin, because several times over the past 48 hours I have heard other reporters express surprise at the Phillies' decision to decline Pedro Feliz's 2010 option, usually with a rationale that sounds something similar to, "Don't they already have enough offense?"
But like all things in this sport, the answer to that question depends on one's definition of "enough."
At this waypoint in Phillies history, Amaro's definition of "enough" is "Can we win a championship with what we have?" The most jaded Philadelphians among us still might have a hard time believing that, but his actions over the last year have spoken: It would have been easy not to trade for Cliff Lee, not to sign Pedro Martinez and relegate Jamie Moyer to the bullpen, not to bump final 2009 expenditures close to $140 million. But the Phillies have made it clear they are suddenly devout Ricky Bobbians. And if it is true that you are last if you ain't first, then the Yankees knocked the Phillies down to last place, and it is through that prism that they must evaluate their personnel.
Which brings us to offense. They led the National League in scoring in 2009, which is all well and good, because they won the National League. But they did not beat the American League, and four teams in the AL finished above them in scoring. And while it is tough to compare totals between the two leagues because of the DH, even when you disregard the runs created out of the No. 9 spot in the order (which in the AL is manned by a hitter and in Phillies line-ups is manned by a pitcher), the Phillies still were outscored by the Yankees by 40 runs. This is over-simplifying things, because even if the No. 9 hitter in an AL line-up doesn't create a run, he might get a two-out hit that keeps an inning alive or contribute in some other manner. But I don't have the mathematical capability to figure out a formula to account for such things, so I retreat to simplicity.
The biggest weakness in the Phillies' line-up was its consistency. They scored seven or more runs in 46 games, which was more than Colorado (43), the Dodgers (42), St. Louis (36) and Minnesota (43), all playoff participants. But they scored four or fewer runs in 82 games, which was more than New York (69), the Angels (79), the Red Sox (73), the Dodgers (73) and Minnesota (80).
So they scored seven or more runs eight fewer times than the Yankees, but scored four or fewer runs 13 more times.
They rattled off more crooked numbers than the Dodgers or the Twins, but also logged more impotence.
A big difference? Perhaps not. But neither was the difference between a second-straight World Series title and a disappointing second-place finish.
Which led to the decision to turn Feliz free. In doing so, they have the opportunity to fill two offensive holes -- at third base, and at the No. 7 spot in the order, both of which have been manned by Feliz the last two seasons.
Last year, the Phillies' posted a .704 OPS at the No. 7 spot in the line-up, which ranked 19th in the majors. (I'm using OPS, which is on base percentage plus slugging percentage, because RBIs and runs scored are variables that are dependent on other parts of the order).
By comparison, the Yankees' .862 OPS at No. 7 ranked 1st. And even if you use their OPS at No. 8 to account for the DH (Manuel, after all, used his No. 7 hitter at No. 8 at Yankee Stadium), it was still 69 points higher than that of the Phillies' seven-hole hitters.
The Dodgers, who lets not forget were a Jimmy Rollins walk-off double away from tying the NLCS at 2-2 and regaining home field advantage, posted a .842 OPS at No. 7, the best mark in the National League.
Feliz did hit .336 with runners in scoring position, the best mark on the team. So in no way are we saying that he performed poorly. But again, remember the defintion of "enough" off of which we are working. And in this case, "enough" might be finding a player who reaches base even when he isn't driving in runs, thereby keeping the line-up moving (Feliz hit just .243 with no runners in scoring position, .221 with the bases empty and .210 with two outs).
In the Phillies' line-up, No. 1, No. 7 and No. 8 were the only three slots in the batting order that finished outside of the Top 7 in the majors in OPS:
- .709 (25)
- .860 (1)
- .908 (2)
- .914 (3)
- .857 (5)
- .818 (7)
- .704 (19)
- .736 (21)
Looking at those numbers, it is easy to see why the Phillies line-up occasionally struggled: Statistically speaking, the four weakest spots in the batting order, including the pitcher, hit in succession. But Carlos Ruiz, the normal eight-hole hitter, isn't going anywhere, and neither is Jimmy Rollins, the normal leadoff hitter. Which leaves No. 7.
Looking at the available third baseman, it is easy to envision the possibilities that could arise out of an upgrade. The Angels' Chone Figgins is one candidate, although a lot of things would have to fall correctly to land him. Figgins' career on base percentage is 34 points higher than Rollins', and Rollins' career slugging percentage is 51 points higher than Figgins'. So adding Figgins would not only theoretically improve the No. 1 spot, but No. 7 as well, with either Rollins or Victorino or Raul Ibanez potentially hitting there.
Then we have Adrian Beltre, who could would bring more power to the seven-hole, or perhaps hit fifth and allow Jayson Werth to his seventh.
And then there is Mark DeRosa, and Placido Polanco, and Miguel Tejada, all of whom could be used at a variety of spots in the line-up.
The worst-case scenario, of course, is that all of the Phillies' targets -- Amaro said he had reached out to five or six prospective free agents -- end up signing elsewhere, and Feliz decides against returning to the team that turned down his option.
But that seems far-fetched.
By my count, there are eight teams that could potentially be in the market for a third baseman, but one of them is the Marlins, who are more apt to host a Fidel Castro Appreciation Night than they are to spend money this offseason.
So that leaves seven competitors (Phillies, Angels, Mariners, Astros, Twins, Cardinals, Orioles). And Amaro has already said that he has talked to at least six prospective free agents (Educated guess: Beltre, Figgins, DeRosa, Polanco, Tejada and Troy Glaus), although there are plenty more options, including Feliz and Joe Crede.
Which means there is little chance they are left in the cold, even if it comes to re-signing Feliz at a lower dollar amount, which would in theory enable them to spend more money on the bullpen and bench.
Here is a breakdown of the third base situation in the majors, ranked on a scale of least to most need.
- Mets - David Wright
- Nationals - Ryan Zimmerman
- Yankees - Alex Rodriguez
- Rays - Evan Longoria
- Rangers - Michael Young
- Diamondbacks - Mark Reynolds
- Giants - Pablo Sandoval
- Braves- Chipper Jones
- Padres - Kevin Kouzmanoff
- Pirates - Andy LaRoche
- Cubs - Aramis Ramirez
- Reds - Scott Rolen
- White Sox - Mark Teahen
- A's - Brett Wallace
- Royals - Alex Gordon
- Tigers - Brandon Inge
- Brewers - Casey McGehee
- Indians - Jhonny Peralta
- Jays - Edwin Encarnacion
- Rockies - Ian Stewart
- Dodgers - Casey Blake
- Red Sox - Mike Lowell/Kevin Youklis
- Marlins - No money
- Orioles - Melvin Mora is a FA; Possible Beltre fit?
- Astros - Jeff Keppinger not a great hitter, but do they have money to upgrade?
- Twins - Crede is a FA and Nick Punto is not a great everyday option
- Angels - They have internal options, but nobody close to Figgins
- Mariners - Beltre is a free agent
- Cardinals - DeRosa and Glaus are both free agents. Their available cash will be affected, either positively or negatively, by the futures of free agents Matt Holliday and Joel Piniero.
- Phillies - No minor league options. Greg Dobbs not viewed as everyday player.
A lot of this can be affected by players moving positions. Figgins can play virtually any position on the field, as can DeRosa. Polanco has played just one game at third since leaving the Phillies in 2005. Tejada has never played third, although many have projected him there. Might a team like the Yankees make a play for Figgins if Johnny Damon leaves via free agency? What about the Tigers?
There's no doubt the Phillies took a risk when they declined Feliz's option. But given what they view as "enough," and the options that are out there, they decided it was a risk worth taking.
The Phillies have proven over the last two seasons that pitching and defense are the most important pieces in the path to the promised land, so a return by Feliz will still keep them in a position to contend. But the Yankees showed this year that it is also going to take pitching and defense and a well-rounded offense to beat them in the World Series. Maybe a marginal upgrade over Feliz will do the trick. And with Amaro determined to upgrade the bullpen and the bench, it is unclear whether he will have enough money to land a player like Figgins. If it comes down to an either/or, you can bet he will err on the side of the bullpen. He said yesterday that he was unlikely to dole out a contract on the scale of the three-year, $31.5 million deal that landed Ibanez. It might not take that much to land Figgins - he is 32 years old, on year older than Jimmy Rollins, and is a similar player to the Orioles' Brian Roberts, who signed a four-year, $40 million extension in January (The difference between Ibanez's $11.5 million salary and a $10 million salary could be another bullpen arm or bench player). But it might. And even if it does, the Phillies could get creative, backloading the contract for raises in 2011, when they have just over $70 million committed to seven players, and 2012, when Chase Utley is the only player currently under contract..