Reevaluating the Oswalt trade

A back injury has landed pitcher Roy Oswalt on the disabled list. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)

In a best-case scenario, Roy Oswalt will be back at full strength by late August, his troublesome back successfully treated by a series of injections over a three-to-five week period followed by a throwing program that gets his arm ready to pitch in the stretch run and beyond. In a worst-case scenario, the second opinion he is currently seeking convinces him that the risks of postponing surgery and continuing to pitch outweight the potential rewards.

In between those two extremes lay a variety of potential outcomes.

At the earliest, we won't be able to fairly evaluate last July's acquisition of Oswalt until the end of the season. In all likelihood, we will have to wait until J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar progress further into their careers.

Until then, the questions will linger.

  • Would the Phillies have made the playoffs if they had stood pat at last year's trade deadline?
  • Even if they did stand pat, would they have beaten the Reds in the NLDS?
  • Would the Phillies have made the playoffs if they had dealt for a hitter and/or reliever instead of Oswalt?
  • Did they have the ability to deal for a hitter and/or reliever?
  • If they dealt for a hitter and/or reliever, would they have beaten the Reds in the NLDS?
  • If they dealt for a hitter and/or reliever, would they have beaten the Giants in the NLCS?
  • If they did not acquire Oswalt, would they have been able to upgrade their offense or bullpen this offseason?
  • If they upgraded their bullpen/offense this offseason, would they be a better team right now?
  • If they did not acquire Oswalt, would they have a greater ability to upgrade their offense or bullpen before the trade deadline?

For now, here is what we know:

1) After factoring in the $11 million they received from Houston as part of the trade, the Phillies took on $13.5 million in salary.

2) The Phillies won 10 of the 11 games Oswalt started for them before they clinched the NL East title.

3) The Phillies won the NL East by six games.

4) Oswalt won four games in which the Phillies scored three or fewer runs.

5) In the 55 games between the Oswalt trade and the NL East clincher, the Phillies scored three or fewer runs 26 times and went 38-17.

6) In the 55 games leading up to the Oswalt trade, the Phillies scored three or fewer runs 26 times and went 29-26.

7) The Phillies won two of Oswalt's three postseason starts.

8) The Phillies scored 13 runs in Oswalt's two postseason victories.

9) Oswalt lost one NLCS game in relief.

10) The Phillies lost Game 6 of the NLCS despite the fact that Oswalt allowed one earned run in six innings.

11) The Phillies are 5-8 in Oswalt's starts this season. He has logged seven innings twice, and fewer than six innings four times.

12) The Phillies have scored three or fewer runs in eight of Oswalt's 13 starts this season.

That's a lot to process. As we noted earlier, there are too many variables still in play to render any fair judgment on the deal.

Even if the Phillies had $13.5 million more to spend this offseason, they probably would not have been able to upgrade the offense. Lance Berkman is the only player who signed this offseason who thus far would have significantly improved their offense. But there were no indications the Phillies thought he could play right field, certainly none that they were willing to gamble a one-year, $8 million deal like the one the 35-year-old signed with the Cardinals.

With or without $13.5 million, the Phillies weren't going to sign Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth to monster deals. Elsewehre, Magglio Ordonez has been a bust since signing a one-year, $10 million contract with the Tigers. The other outfielders who signed guaranteed contracts have been a giant collection of yuck, save for Melky Cabrera, whom they could have signed for $1.25 million if they thought he was a fit (he probably wasn't).

The bullpen market is where they could have set themselves up to be in far better shape. Hisanori Takahashi is having an excellent season for the Angels after signing a two-year, $8 million deal. His starting experience and left-handedness certainly would look good right now. Jason Frasor, Kyle Farnsworth, Koji Uehara, Randy Choate, Chad Qualls, George Sherrill...all signed reasonable deals that are paying dividends. J.J. Putz signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Diamondbacks and is pitching very well. Of course, there are a slew of other relievers who have not lived up to their pricetags.

As for this year's trade deadline, the Phillies would be able to take on more payroll, which would make somebody like a Michael Cuddyer or Josh Willingham or Heath Bell more feasible. Although we don't know for sure that they aren't feasible right now (Willingham, as you well know, is hurt at the moment).

But they also would not have had Oswalt for 13 starts, and they wouldn't have the potential of getting him back for the stretch run.

A lot of what-ifs...

Here is some stuff we wrote in the days leading up to the Oswalt trade:

July 23: Every expenditure, however great or small, comes at the cost of a future spending opportunity. The concept might be simple, but the ramifications are complex. Nobody can argue a pitcher like Haren or Oswalt would upgrade the Phillies' rotation both now and in the future. What is unclear is how the acquisition of either would impact the club's ability to address the numerous other positions that have emerged as concerns. The Phillies already have an estimated $130.35 million committed to 15 players for next season, which is only $6 million less than their entire Opening Day payroll in 2010. Oswalt is due $16 million next season. Haren is due $12.75 million. True, the price fits the production that both pitchers have established as their baselines. While Haren's overall numbers are not great this season - 7-8 with a 4.60 ERA - he went 73-52 with a 3.48 ERA from 2005-09 and at 29 is still thought to have a lot of mileage left. Oswalt, meanwhile, is a veteran horse who is pitching even better than his sparkling 3.22 career ERA. You can never have too much pitching, the dictum goes, and a rotation with three Cy Young-potential starters would do little to disprove it. Add Haren or Oswalt to Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and the Phillies just might give themselves a fighting chance of overcoming their seven-game deficit in the National League East or earning a wild-card spot.

But while an organization can't have too much pitching, it can have too little of everything else. For all of the hullabaloo that surrounded the acquisition of Lee last July, the Phillies actually won a lower percentage of the 62 games that followed his arrival (57 percent) than the 100 that preceded it (58). They reached base less often (.321/.343), scored fewer runs per game (4.5/5.4) and hit fewer home runs per game (1.3/1.4). His presence had a noticeable impact on their chances every fifth game, and perhaps a subtle one on their bullpen on the other four. At the plate, however, the Phillies were who they were. This year, the status quo won't be enough. Their postseason hopes start with an offensive resurgence. Only then will a big pitching piece matter.

July 26: A lack of organizational pitching depth is one of the reasons they find themselves in their current situation. Regardless of how they feel about Happ's upside or his ability to bolster them down the stretch, the fact that he has minor league options and is still a year away from arbitration helps them in that department. Plus, with $130.35 million committed to 15 players for next season, it would be interesting to see how the Phillies accommodate Oswalt's $16 million while also addressing the rest of their roster needs. (Happ is likely to receive only slightly more than his current $470,000 salary.)
Werth, meanwhile, is their only true righthanded power hitter, having accounted for 13 of their 38 home runs and 32 of their 93 doubles from the right side (Brown is lefthanded, and will be just 23 on Sept. 3).

"He's important to our lineup," Manuel said. "The fact that we're lefthanded heavy . . . he definitely balances us out."

July 30: There are risks. The first, Oswalt's future health, is the type of unpredictable factor that comes associated with any deal. Oswalt has proven plenty durable in his 10 seasons in the majors. He has made at least 30 starts in each of the last six seasons, and is on pace to surpass the 200-inning mark for the seventh time in 9 years. Although he has spent stints on the disabled list in three of the last five seasons, only once in that stretch did he spend more than the minimum 15 days there. That was last season, when he made 30 starts and pitched 181 1/3 innings despite battling a back injury that ended his season on Sept. 16. Oswalt missed a short stretch in 2006 with a back injury, and has had cortisone injections to combat inflammation.

"The two doctors and the two trainers had extensive discussions," Amaro said. "We did talk to our back specialist . . . we did our due diligence and we felt like there were no structural issues that we should be concerned about. He has had injections. We knew about them, we know about them, but we feel confident that at the very least this player will be able to play at his accustomed level at least through the end of the 2011 season."

Oswalt's agent, Bob Garber, vouched for his health, saying, "He's in great shape. He's healthy. He feels good. A pitcher like Roy, you can pitch for a long time."

The other big unknown is actually more of a certainty. With Oswalt, the Phillies have between $135.35 million and $146.35 million guaranteed to 16 players next season, depending on how much of the $11 million from the Astros they put toward their payroll this season. They entered 2010 with a payroll around $137 million. While Amaro's budget is likely to increase next season, he acknowledged that the Phillies will be counting on cheaper, homegrown players to fill their remaining nine roster spots. The only traditional high-dollar positions unfilled are rightfield, where Jayson Werth will be a free agent, and a No. 5 starter, where Kyle Kendrick could be arbitration-eligible. Top prospect Domonic Brown, called up on Wednesday, is penciled into rightfield, but it remains to be seen how much money the Phillies can spend on fortifying their bullpen and bench. Amaro said yesterday that the Phillies are almost certainly done adding for this season.

"At some point, these young men are going to have to pitch for us," Amaro said. "We're going to have low-cost, low-salary, low-major league service players. I think if we have enough good quality players who are making the bulk of the payroll, then I think that if we keep doing our job on the development side and the scouting side . . . we're going to have to have those kids step up and play."

So it boils down to this: The Phillies wagered that Oswalt will perform significantly better than Happ through next season, that the $10.25 million they will pay him over that stretch will not cause a glaring deficiency in other areas of the roster, and that the collective return they enjoy will outweigh the long-term potential of Happ, Gose and Villar.
Gose, 19, is a promising outfielder at Class A Clearwater, batting .263; Villar, a 19-year-old infielder, is less highly regarded, and his hitting .272. Between the two of them, however, they have stolen 74 bases and scored 128 runs this season.

There is risk, and there is potential reward. The Phillies have acknowledged both.


Here are how the players involved in the Oswalt trade have fared thus far:

-J.A. Happ, 28, MAJ Astros: 3-9, 5.33 ERA, 15 GS, 82 2/3 IP, 7.5 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9

UPDATE: It's been a strange season for Happ, who was the major-league-ready starting pitcher the Astros desired in the trade. In his first 12 starts in Houston last season he went 5-3 with a 3.00 ERA. This year, he had a tough April (6.35 ERA in five starts), then a solid May (3.31 ERA in six starts) and now is wrapping up a brutal June in which he's averaged less than five innings in four starts while posting a 7.58 ERA. His strikeouts numbers are up, but so are his walks, and he has been throwing a ton of pitches (seven starts of 100+ pitches in six or fewer innings). Happ hasn't been the same pitcher since he was shut down with a forearm/elbow injury in April of last season, although he is making $2 million less than Kyle Kendrick and is under team control through the 2014 season.

-Anthony Gose, 20, AA New Hampshire: .241/.341/.364, 5 HR, 8 2B, 4 3B, 5 HR, 33/40 SB, 68 SO, 34 BB, 293 PA, 253 PA

UPDATE: In his first season at Double-A, Gose has made some strides in two departments that will be necessary to fulfill the potential both the Phillies and Blue Jays believe he has as a marquee leadoff hitter. The left-handed speedster has already drawn 34 walks this season, just 11 shy of the career-high total he posted last season and one shy of the 35 he drew in 2009 as an 18-year-old at low-A Lakewood. In fact, in 96 games since joining the Blue Jays, Gose has drawn 47 walks, which is more than he drew in 103 games for high-A Clearwater before he was dealt to Houston and then flipped to Toronto for first baseman Brett Wallace last July. After the Phillies selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft, Gose's highest on base percentage was the .325 he posted last season for Clearwater. This year, he has a solid .341 OBP. Gose has also drastically improved his conversion rate on stolen base attempts. In his first two full seasons of pro ball, he converted 121 of his 153 attempts for a success rate of 69.9 percent. This season, he has been caught stealing just seven times in 40 attempts for a success rate of 82.5 percent. That puts him on pace for 64 steals in a 574 plate appearance season (that's how many PAs he logged last year).

Two of the biggest areas Gose needs to improve are his contact-hitting and his maturity. He is striking out once every 3.7 at-bats, which is worse than the 1/4.0 ratio he posted at Clearwater last year. Last season at Clearwater, he hit .262/.332/.393, so he has not made great strides with his bat-handling, at least not according to the numbers. As for the maturity, Gose had a reputation as a brash, cocky kid when he was in the Phillies organization, and he was recently suspended three games for jawing at and then pushing a catcher during a mid-June game at Double-A New Hampshire.

-Jonathan Villar, 20, A+ Lancaster/AA Corpus Christi: .243/.326/.384, 5 HR, 11 2B, 5 3B, 23/32 SB, 82 SO, 31 BB, 296 PA, 255 AB

UPDATE: Trading Villar further thinned the Phillies' middle infield depth. He was the lesser-known prospect included in the Oswalt trade, but he turned in a solid performance in 47 games at High-A Lancaster this season, prompting the Astros to promote him to Double-A. At High-A, he posted a .259/.353/.414 line with four home runs, four triples and seven doubles in 174 at-bats. Like Gose, his ability to make consistent contact is his biggest hurdle. Since his promotion to Double-A, Villar has hit just .210/.264/.321 with 26 strikeouts and six walks in 81 at-bats. Defense also remains a question. Villar doesn't have the defensive polish of a guy like Freddy Galvis, but he has an excellent arm and excellent speed.

-Brett Wallace, 24, MAJ Astros: .292/.381/.416, 4 HR, 18 2B, 61 SO, 34 BB, 281 PA, 243 AB

UPDATE: We're including him just as a point of reference, since Toronto dealt Wallace for Gose straight up (coincidentally, six months after Toronto acquired Wallace by flipping Michael Taylor to Oakland in the Halladay trade). The Phillies obviously would not have had the need for a player like Wallace, who bats left-handed and plays first base (he started his minor league career at third base, but defensive concerns moved him across the diamond). But six months before the Oswalt trade, Wallace was rated by Baseball America as the No. 27 prospect in the game, and all he has done in his rookie season is hit .292/.381/.416 with four home runs, 61 strikeouts and 34 walks in 281 plate appearances for the Astros. So Gose was clearly valued highly.


A lot to process. Too early to render any judgments.

But at the very least, it gives us something Phillies-related to ponder on the eve of a huge litmus test against the Red Sox.

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