Monday, December 29, 2014

The argument for keeping Joe Blanton

Prevailing sentiment around baseball is that the Phillies will need to eat some money if they expect to trade Joe Blanton and the $17 million he is owed over the next two seasons. That's exactly why it might make more sense for RAJ and company to hang on to the veteran righthander. Problem is, the Phillies might feel like they have to trade Blanton in order to save on salary for the 2011 season. According to my calculations, the Phillies already have about $158 million committed to 18 players, and that's before arbitration raises to Ben Francisco and Kyle Kendrick that should total at least $3 million. They are still well short of the luxury tax threshold, so that isn't a concern. But nobody really knows what their internal budget is.

The argument for keeping Joe Blanton

Joe Blanton is owed $17 million over the next two season. (David M. Warren/Staff file photo)
Joe Blanton is owed $17 million over the next two season. (David M. Warren/Staff file photo)

Prevailing sentiment around baseball is that the Phillies will need to eat some money if they expect to trade Joe Blanton and the $17 million he is owed over the next two seasons. That's exactly why it might make more sense for RAJ and company to hang on to the veteran righthander. Problem is, the Phillies might feel like they have to trade Blanton in order to save on salary for the 2011 season. According to my calculations, the Phillies already have about $158 million committed to 18 players, and that's before arbitration raises to Ben Francisco and Kyle Kendrick that should total at least $3 million. They are still well short of the luxury tax threshold, so that isn't a concern. But nobody really knows what their internal budget is.

For the moment, though, let's pretend that dealing Blanton is more a case of financial prudence than downright necessity.

In that case, there is an argument you can make for keeping Blanton around.

And because we like to play Devil's Advocate, here is that argument:

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1) His value could be down

The biggest problem for the Phillies right now could be getting a fair return on a player who is coming off a season that, statistically, was the worst of his career. Blanton logged career lows in starts (28) and innings (175.2), posted a 4.82 ERA that tied his career-high, and made just one appearance in the playoffs (a loss in Game 4 of the NLCS in which he allowed three runs in 4 2/3 innings).

Furthermore, the rest of the sport has to assume that the Phillies are determined to trade Blanton, which further limits their bargaining position when it comes to an eventual return (the combination of salary relief and personnel acquisition).

The Phillies know that Blanton was not as bad as his numbers indicate. Much of it had to do with the oblique injury he suffered in spring training. He spent his first month back struggling with his mechanics, rebounding to post a 3.92 ERA in his last 21 appearances (20 starts).

But overall numbers are overall numbers, and a general manager could find it a tough PR-sell if he pays a big price (in dollars/talent) for a guy with a Blanton's 2010 stat line.  

2) $8.5 million per season is not an outrageous price for a dependable starter

Here are Blanton's numbers over the previous three seasons: 92 GS, 568.2 IP, 4.51 ERA, 92 ERA+, 6.5 K/9, 2.7 BB/9

The following are contracts that have been signed by starting pitchers this offseason in years and guaranteed dollars, followed by their numbers over the previous three seasons:

Jorge De La Rosa 2/21.5 million

75 GS, 436.2 IP, 4.49 ERA, 104 ERA+, 8.9 K/9, 4.1 BB/9

Brett Myers 2/21.0

73 GS, 484.1 IP, 3.94 ERA, 105 ERA+, 7.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9

Jake Westbrook 2/16.5*

*Westbrook started just five games in 2008 and then missed all of 2009 following surgery. His final 2010 numbers (33 GS, 4.22 ERA, 202.2 IP, 5.7 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 92 ERA+) included a strong finish after switching leagues from Cleveland to St. Louis, where he started 12 games and posted a 4-4 record, 3.48 ERA and 113 ERA+.

Hiroki Kuroda 1/12.0

82 GS, 497.0 IP, 3.60 ERA, 111 ERA+, 6.6 K/9, 2.1 BB/9

Kevin Correia 2/8.0

78 GS, 453.0 IP, 4.91 ERA, 80 ERA+, 6.4 K/9, 3.5 BB/9

Javier Vazquez 1/7.0

91 GS, 585.0 IP, 4.17 ERA, 104 ERA+, 8.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/9

Jon Garland 1/5.0

98 GS, 600.2 IP, 4.12 ERA, 101 ERA+, 5.0 K/9, 3.1 BB/9

Aaron Harang 1/4.0

75 GS, 458.1 IP, 4.71 ERA, 90 ERA+, 7.4 K/9, 2.6 BB/9

Vicente Padilla 1/2.0

70 GS, 413.1 IP, 4.49 ERA, 96 ERA+, 6.7 K/9, 3.1 BB/9

As you can see, the market is difficult to read.

If you are Ruben Amaro Jr., you are looking at the deal Jake Westbrook signed and seeing it as a comparable.

Westbrook's career numbers are almost identical to Blanton's:

Westbrook: 193 GS (233 APP), 1,273.0 IP, 4.29 ERA, 101 ERA+, 5.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9
Blanton: 190 GS (195 APP), 1,202.1 IP, 4.30 ERA, 99 ERA+, 5.8 K/9, 2.5 BB/9

If you are another GM, you are looking at Garland as a comparable.

Garland's contract features $4.5 million in base pay ($3.5 million in 2011 and a $1 million bonus in 2012), but can be worth up to $16.525 million over two years based on innings incentives in 2011 and an option for 2012 that vests if he reaches 190 innings in '11 and doesn't land on the DL in September with a right arm injury.

Long story short, if Garland pitches 190 innings next season, he'll be guaranteed at least $16 million over two years (and will get another $500,000 if he pitches 190 innings in 2012). That is pretty similar to the $17 million Blanton is guaranteed.

To put that in perspective, Garland has pitched at least 190 innings in each of his first nine full seasons in the majors. Blanton, meanwhile, logged at least 190 innings in each of his first five full seasons before finishing 2010 with 175 2/3.

Both contracts - Garland and Westbrook - will pay the same amount ($16.5 million) if the players fulfil their career norms over the next couple seasons. The difference, of course, is the Dodgers are only guaranteed to pay Garland $5 million if he struggles. The Cardinals are guaranteed to pay Westbrook $16.5 million, whether he makes one start or 100.

Regardless, the market price for a guy who logs 190 innings and posts an average-to-slightly-below-average ERA is not a heck of a lot less than $8.5 million.

3) In addition to having a rotation that is better than that of most fantasy teams (seriously, show me the fantasy squad that had Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt and Lee in it last year), the Phillies could have one of the most impressive pools of organizational depth in the NL.

Assuming everybody stays healthy, the Phillies can clearly survive with a fifth starter who is a liability. But that is a big assumption to make, particularly when a team has already invested so much in making it back to the postseason for a fifth straight season.

Let's say one of the Big 4 suffers an injury that sidelines him for an extended period of time. Suddenly, the Phillies would be left with a rotation that features both Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley. That's not to say either of those players would definitely be liabilities. But Worley has started one big league game in his career, and Kendrick posted a 4.81 ERA and averaged about 5 2/3 innings per start last season.

With Blanton in the fold, the Phillies would be able to fill an injury by plugging in Blanton, who finished last year as the No. 4 starter and was the No. 3 guy the two years they went to the World Series.

4) There is no expiration date on potential deals

Blanton's value could always improve. Let's say Blanton has a bounce-back season, and Kendrick continues the improvement he showed last season, and the Phillies stay healthy through the first few months. Pitching is always in demand midseason, and the Phillies could very well end up getting a better return at that point. The biggest risk is that Blanton does not have a bounce-back year, but he is only 30 years old, and has a track record of dependability. And what if Kendrick doesn't improve, or the Phillies don't stay healthy? Well, at that point they would need a guy like Blanton, and rather than having to scramble to acquire one at the trade deadline, they'd already have him.

Certainly, if the Phillies can swing a deal and land a return that is commesurate with their evaluation of Blanton's track record and his potential over the next couple of years, they are in a position to do so.

But pitching is a valuable commodity, regardless of the amount you already have. And if the Phillies can't get solid value, and are forced to eat a sizeable chunk of Blanton's contract, holding on to him might be their best option.  
 

David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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