The aftermath of a playoff exit is usually not a good time to gather information. Think about how it felt when your season ended in high school and then multiply it by about a billion and you will be where the Phillies are now. One minute, they are the team with the best record in the major leagues and one of the best rotations in baseball history. The next, the season is over. For the first time since Valentine's Day, there is no tomorrow.
Nevertheless, the Phillies offseason strategy needs little clarification. Things got a bit more complicated when Ryan Howard crumpled to the turf while attempting to run out the groundball that ended the NLDS. But the Phillies will need to look for bullpen help and offense.
Here's some answers to the questions they'll face:
1) How long will they be without Ryan Howard?
We won't have a good idea until at least today, when Howard is scheduled to undergo an MRI. The first baseman said last night that doctors think he has a torn Achilles tendon, but recovery time depends on the severity of the tear. Professional athletes who rupture their tendon are usually sidelined around six months. Orioles outfielder Nolan Reimold underwent surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon on Sept. 23, 2009 and was ready to play on Opening Day the following season. But he was barely ready to play, rushing the final stages of his recovery after an injury to Felix Pie. If Howard does have a ruptured tendon, it would likely cut into the offseason training program that he goes through in suburban Tampa each winter. Again, we won't know more until the MRI.
2) What if Howard's recovery does stretch into next season?
If the Phillies had any doubt about devoting some serious consideration toward left field, it would likely be eliminated. The team would have to think about playing John Mayberry Jr. at first. They obviously aren't going to be players for Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols. Veterans like Michael Cuddyer and Wilson Betemit leave much to be desired on the defensive end, but they can play first base and outfield along with third base.
3) Wait. . .third base?
It is another position that will have to be considered. Placido Polanco was hampered by injuries for the second straight season. He could require offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia. He struggled down the stretch and in the postseason. At $6.25 million, his salary for next season is higher than you'd like for a part-time player, but it is manageable if the Phillies can find a way to add some on base percentage and power to the position. That being said, there isn't a name free agent out there, especially if Aramis Ramirez exercises his option and stays with the Cubs. Even if he doesn't, the Phillies can't afford the kind of money he would likely require.
4) So, back to left field?
Yep, back to left field. Maybe Howard is back to full strength by the start of next season, or shortly thereafter. But his power and on base numbers and even his RBI total have dropped over the last three seasons. Same goes for Chase Utley at second base. Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence are the only two regulars who are undoubtedly in the prime of their careers. If Jimmy Rollins leaves via free agency, they will already head into next season weaker at one position (Jose Reyes is not an option and Rollins is clearly the second-best available offensive shortstop). If Howard's injury is not a big factor, Mayberry is the best option in left. But he has never played on a regular basis. And heading into a season with him and Domonic Brown as the top two options in left would require a huge leap of faith.
Which is why the Phillies should seriously consider free agency, assuming Amaro can't pull another big trade out of his hat. Nick Swisher could be a free agent if the Yankees decline his option. That isn't a sure thing, but he's an OBP guy who can work a count, something that was noticably missing from the Phillies' line-up during the postseason. Josh Willingham is another player in that mold. Defense is the big issue there, but he isn't replacing a Gold Glove in Ibanez. I wouldn't rule out Ibanez returning at a drastically lower salary and without any guarantee of regular playing time. But his is the one position that can clearly be upgraded through free agency.
Remember when the Cardinals took a chance on Lance Berkman?
5) What about closer?
I get the sense that they view it as their No. 1 priority. As good as Ryan Madson has been, it would be a mistake to pay top dollar for him, assuming top dollar is what Scott Boras will seek. There are a slew of closers available, and with Jose Contreras recovering from elbow surgery the Phillies could be in need of more than one arm. Cost-effectiveness is the key here. After all, Madson blew just one save this year and the Phillies still lost in the first round of the playoffs. They went to Game 6 of the World Series when Brad Lidge had one of the worst years ever out of a closer. Sure, it's an important position. But not important enough that a team should sacrifice the ability to upgrade in another area.
6) What else?
The success of the rotation overshadowed a lot of depth problems, not only in the bullpen, but on the bench. The Phillies simply do not have the young home-grown talent that the Cardinals were able to use to off-set their veteran core. The lack of depth was on display throughout the stretch run in playoffs. The Phillies simply did not have anybody who could play in place of Polanco. Their top left-handed option off the bench was Ross Gload, whose power was sapped by a hip injury. We haven't even mentioned Chase Utley's knee problem. He played all season, but not at the elite level that the Phillies need.
This line-up has reached an age where injuries need to be factored into roster construction. Expecting guys like Polanco and Utley and Rollins to make it through a whole season unscathed borders on fantasy.
So there is your shopping list. It is important to keep in mind that if Cliff Lee protects a 4-0 lead in Game 2, we are not having this conversation, at least not yet. The Phillies built this year's roster to win on pitching, and when that pitching did not perform up to expectations, the line-up could not make up the difference.
One of these years, the Braves are going to get it all together and mount a serious challenge for NL East supremacy. As long as Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels remain healthy, this team should continue to win a lot of games, regardless of the offense. But one serious pitching injury -- or one serious opponent in the playoffs -- could make this year's NLDS disappointment seem mild.
The Phillies are no longer a team that can rely on their ability to crush fastballs and poorly executed offspeed pitches, because they are not crushing those fastballs and poorly executed offspeed pitches like they did in their prime. Witness Utley and Ibanez flying out to the wall on Friday night. Who knows where those balls land a few years ago?
This is not a team in need of an implosion, but it is a team that has not changed its offensive identity nearly as fast as its former identity has changed. They need a hitter or two who can reach base, who can work a count, and they need depth at all positions.
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