Here to remind you of the brave new world in which the Phillies will be attempting to rebuild are the Colorado Rockies, who have reportedly agreed to a two-year, $25 million contract with lefty starter Jorge De La Rosa.
De La Rosa will be 34 years old in 2015, and he is finishing up his second straight solid campaign: 28 starts, 160 2/3 innings, 4.26 ERA. Since his first full season back from Tommy John surgery in 2013, De La Rosa has a 3.86 ERA in 58 starts with decent strikeouts and walk numbers (6.3 K/9, 3.3 BB/9) and a solid ground ball rate of 1.00. In a lot of ways, he fits the profile of pitcher the Phillies should be targeting this offseason: solid peripherals, old enough to be had on short-term deal, young enough to have a little bit of upside (e.g. moving out of Coors Field).
And now he’s gone, leaving the Phillies with one less option for whatever it is they think they can accomplish over the next couple of seasons.
I know what some of you are thinking: C’mon man, we talkin’ ‘bout Jorge De La Rosa. Guy has never thrown more than 185 innings in a season, and has thrown more than 130 just three times.
To which I respond: Yeah, that’s the point. When I sat down one month ago to project the Phillies’ 2015 roster, I pegged De La Rosa as the seventh or eighth best starter on the free agent market, potentially in line for a contract similar to the three-year, $30 million deal Scott Feldman inked with the Astros last offseason. Judging by what the Rockies gave him, that projection of his open market value is probably accurate. But this isn’t about the Phillies needing to pay $12.5 million per year for a borderline No. 3 starter, and it isn’t about the Phillies missing out on De La Rosa specifically. It’s about the fact that there is now one less starting pitcher on a market that had fewer than 15 viable big league starters to begin with. That scarcity is going to drive prices for the remaining free agents even further. In fact, we could be getting to a point where demand is so out of whack with supply that the only teams who end up participating in free agency are the ones who view themselves as contenders, because those are the only ones for whom the prices will make sense.
Here is how I broke down the available starting pitchers one month ago. I separated them into tiers according to the minimum contract terms that have been required to sign similar pitchers over the last couple of off seasons.
Tier 1 ($20M+ year, 5+ years): Max Scherzer, James Shields, Jon Lester
Tier 2 ($12M+ year, 3+ years): Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano.
Tier 3 ($8 M+ year, 2+ years): Jason Hammel, Brandon McCarthy, Jorge De La Rosa.
Tier 4 ($8M+ year, 1+ year): Jake Peavy, Justin Masterson.
Tier 5 ($5 M+ year, 1 year): Ryan Vogelsong, Edinson Volquez, Kevin Correia, Wandy Rodriguez, Kyle Kendrick.
The one addition I would make to this list is Blue Jays right-hander Brandon Morrow, although he is a complicated case. The Blue Jays have a $10 million team option on him for next season with a $1 million buyout. He has started just 16 games over the last two seasons after a strong performance in 77 starts between 2010-12. Injuries have been his downfall, but he will be just 30 years old and is an intriguing buy-low candidate. Except, the whole point of this exercise is that there really aren’t any buy-low candidates anymore. Josh Johnson was in a situation similar to Morrow’s last offseason and he landed a one-year, $8 million deal. Now, Johnson at his peak is better than Morrow at his peak. But keep in mind we live in a world where Phil Hughes, who I’d identified as a potential bargain upside play last offseason, ended up signing for three years and $24 million with the Twins (a deal that has worked out thus far, with the 28-year-old Hughes posting a 3.54 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 0.7 BB/9 and 0.6 HR/9 in 180 2/3 innings over 28 starts in his first year in Minnesota).
Not to get too far off track here, provided we were ever on track to begin with, but Morrow and Masterson are the two guys the Phillies should target this offseason, because they have the biggest upside of any pitchers who can potentially be had on a one-year deal, and if they managed to revert to peak form, they could land a solid prospect or two on the trade market next July. A playoff team hoping to solidify its rotation with a dependable No. 4 starter might like to a safer, more expensive option like Jason Hammel or Brandon McCarthy. But the Phillies can afford to gamble on upside, because they don’t need to worry about making a move that might cause them to miss the playoffs. And that right there is one of the reasons it is so important for the Phillies to have a realistic view of their situation as they move forward into the offseason. Every move that is made first needs to be confronted with the question, “What potential does this move have to help us whenever it is we can realistically hope to contend again?” The definition of “whenever it is” is the important part.
When you look at the paucity of options on the free agent market and compare it with the paucity of options in the Phillies' system, it becomes blatantly clear that this team will struggle to find five players capable of starting major league baseball games before the start of next season (For the record, I'm assuming Cliff Lee's elbow does not magically regenerate itself this offseason). Few of them exist. Those who do will be pitching for contenders who value them higher. And De La Rosa didn't even sign with one of those contenders.