Free agency begins in earnest on Friday, when teams are allowed to negotiate with and sign players from other clubs. Since the end of the World Series, the Phillies have been allowed to talk in general terms with agents. But except for their own free agents, they have not been allowed to talk dollars.
Over the next three days, we'll try to break down the major voids the Phillies will be looking to fill through free agency: Third base, the bull-pen, back-up catcher, and the bench. Any analysis is difficult given three big unknowns: 1) The organization's scouting reports on prospective free agents, 2) The conversations Ruben Amaro Jr. and Scott Proefrock have had with agents about their clients' interest in playing for the Phillies and their contract expectations, and 3) The amount of money the Phillies have to spend. Amaro has said he does not expect to spend much more than he did last season, when the Phillies opened the year with $132 million in obligations and, after additions and bonuses, spent a shade over $137 million. It is very possible that number could escalate if Amaro and Co. identify a free agent whom they covet and are able to present a cogent case to ownership about the value of signing such player. But for the sake of this analysis, we used $140 million as our projected budget number. We also project that the Phillies will have $119.75 million guaranteed to 18 players once arbitration awards and yearly raises are doled out, leaving them with roughly $20.25 million to spend before they hit our projected cap.
Today, we'll address the pitching staff.
Currently, the Phillies have Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero locked up at a total of roughly $20 million. If all were healthy and coming off successful seasons, Amaro would not have to worry much about adding another back-of-the-bullpen arm. And another lefthander would not be a huge priority. But Lidge's struggle were well-documented, and while he should be recovered from arthroscopic surgery on his elbow early in spring training, Romero's recovery from elbow surgery could stretch into the first month or two of the season. Which leaves the Phillies in bad need of some bullpen help -- and not just depth.
Their biggest needs, in order, appear to be a back-of-the-bullpen arm with the stuff to pitch the eighth and ninth inning, a multiple innings arm, and a dependable situational lefty, . The Phillies are hoping to re-sign Chan Ho Park, which would fill the multi-innings void, and also give them another pitcher with the stuff to pitch in the late innings of tight games. But it remains to be seen if the two sides can come to an agreement. In a perfect world, Scott Eyre would return for one more healthy season. But he has contemplated retirement and is coming off arthroscopic elbow surgery.
Righthander Chad Durbin, who has been an important piece of the 'Pen for the last two years, is under club control for next season and brings a versatility that is hard to find in relievers. But he made $1.65 million last season and is arbitration-eligible with five-plus years of experience, meaning he is likely in line for a raise to over $2 million. With the Phillies looking for another back of the bullpen arm (BOBA) and perhaps a veteran lefty to fill in for Romero while he is sidelined (not to mention provide insurance in case his elbow problem lingers), they might decide that such a salary is not cost effective. You have to figure that at least one of the seven open relief slots will be filled by a low-cost long man, which is why I'm projecting Clay Condrey will be back with the team next year.
Here is a rough depth chart for the bullpen heading into free agency:
Closer - Brad Lidge, $11.5 million
BOBA 1 - Ryan Madson, $4.5 million
BOBA 2 - EMPTY
LEFTY - J.C. Romero, $4.0 million
VETLHP - EMPTY
MULTI - EMPTY
LONG - Clay Condrey, $0.60 million
Every one needs pitching, which makes the relief market so hard to forecast. But at first glance, few teams are in need of a closer.
In an ideal world, the Phillies would avoid having to overpay for a back-of-the-bullpen arm with closing experience who could step into the ninth inning if Lidge struggles or be content pitching the eighth if Lidge returns to the form he displayed in 2008. Any of the above seven players could be turned off by the presence of another closer. But given the relative lack of demand for their services, they might not have a choice.
According to my calculations, 21 of the 29 other teams in the majors have a closer for the 2010 season. The eight remaining teams: Florida, Washington, Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Baltimore, with Seattle as another possibility.
Of those eight or nine teams, only Houston, Detroit and Baltimore seem likely to dedicate a sizeable chunk of their offseason spending toward a closer. Media reports out of Washington suggest the Nationals could have interest in Gonzalez, so throw them in the running. It is hard to imagine Tampa Bay or Toronto making a play for an established closer.
III. Potential Targets
The following players have the possibility of fitting from both a financial and performance standpoint:
1. RHP Brandon Lyon, 31, DET
He earned $4.25 million last season with the Tigers, and at a similar rate, even over two or three years, might be a good gamble. He'll be 31 on Opening Day, posted a 2.86 ERA and 1.106 WHIP for the Tigers in 2009 and a 2.68 ERA and 1.243 WHIP in 2007. His 2008 numbers are inflated -- 4.70 ERA and 1.483 WHIP -- but he also allowed a grotesque .342 batting average on balls in play, which many staticians argue is evidence of bad luck.
In 2009, righties and lefties both hit just .205 off of Lyon. Like Rodney, he isn't an obvious choice for teams in need of a closer. But he can pitch multiple innings and has closing experience. Which, at the right price, would seem to be right up the Phillies' alley.
2. RHP Fernando Rodney, 34, DET
FoxSports.com has reported that the Phillies have shown "preliminary interest" in Rodney. Now, keep in mind they have shown preliminary interst in a lot of people, but I give that some credence. There are enough red flags about Rodney that could very well prevent a team from locking him to a closer-type deal. He converted 37 of 38 save opportunities from the Tigers, but was hardly unhittable, posting a 4.40 ERA and 1.467 WHIP. His 7.3 K/9 ratio was a career low, and his 4.9 BB/9 ratio was higher than you'd like it to be. He'll be 33 years old, and is coming off a career-high 75.2 innings after throwing just 40.1 in 2008.
When you look deeper into Rodney's numbers, there is some indication that his true calling in baseball is not as a closer but as a solid seventh or eighth inning option with less of a workload. In his first 50 innings last season, he posted a 3.78 ERA with 47 strikeouts and 65 hits and walks allowed. In his last 25.2 innings, he posted a 5.61 ERA with 14 strikeouts and 46 walks and hits allowed. In his last 14 appearances of 2008, he had a 6.23 ERA. In his last 10 of 2007, he had a 6.10 ERA.
Rodney also has struggled on back-to-back days (source: Baseball-Reference.com):
Rodney would likely like to close. And he'd definitely like to earn closer money (who wouldn't?). But there is a chance he'll be forced to sign at a reasonable price. And at a reasonable price, he might be a good fit to add to the Madson-Romero mix in the seventh and eighth.
IV. If the Price Is Right (But it Probably Won't Be)
The following are players who would seem to fit from a performance standpoint, but whose potential reward could outweight the financial risk the Phillies would have to take in signing them.
1. LHP Mike Gonzalez, 32, ATL
On paper, Gonzalez would seem to be a perfect fit. He was lights out in the eighth inning for the Braves last season, and held lefties to a .194 average (compared with .218 against righties), so he would fill two voids. And he has some experience closing. But if he is looking for a multi-year deal and a good chance at closing, there is probably a team out there who will give it to him. And there are enough caveats with him that I don't anticipate the Phillies being willing to invest heavily in him. He is coming off a career-high 74.1 innings pitched after having thrown just 50.2 in the previous two years combined. After throwing a career-high 54 innings in 2006 he was injured the following season. Gonzalez will be just 32 on Opening Day, so it is easy to imagine a team willingly handing him multiple years and a job as a closer. If not, he would appear to fit perfectly in the Phillies' bullpen.
2. RHP Rafael Soriano, 31, ATL
Like Gonzalez, I expect the market to price Soriano out of the Phillies' range. Like his teammate in Atlanta, Soriano has top-shelf talent. He posted a 2.97 ERA and struck out an average of 12.1 per nine innings and has a track record of success in the majors (he posted a 2.66 ERA for the Mariners in 06-07). But he also might be a Peter Principle guy, one whose best role is as a dominant seventh or eighth inning guy, but who is a considerable risk to pay closer money over multiple years. He had nerve transposition surgery on his elbow in 2008, limiting him to 14 innings, then appeared in nearly half the Braves games last season, throwing 75.2 innings. He also allowed lefties to hit .258 with a .324 on base percentage last season -- not horrible numbers, but combined with his 3.93 ERA in save situations enough to cause some trepidation when dedicating an inning to him. Soriano will be just 31 on Opening Day, and his talent could easily convince a team to lock him up as a closer (he saved 27 games for the Braves last season). If the price is right, he would look good with Madson and Romero in the seventh and eighth innings. But at this point I don't expect the price to be right.
V. Thanks, We'll Pass
1. RHP Kevin Gregg, 31, CHC
The 31-year-old was a free agent bust in Chicago, where he signed a $4.2 million deal to close but wound up losing his job after posting a 4.72 ERA and blowing seven saves. He allowed 18 runs in 20.1 innings pitched after August 1, and with at least 70 appearances in the last three seasons has a decent amount of mileage on his arm.
2. J.J. Putz, 33, NYM
Another free agent bust, his workload has decreased in each of the last three seasons, from 78.1 innings and a 2.30 ERA for the Mariners in 2006 to 29.1 innings and a 5.22 ERA for the Mets last season. I just don't think the Phillies are in a position to take a flier on such a guy.
VI. Too Rich For Their Blood
1. RHP Jose Valverde, Astros
Valverde already filled in for Lidge once. Don't expect it to happen again.
2. LHP Billy Wagner, Red Sox
It would be fun, though, wouldn't it?
3. LHP John Grabow, 31, CHC
A Type A Free Agent, he's likely headed back to the Cubs.
VII. Logical Fall-Backs
1. RHP Rafael Betancourt, 35, COL: Posted a 2.73 ERA and 1.107 WHIP in 61 appearances, 56 innings for Cleveland and Colorado. Held righties to a .169 average (lefties hit .265). Colorado is attempting to sign him to a multi-year extension, but a report in the Denver Post said Betancourt turned down a two-year, $8 million extension.
2. RHP LaTroy Hawkins, 37, HOU: Earned $3.5 million for Houston while posting a 2.13 ERA and 1.200 WHIP in 63.1 innings, the veteran former closer also saved 11 games.
3. RHP Dannys Baez, 32, BAL: Has one of the best ground ball rates of this year's free agent relievers, a plus given the Phillies' defense and the ballpark in which they play. He posted a 4.02 ERA in 71.2 innings with a 1.130 WHIP in 2009. He is more of a multiple-innings candidate.
4. RHP Jose Contreras, 38, COL: An option should Park sign elsewhere, the former White Sox starter would give the Phillies starting depth in addition to a multiple-innings arm out of the bullpen.
5. RHP Kiko Calero, 35, FLA: A reclamation project, he posted a 1.95 ERA and 1.100 WHIP in 67 APP, 60 innings for the Marlins, holding righties to a .176 average and lefties to .187. He posted a 3.46 ERA in save situations. Calero posted a 3.10 ERA and 1.130 WHIP from 2003-06 for Oakland and St. Louis, but underwent rotator cuff surgery in 2008.
6. RHP Takashi Saito, 40, BOS: Pitched well for the Red Sox (2.43 ERA, 1.347 WHIP in 55.2 innings), but Boston declined his $6 million option.
7. RHP Brendan Donnelly, 38, FLA: The former Angels standout was limited to just 34.1 innings in 2007 and 2008 thanks to Tommy John surgery, but he posted good numbers in 30 appearances for the Marlins (1.78 ERA, 1.224 WHIP, .220 vs RHB).
8. LHP Brian Shouse, 41, TBR: Could be a cheap option if Eyre does not return (Tampa Bay recently declined his $1.5 million option). Lefties hit .224 against him in 2009, .180 in 2008, and .214 in 2007, although righties killed him.
9. LHP Darren Oliver, 39, LAA: Although Oliver gave up some big hits in the postseason, the fact that he is left-handed and has the ability to pitch multiple innings makes him valuable, although maybe not to the tune of $3.665 million, which he earned while posting a 2.71 ERA and 1.137 WHIP in 63 appearances for the Angels. He's also a Type A Free Agent.
10. RHP Octavio Dotel, 36, White Sox: Experienced veteran with 83 career saves, he is a Type A Free Agent but might not be offered arbitration on the heels of a two year, $11 million contract. Posted 3.32 ERA and 1.444 WHIP for White Sox in 62 appearances, 62.1 innings pitched.
VIII. Wild Cards
1. RHP Justin Duchscherer, 31, OAK: In 2008, the Phillies signed Chad Durbin to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation and potentially fill a bullpen role. In 2009, they did the same with Chan Ho Park. Might Duchscherer be this year's candidate? He missed all of 2009, but started 22 games in 2008, posting impressive numbers (2.54 ERA, 0.995 WHIP), albeit while pitching in a pitcher's park. He has appeared as a reliever in 192 games in his career with a 1.164 WHIP while holding lefties to a .247 average and righties to a .220 average. Duchscherer's agent has been quoted as saying Duchscherer should be able to land a starting job, and there is likely a team out there who will provide a better opportunity at one than the Phillies can. Still, he'd be an intriguing addition.
2. RHP Kelvim Escobar, 34, LAA: Started just one game for the Angels last year after missing all of 2008 with shoulder surgery. Hasn't pitched in relief since 2005 (1.89 ERA, .169 BAA, .789 WHIP in 9 APP) and might not have the physical capability of doing so at this point. But with the Phillies looking for rotation depth in addition to bullpen arms, he's worth mentioning.
3. RHP Jeff Weaver, 33, LAD: Went 6-4 with a 3.65 ERA in 28 games, seven starts for the Dodgers. Another multi-innings/rotation depth mention.
IX. Potential minor-league contract inventory
1. LHP Eddie Guardado, 39, TEX: Veteran posted 4.46 ERA, 1.409 WHIP in 48 APP, 38.1 IP for Texas. . .2008 - 4.15 ERA, 1.225 WHIP in 64 APP, 56.1 IP for Texas/Minnesota. . .vs. LHB: .333/.400, vs. RHB: .228/.311. . .2008 vs. LHB - .210/.270, vs. RHB: .268/.331. . .Plans on returning after contemplating retiring. . .was bothered by inflammation in knee, visited Dr. Yocum who prescribed rehab program.
2. Ron Mahay, 39, MIN: 2009 - 4.29 ERA, 1.669 WHIP for KC/MIN. . .vs. LHB: .262/.306, vs. RHB: .327/.425. . .2008 - 3.48 ERA, 1.392 WHIP for KC. . .2007 - 2.25 ERA, 1.250 WHIP for ATL. . .2008 vs. LHB: .255/.327. . .2007 vs. LHB: .189/.250.
3. LHP Will Ohman, 32, LAD: 5.83 ERA, 1.622 WHIP in 21 G for LAD. . .LAD declined 2.2 mil option. . .Hurt elbow, didn't pitch after May 27. . .Held lefties under .201 in in 07 and 08 with Braves.
4. LHP Ron Villone: Well travelled vet allowed .293/.386/.414 vs lefties in 2009 after holding LHB to .176/.311 in 2008. He'll turn 40 in January.
5. LHP Tyler Johnson, 28, STL: Last pitched for STL in 2007 - 4.03 ERA, 1.237 WHIP in 55 G, 33 IP. . .Career .228/.326 vs LHB. . .Injured in 2008, non tendered afterward, signed ML contract with Mariners in Feb. of 09, released June 6.
6. LHP Ken Takahashi, 41, NYM: Lefty specialist who did not retire lefties -- LHB hit .302/.387 against him. Righties hit .156/.278.