PREDICTION TIME: The teams that should concern the Phillies most heading into the offseason are not the Braves and the Nationals but the Mets and the Cubs.
Don't look at the standings. Look at the ledger sheet. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer has about $50 million in salary obligations for the 2014 season. His ownership group has entered every season since 2008 with a payroll of at least $106 million. The Mets' Sandy Alderson has about $35 million in salary obligations for 2014. The Mets' Opening Day payroll in 2013 was about $94 million, the lowest it had been since 2001. Both franchises have spent the last few offseasons positioning themselves for a new era of spending, and this might be the year when those new eras arrive. Factor in a Yankees team that is rarely satisfied with missing the postseason, and you can't escape the conclusion that the Phillies will be bringing a debt load to a checkbook fight.
The takeaway: In Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies have already chosen their bridal party. They can't afford to marry themselves to anybody else. If you don't have a long track record of reaching base and hitting for power at the major league level or a contract that anchors you to your current roster spot, then you are expendable. That means you, Darin Ruf, and you, Cesar Hernandez, and, perhaps most significantly, you, Ben Revere.
The only way for the Phillies to make any marked upgrade to their roster for 2014 will be to take what the defense gives them. That's new territory for Ruben Amaro Jr., who spent most of his first five offseasons at the helm dictating the market. He signed the best closer money could buy in Jonathan Papelbon, the best starter money could buy in Lee, even the best corner outfielder money could buy in Raul Ibanez. This will be the offseason of the value play, and that could require upgrading both centerfield and rightfield instead of pouring the bulk of the team's resources into a top-of-the-market addition at one. If that means shifting Revere into a role like the one Michael Bourn played in 2007, then that's what it means. Because this is what 2013 taught us:
1) The Phillies need power: not just to win games, but to give fans a reason to show up to the park. You can talk all you want about heart and hustle and defense and fundamental play, but without the ability to score runs in bunches, the brand of baseball is pretty darn boring. The Phillies boasted one of the weakest offenses in the sport this year. They managed extra-base hits in just 7.1 percent of their plate appearances. They averaged one home run every 39 at-bats. Both of those marks ranked in the bottom third of the majors. A healthy Ryan Howard will help, but . . .
2) The Phillies can't plan on having a healthy Ryan Howard. Or a healthy Chase Utley. Or, really, a healthy anybody. They can hope for it. In all likelihood, they will need it. But they cannot pass on a potential upgrade because they think they are already good for 80 home runs in the middle of their lineup, or 400 innings at the top of their rotation. Roy Halladay showed how fast a Cy Young Award can lose its shine. If they have a chance to upgrade over Kyle Kendrick, or Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, they need to do it, and then deal with any resulting logjam as one of those "good problems to have." Wherever the value is, that is where the Phillies must fish.
3) The Phillies can't have any untouchables. Mostly because they already have too many players whom other teams will not touch. This probably applies mostly to Cliff Lee. It's tough to envision a scenario in which it would make more sense to trade Cole Hamels, or a scenario in which it would make any sense to trade Domonic Brown. But if somebody wants to talk, Amaro is not in a position not to listen. Lee has been as good as anybody could have hoped when he signed here in 2011. But there are only so many variables that the Phillies can experiment with, and the current formula has not worked thus far.
4) Cody Asche and Maikel Franco are the options at third base. You would find some cause for concern in Asche's lackluster finish to the season if the Phillies had any sort of decision to make at third base, but the pickings are so slim on the free-agent market that the only question is whether Franco will give the team something to think about in spring training. At this point, the franchise has little reason to take a conservative approach with any internal option who it thinks might be able to improve the major league club, and Franco's .339/.363/.563 batting line and 15 home runs in 277 Double A at-bats are difficult to ignore. The bigger question, according to more than one talent evaluator who watched Franco in Reading, is whether his glove can old up at third base. Asche has removed most of the doubt in that aspect of his game. His bat is the great unknown. He finished 2013 with a .235/.302/.389 line with five home runs and 43 strikeouts in 162 at-bats (.238/.310/.400 against righties, .219/.265/.344 against lefties). Still, Asche sported a solid .773 OPS as late as Sept. 20 before finishing 1-for-21 with 10 strikeouts in his last 23 plate appearances. He has impressed coaches with his work ethic and, from this vantage point, has earned himself considerable benefit of the doubt.
5) Darin Ruf can't be penciled in as the Opening Day rightfielder. Because the Phillies seem likely to enter the season with three lefthanded middle-of-the-order bats in Howard, Brown and Utley, there would seem to be an opportunity for a player like Ruf to become the baseball equivalent of a sixth man, getting a start in leftfield or at first base every time the Phillies face a lefty starter and then pinch-hitting most other nights to provide some late-innings balance to the lineup. Sandberg appears to be a believer in getting his veterans plenty of rest throughout the season, which could open up more playing time, at which would provide a guy like Ruf ample opportunity to steal somebody's job (a la Jayson Werth in 2007 and '08). In other words, the Phillies do not necessarily have to decide between Ruf and one of the veteran outfielders they could pursue via free agency. They just can't afford to enter another season with a question mark at a position that should be among the easiest to fill on the roster. And Ruf is still a question mark, particularly after posting a .210/.331/.330 line with 39 strikeouts and three home runs in his last 121 plate appearances of the season.
Where all of this leads will depend on where the market-setting teams choose to go with their resources. The only certainty is that the Phillies are no longer one of those teams.