That was one hell of a World Series, and I hope you watched. Turns out the Cardinals really were the team of destiny. Anyway, now that you've (hopefully) sufficiently licked your wounds and are starting to heal, it's time to look toward next season... which officially started yesterday with the opening of free agency. Feel free to read my offseason musings whenever you're ready to think about 2012.
In terms of what's realistically in play for the Phillies, there's no free agent out there who is a "must have" in my eyes (actually, scratch that, you'll see that there's a reliever I crave to see in red pinstripes). Nevertheless, that won't stop me from wasting my life writing about the topic.
What Needs to be Addressed
Right now I'm 50/50 on whether Jimmy Rollins will be back. While having certainly lost a step, he is still one of the game's top overall shortstops. But more than anything, Rollins is the guy who was here first and initiated this franchise's turnaround over the last decade. It's going to be difficult to separate emotion from the process in this business decision, for both the front office and fans alike. Rollins first experienced the big leagues at the end of 2000, playing in just 14 games for a team that finished 65-97 and last in the NL East. The following season a new era of Phillies baseball began, with the team occupying first place in the NL East well into June and fighting the Braves tooth and nail for the division until the very end of the season before eventually succumbing. For me, it was the first time I watched a winning baseball team, the first time I had hope and reason to believe my team wouldn't suck forever.
Just once since Rollins became a full-time starter has he been part of a team that finished under .500 (in 2002, when the Phillies posted an 80-81 record). He -- more than Chase Utley and Ryan Howard -- is the face of what the Phillies have become. Perhaps Rollins has worn out his welcome with some fans in Philadelphia for various reasons, but you can be sure the majority are still in his corner. He's a vital component of that locker room; one of the heartbeats, so to speak. The longest-tenured athlete currently playing in Philadelphia, it's my hope that James Calvin Rollins III remains in a Phillies uniform for the foreseeable future. In the end, however, money will talk, and he'll go where he feels most wanted. If Rollins does bolt (good friend C.C. Sabathia opined about San Francisco being a landing spot), there are some other stopgap options -- Rafael Furcal or Alex Gonzalez, for example; perhaps even Jamey Carroll -- who can hold down the position until Freddy Galvis, or whomever, is deemed ready. It'll be different... and not necessarily a good kind of different. Also, don't underestimate the makeup of the clubhouse and likely negative impact losing Rollins could have in that regard.
I want Jimmy back, and I want him to finish his career with the Phillies. He's looking for five years, but I think four is a fair compromise... maybe at something like $40 million? Make it happen.
I think Ryan Madson is going to the highest bidder, and even though there's the feeling that he's the Phillies' number one priority, I just don't see them matching some ridiculous offer from a desperate team. It would be unfortunate to lose Madson, but that's how the business goes. Guys like Heath Bell, Jonathan Papelbon, and Francisco Cordero are the other headliners on the open market. However, there are a number of shrewd, cost-efficient options who could be had for less obscene amounts of money. Joe Nathan's name has already already been mentioned, and that's something I'd be on board with for the right price. It'll be his second season back from Tommy John surgery, and even though he'll turn 37 next month, I think the potential reward is well worth the risk. Might a two-year deal -- at, say, $15 million -- loaded with incentives do the trick? It will here, because this is my fantasy land.
Jonathan Broxton, Philadelphia's favorite opposing closer, is another interesting option and perhaps a candidate for a change-of-scenery career revival. It doesn't look like the Dodgers want to have anything to do with him, given his injury concerns and free-fall in performance. Broxton is coming off elbow surgery to clean out some "loose bodies," thus completing a horrid year-and-a-half stretch that saw him lose his closer's role and, really, the ability to be an effective relief pitcher. He will be turning 28 in June, so it's not like we're talking about a player in his late 30's and clearly at the end of his career. Is Broxton another guy worth investing in as a reclamation project? Obviously it will be contingent upon whether teams are confident he can return to form. But remember, at his best, the hefty righty was a power arm with a fastball that hit triple digits and a devastating slider.
As for the player who piques my interest most, it's definitely Jeff Samardzija. He had his $3 million option for 2012 declined by the Cubs on Monday; reports are that they want to re-sign him, but at a lower base salary. Looks like Theo Epstein's going to try to sneak this under the radar and pull a fast one. Some smart team should make him pay for letting a young (turns 27 in January), valuable pitcher with high-end ability hit the open market. If I'm the Phillies, I'm targeting Samardzija and throwing out a sizable offer he'll have trouble turning down. Everything about him screams worthwhile investment. Samardjia's got a live, electric arm and plenty of potential to be a dominant pitcher going forward. He can fill any role in the bullpen, has closer stuff, and could even be converted into a starter. The possibilities are plentiful when it comes to such a versatile pitcher, and in a weak class of free agents, this is the guy who really caught my eye. Samardzija, in my opinion, has the highest upside of any reliever out there -- perhaps any pitcher, period. Get him, Ruben. How about four years at $20 million, with a team option for a fifth year at $10-15 million. DO IT.
Another name I kicked around in my head was Frank Francisco. He's toiled in relative obscurity his entire career and is most remembered for an unfortunate incident seven years ago that he probably wishes never happened. Once a regular reliever, Francisco has taken on intermittent responsibility as a closer in two of the last three seasons. While he definitely has closer stuff (mid-90s fastball and a hard splitter), his stats aren't going to blow you away. Still, I think Francisco is a solid pitcher who could be had at a palatable price; the reason being that he's had trouble, you guessed it, staying healthy. Ah, health, the ultimate wild card. Perhaps a switch to the NL after spending his whole career in the AL could be beneficial for Francisco, but none of that will matter if he can't stay on the mound and off the disabled list. His ineffectiveness pitching back-to-back nights (scroll to #46) is alarming and has been lamented since his days with the Rangers. Nevermind, just talked myself out of it. I'll pass.
On that note, I think the bullpen in general could use another piece or two. My major target would have been Javier Lopez, but he just signed a two-year, $8.5 million extension to stay with the Giants. You remember him for his particularly effective performance in last season's NLCS. The Phillies need another lefty for the bullpen to pair with Antonio Bastardo... and it would have been nice to watch Lopez strike out opposing left-handed batters, instead of Utley and Howard. I'm actually pretty bummed about this. The Phillies should still focus on acquiring another veteran left-handed reliever. Perhaps the ageless Darren Oliver, who's still interested in playing, if he can be lured away from the Rangers? At age 41, he's still effective as ever, especially tough on lefty hitters, and has lowered his ERA in each of the last four seasons. I'm on board, provided the contract is only for one year. I'd also be fine with signing Mike Gonzalez, Oliver's teammate, instead.
Edit: Shit, I forgot Todd Coffey is a free agent. I love Todd Coffey. He'd instantly become my favorite Phillie... and it's definitely not only because of his herculean physique. But seriously, I like Coffey as a reliever and think he's got underrated stuff.
In-house options to land bullpen roles with the Phillies:
Justin De Fratus... Amaro isn't sold on him as a possible closer, but De Fratus is the guy I'm most curious to see (followed by the next candidate).
Phillippe Aumont... viewed as the closer of the future but is said to need more seasoning in the minors.
Michael Schwimer... got a glimpse of him at at the end of the season, and I imagine he'll get every opportunity to make the team in spring training. If Schwimer doesn't make the team, he'll be one of the first in-season call-ups.
Joe Savery... any possible way he could be a position player/emergency reliever combo? Because that would be awesome.
3) First base
I don't see Ryan Howard being ready to start the season. Naturally, Amaro needs to figure out a way to fill the position in the interim.* If he decides that re-signing Ross Gload is the solution, I'm going to punch a baby in the face. And I love babies.
*Edit: I'd first try to pry Garrett Jones away from the Pirates. He can play first base and left/right field and hits for power (the kind that'll make you say "wow").
There are certainly options on the free agent market, with Derek Lee probably the most plausible; he'd be perfect as a temporary replacement. Once Howard returns, Lee could then transition to the role of valuable bench player, where he can pinch hit, serve as a late-game defensive replacement, and spell the big guy at first base from time to time. A funny thing happened with Lee after the Orioles -- with whom he struggled mightily, to the tune of a .246/.302/.404 line -- dealt him to the Pirates at the trade deadline. Following a stint on the disabled list with a hand injury, he returned to the lineup at the beginning of September and started to rake. In 83 at bats during the month, Lee put up a .349/.415/.554 line with five home runs and 15 RBI. Of course that's not a large enough sample size to say he magically transformed into Derek Lee circa 2005-2009, but maybe there's a little something still left in the tank.
Carlos Pena is available, but I have trouble believing he'll sign somewhere to be a temporary starter and ultimately a backup (I would certainly want him on a one-year deal, though). Same goes for Casey Kotchman, who's turning 29 and coming off a breakout season.
If it's decided the fill-in for Howard should come from within the organization, there are three players in the running. John Mayberry, Jr. is the obvious selection, but he's a plus defender in the outfield. If Amaro is serious about his stated desire to have Domonic Brown play a full season in AAA (I'd rather see him in the big leagues because I'm in favor of on-the-job training), Mayberry should be the primary option to start in left field and part of a platoon at first base. Now, who would be the other half of said platoon? Seems like Cody Overbeck and Matt Rizzotti are the most popular candidates.
First thing's first: I've never watched either play. There are far better bloggers out there with detailed scouting reports about both Overback (bats righty) and Rizzotti (bats lefty), but I'll touch on this anyway. It seems like the Phillies should explore the possibility of letting one of them start the season in the majors, especially given that this isn't a protracted situation (or so we think). Overbeck has vaulted himself into the discussion as one of the organization's better prospects, but I also think it would be a mistake for Rizzotti to not at least be in the discussion this offseason and during spring training. He has superior plate discipline and gets on base with aplomb, something the Phillies sorely need (better at bats would be nice, too). Rizzotti's potential at the plate is enough to overlook that he's a poor -- very poor -- fielder and runner, and he's an intriguing platoon option with John Mayberry at first base until Ryan Howard is fully healthy. It was always a foregone conclusion that Rizzotti wasn't going to get his chance to play in the bigs with the Phillies because he can't be anything other than a first basement or designated hitter. Well, here we are, sans Howard, and an opportunity for somebody to step up. Rizzotti has gotten more ink over the years, but Overbeck is the more complete player and started to gain a lot of traction this past season. I think it's more likely he gets the nod and Rizzotti, who's been jerked around by the organization plenty, is banished back to baseball purgatory. However, if Charlie Manuel decides he wants the platoon at first base to feature a righty and lefty, Rizzotti could get his chance.
Edit: Welcome back, Gentleman Jim! Fantastic, hooray for nostalgia. It wasn't a secret that Amaro and Manuel wanted to acquire Thome during the waiver trade period in August, but the Phillies' record made that impossible. I'm actually disappointed in myself for not suggesting this... I just figured Thome could be nothing more than a DH or bench option in the AL, and I didn't think the Phillies would sign a guy who couldn't play the field (wait, is he going to play first base?). Then again, there was that Matt Stairs guy who was just a bat and didn't play the field, and he did some good stuff.
4) Left field
Yeah, John Mayberry, Jr. is the front-runner to start in left, but what if he's viewed as the short term solution at first base and Amaro doesn't want to put Dom Brown out there? Free agent options to fill the void include Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Grady Sizemore, and Ryan Doumit (who can no longer be an everyday catcher). Cuddyer is a popular suggestion, but he's going to surely command more per season than the $10.5 million he made in 2011 and is below average defensively. On the plus side, he can also fill in at first base -- second and third, too, if absolutely necessary -- and crushes left-handed pitching (.311/.403/.589 in 151 at bats this past season; .300/.389/.569 in 496 at bats since the beginning of 2008). While Cuddyer's a solid offensive player who'd likely see a bump in his power numbers if he switches to the NL, I wouldn't be willing to give him a long-term, big money deal. In fact, I wouldn't want to give a long-term contract to any of the aforementioned players,* though I would pursue DeJesus if he's receptive to signing a shorter deal. He's coming off his worst season but has proven to be a capable major leaguer over the course of his career -- and I like his game. DeJesus can play all three outfield positions, displays a disciplined plate approach that has to appeal to Amaro, and is a consistent hitter (just look at his yearly averages) who uses the whole field. That said, you know who might deliver the best bang for your buck and is suited for a part-time/bench role? Jonny Gomes.
*Edit: Actually, Kubel wouldn't be so bad as a fourth outfielder. Someone like Willingham, on the other hand, will demand to be an everyday starter, while Sizemore hasn't been 100% healthy since 2008 (although getting him on a one- or two-year deal is something I'd explore due to the risk/reward factor).
5) Third base
Placido Polanco is in the twilight of his career, and the injuries are mounting up. While his glove work at third base is the best in the NL (congrats on the well-deserved Gold Glove), his hitting has fallen off a cliff -- although that could have just been a symptom of his multiple injuries. For that reason, going forward I think it's best to limit Polanco as an everyday starter and instead use him as a sort of super-utility player who can also spell Utley at second base. Another third baseman should be brought in to help lessen the workload. I would float Eric Chavez's name, but it seems he's retiring. Players like Aramis Ramirez and Wilson Betemit will want to be full-time starters, and unless Polanco is relegated to the bench permanently, neither seems like a fit in Philadelphia. The guy I'd be most interested in signing for this specific role is Jerry Hairston, Jr. (plays second, third, and outfield), who really came on strong for the Brewers down the stretch and in the playoffs after being acquired from the Washington Nationals. He'd be an excellent addition.
6) Backup catcher
Projected lineup on Opening Day:
C: Carlos Ruiz
1B: Derek Lee
2B: Chase Utley
SS: Jimmy Rollins
3B: Placido Polanco
RF: Hunter Pence
CF: Shane Victorino
LF: John Mayberry, Jr.
Edit: I'm starting to think it might just be a better idea to sign an everyday left fielder and use Mayberry as the interim first baseman. When Howard comes back, Mayberry can serve as the starting left fielder/fourth outfielder and backup at first.
Bullpen: Michael Stutes, Darren Oliver, Justin De Fratus/Michael Schwimer, Antonio Bastardo, Jose Contreras, Joe Nathan, Jeff Samardzija (and I'd let Contreras, Bastardo, Nathan, and Samardzija duke it out for the closer spot)
Now go ahead and tell me why I'm a dumb, stupid idiot and your mock offseason idea is so much better.