Offseason decisions: the Philadelphia Phillies get old

One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.

The problem

The Philadelphia Phillies have won the division for five years running now. The core of the team has remained largely unchanged, with Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino, and Cole Hamels present for all five playoff runs. The continuity has probably helped the Phillies remain atop the NL East but it also presents the franchise’s greatest challenge—they’re getting old.

An aging roster is a serious problem. The Phillies are laden with a ton of hefty contracts, limiting their flexibility in the open market. Players on the wrong side of 30 tend to predictably lose talent and injuries can become a major problem. Not surprisingly for the Phillies, they saw virtually their entire starting lineup hit the disabled list at some point in 2011. This will continue to be a problem in 2012, with Howard starting the year on the shelf while healing from an Achilles injury and Utley dealing with a knee injury that isn’t expected to heal.

The Phillies can be said to have an eight player core headed into 2012. The list is composedy of Utley, Howard, Ruiz, Victorino, Hamels, Hunter Pence, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. The average age of that group will be 31.75. Only Hamels and Pence will be less than 30 years of age. Of Phillies with regular playing time, current sixth starter Kyle Kendrick and platoon outfielder John Mayberry Jr. join Hamels and Pence in the under 30 club.

The young alternatives

Quite obviously, the Phillies have an age problem. They should ignore it while constructing their 2012 roster.

It is easy to pick on age as a whipping boy. One thing everyone needs to remember is that the Phillies were old in 2011 and won 102 games. They have key players who may not return, including Roy Oswalt, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Madson, but also have the flexibility to explore ways to recover from those losses.

The Phillies can’t afford to worry about age because they don’t have a major youth movement to fall back on. To make a short story shorter, the Phillies have traded an entire top 10 list worth of prospects to acquire Joe Blanton, Lee, Halladay, Oswalt and Pence over the last five years.

They do have some interesting guys on the cusp of major league readiness. Domonic Brown is the best-known of the group and has the highest ceiling. Given his struggles in 2011, especially in the field where he was downright atrocious, the Phillies would do well to demote him to Triple-A. A first division club like the Phillies probably should not rely on a shaky prospect just because he’s young and has a pedigree. It is better for the Phillies to force Brown to earn his place in Philadelphia. He is entering his age 24 season and has obvious flaws to improve upon, so this wouldn’t be punitive treatment.

Shortstop prospect Freddy Galvis is another guy considered to be just about ready. Galvis combines excellent defense at shortstop with a weak bat. He did experience a breakout season at the plate in 2011. But when a .278/.324/.392 batting line is described as a breakout performance, you know you’re looking at a light hitter. Galvis probably could be slotted into the Phillies lineup as a league average shortstop, but the Philadelphia would prefer not to depend on him.

The rest of the newbies are relief pitchers including Michael Stutes, Michael Schwimer, Phillippe Aumont, Justin DeFratus, Joe Savery, and Jacob Diekman. Phillies fans will probably see all six at some point in 2012.

Course of action

So if a roster is old and lacks high impact prospects, a team only has one way to patch things up—redundancy. For the Phillies to be confident about their 2012 product, they need to make sure they have plenty of depth.

The rotation is the easiest to address. The Phillies are six deep with Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Blanton, Vance Worley and Kendrick. However, they lack options beyond the top six and should probably import a couple veteran swingmen for the Lehigh Valley roster.

The bullpen is similarly simple. With such a large group of setup upside relief prospects, the Phillies will look to acquire a top tier closer—supposedly either Madson or Jonathan Papelbon. The rest of the ‘pen should fall effortlessly into place.

The infield is a trickier situation. First, somebody needs to be brought in for shortstop. The Phillies probably hope that is Rollins, but if another team offers him the five year contract he seeks, he’ll be allowed to walk. In that scenario, Galvis would probably join an older veteran like Alex Gonzalez as a solid Plan C (Plan A is Jose Reyes, but I consider that extremely unlikely).

Polanco and Utley both miss their share of time due to injury, so the Phillies would do well to acquire a veteran who can cover both positions. That could explain their supposed interest in Michael Cuddyer. He can play second and third base, but his defense is suspect at both.

Howard’s Achilles injury could affect both the infield and the outfield. Jim Thome was signed quickly and hopes to play one to two games a week at first. The remainder of starts will probably be split between Mayberry Jr. and an unknown free agent. Cuddyer could fit that role.

In the outfield, the Phillies have one more year of Victorino on a cheap $9.5 million contract before he hits free agency. He will be 32 in 2013 and might be allowed to leave. The Phillies also have two arbitration seasons left with Hunter Pence. That leaves Mayberry Jr, Brown, and Ben Francisco as the in-house options at left field. This opens a lot of different doors.

If Mayberry isn’t spending time at first base, a cost effective solution might be to bring in a solid left-handed platoon player. Since those are somewhat rare—at least on the free agent market—the Phillies could look at other options. One good alternative would be to trade for Rockies outfielder Seth Smith. A platoon of Mayberry Jr. and Smith could look an awful lot like a star. Failing that, Cuddyer once again seems to make sense.

An interesting option who recently erupted onto the scene is Cuban defector Yeonis Cespedas. The 26-year-old center fielder seems like an attractive option for the Phillies. With Victorino likely headed elsewhere in 2013, Cespedas can serve as the heir apparent. He also injects youth into the lineup, which might allow the Phillies to avoid trading major prospects for reinforcements in 2012. That could help the Phillies get ahead of the curve in prospect development.

Philadelphia typically doesn’t invest heavily in international talent, but Cespedas might represent a special case. The Phillies are expected to be one of many teams to hold a private workout with him in the coming weeks.

Wrapping things up

The Philadelphia Phillies have one primary goal for the 2012 offseason—build quality depth. It would be preferable if they could get younger in the process, but they should not focus on reducing their average age at the expense of talent.

An ideal Phillies offseason might include the following moves:
{exp:list_maker}Re-sign Rollins to a three-year contract. Else wise, acquire a veteran shortstop like Gonzalez.
Re-sign Madson or sign Papelbon
Sign Cuddyer or trade for Smith
Sign Cespedes {/exp:list_maker}

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Comments

  1. Richard Barbieri said...

    It’s probably worth noting that the Phils carried Matt Stairs for a whole season (plus a bit of 2008) without really using him in the field at all, so Charlie Manuel is not unaware of how to manage with that kind of player.

  2. MikeS said...

    This is the second time I’ve seen it suggested that Thome will see time in the field.  He was never especially good at it even when he was doing it regularly.  The guy has played 28 innings at 1B over the last 6 years.  Not 28 games, 28 innings.  At just 1 start a week he will surpass that in less than a month.  He hasn’t worn a glove except to keep his hand warm since 2007.  I think anything beyond emergency duty will be an adventure at best.

    It’s almost like expecting Rick Ankiel to make an occasional appearance out of the bullpen.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    Thome himself is the one who announced his intention to play 1-2 games a week, so that comment was straight from the horse’s mouth. He said something to the effect that with the whole offseason to prepare, he should be able to get ready for 1-2 games a week. If he doesn’t, fine, they will have alternatives in place.

    Thome was always perfectly adequate as a no range first baseman. He won’t field much of anything, but he can probably still pick the ball. That’s not really a skill that ever goes away. His bat will make up for the 1 ball per 5 games he doesn’t get to.

  4. Leo Walter said...

    The most over rated NL team of the past 4 to 5 seasons.These guys can hit,they can field,and the can surley figure out how to lose in the playoffs to teams with lesser talent.

  5. Flharfh said...

    I suspect they will let Thome try his hand at 1B during spring training, and then make the decision of whether or not to let him play there during “real” baseball.

  6. Brad Johnson said...

    Of course, that goes both way too. Thome will let them know if he thinks that HE can play first base now and then.

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