It was a disappointing season, to be sure. Whether the Phillies’ nucleus collectively aged before our eyes, whether the young players were not ready for prime time, whether that will all change in 2013 – are all questions that will take months to answer.
I will give credit to the Phillies for getting up off the mat in late August and early September and making themselves relevant again – even for a few short weeks. But then in typical pre-2008 Philadelphia fashion, they got within 3 games of a playoff berth, got everyone watching them, then got their butts kicked by the worst team in Major League Baseball, the Houston Astros.
If there was any question how the playoffs would have turned out if the Phillies did make it there, the Braves and the Nationals each took 2 of 3 from the Phillies during their final homestand of the season at Citizens Bank Park, leaving them with an even 41-41 home record – their worst since 2000 (the last year if the Terry Francona era). Looking ahead, the Phillies need to take 3 of their final 6 games to avoid a losing season, which would be their first since an 80-81 finish in 2002.
What were the bright spots? Three Phillies – Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon and Carols Ruiz – made the NL all-star team. Those 3 players carried the team through much of the first half, getting little support from anyone else.
The Phillies’ late run – playing .600 ball for the last month or so – has been keyed by some slow starters and non-starters, such as Jimmy Rollins, who has 23 homers, 30 steals and is 2 runs shy of the 100 mark. Cliff Lee bounced back to post numbers not far off from Cole Hamels in strikeouts and averages – it just didn’t translate to more than 6 wins. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard‘s power games returned, but their contact rates are subpar. John Mayberry Jr. will end up finishing with similar numbers to what he put up in 2011 – which is an improvement over his awful start, but also leaves questions as to his ideal role. Jeremy Horst (2-0, 1.26 ERA in 29 games) became the new Antonio Bastardo (2-5, 4.41 ERA) even as Bastardo got into 62 games, almost inexplicably the second highest on the team – by a wide margin.
What needs addressing? Let’s start with Charlie Manuel’s contract. He deserves better than to serve 2013 as a lame duck. While the 2014 Phillies may look vastly different than the 2013 version, and a dugout change may be warranted at that time, the Phillies need to send this particular message of continuity to their returning players, even as some of their contracts (notably Utley, Halladay and Ruiz) indicate a 2013 swan song.
The bullpen was improved in the late going, with the callup of Horst and the trade for Josh Lindblom. Phillippe Aumont and his powerful – though erratic – arm, benefitted from time at the major league level. In theory, the Phillies have plenty of arms to audition for their 2013 bullpen, but they would be wise to consider adding a veteran who can unquestionably get guys out – rather than another on-the-cheap Chad Qualls-like debacle.
The 2013 free agent class is rather thin – and full of question marks. A’s closer Grant Balfour is one of the few reliable arms on the market, but even at age 35 would probably command a closer’s salary if not a closer’s role. Ryan Madson may be a viable option, depending on whether he will truly be ready from day one after his March Tommy John surgery. A more high-risk, high reward option could be trading a John Mayberry or a Domonic Brown to the Marlins for Heath Bell – if the Marlins are willing to pay Bell’s bloated salary, maybe the Phils will take on his bloated ERA and waistline and hope for a return to form. Mayberry or Brown could be shipped out for a younger reliever instead.
Which brings us to the outfield… Along with Mayberry and Brown, Nate Schierholtz and Darin Ruf are in the mix. Juan Pierre is a free agent, and probably gone – but if Brown is traded for relief help, it may happen only if a veteran free agent is already in hand.
Ruf had a tremendous season at AA (38-104-.317) – and before you dismiss that as a fluke, he went 17-82-.308 at high A in 2011, and sports a career .305 average in 4 minor league seasons, after being the Phils’ 20th round selection in the 2009 draft out of Creighton University.
Ruf shows power to all fields and very good plate discipline – walking 65 times to his 102 strikeouts at AA – and has a career OBP of .386. With Laynce Nix under contract for 2013 as a fallback option, there is really no reason not to give Ruf a full-time shot in left field.
The bigger question is whether the Phillies need a center fielder via free agency. I think, after watching John Mayberry out there, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
The overwhelming likelihood is that a former Phillie will be patrolling center – preferably Michael Bourn – but if the Phillies can’t land Bourn, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that for half the years and half the dollars of Bourn, Shane Victorino might be back in red pinstripes instead.
Third Base: Kevin Frandsen hit well, though his defense is erratic. Figure that the Phillies will not exercise their 5.5 million option on Placido Polanco or the $4 million option on Ty Wigginton. That, along with a thin free agent crop at third base, should put Frandsen squarely in the Philllies’ plans for 2013.
But if Freddy Galvis proves reliable, the Phillies may elect to shift Chase Utley back to third base, a position he played early in his career and relegate Frandsen to the bench.
That’s why center field truly is the linchpin of the Phillies off-season plans.
In the rotation… Roy Halladay and Vance Worley‘s health are the biggest concerns. If either can’t go, expect Tyler Cloyd (15-1 in the minors, but 8 HR given up in 33 major league innings) to get the first shot at replacing them. Count on Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Kyle Kendrick to get the other 3 spots, while the Jesse Biddles, Trevor Mays, Brody Colvins and Ethan Martins work their way through the minors, waiting for the openings that will likely be there beginning in 2014.
Don’t expect a Cliff Lee trade unless the Phillies are again buried in the standings in late July.
Also, if this isn’t obvious, expect Erik Kratz to back up Carlos Ruiz. The Phillies will undoubtedly pick up Ruiz’s $5 million option, but based on how pleased they seem with Kratz, it seems that the Phillies will limit Ruiz’s workload more in 2013 than they have in recent years.
Speaking of pitchers and catchers…they report in about 135 days.