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Consecutive losses for Flyers at Tampa Bay

Does Amaro hold all the cards?

Posted by Ron Opher On December 7

After seemingly striking out at every turn, Ruben Amaro got his man – sort of – to play center field for the Phillies.

But his choice of a trade for Ben Revere leaves him with a still significant chip stack to place bets on other diamond positions.

Let’s examine how the hot stove league – which picked up in intensity with the Winter Meetings – has taken shape this far, and where it is likely to go next.

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A comprehensive look at this offseason’s free agent market would be incomplete without a look at the August blockbuster trade between the Dodgers and Red Sox, where LA did their holiday shopping early, acquiring Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto for Allen Webster, Ivan De Jesus, Rubby De La Rosa, Jerry Sands and James Loney. That’s a net of $267 million in new contracts.

For those who thought that the Dodgers were simply taking a run at the 2012 postseason, I’ll point out that the new ownership group in LA (National League), with point man (or is it point guard) Magic Johnson definitely needs to take back the spotlight from LA (American League) owner Arte Moreno and his twin Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson signings a year ago. With a look at this year’s relatively thin free agent class, the Dodgers decided to buy early, while the Red Sox decided to shed clubhouse cancer Beckett and huge disappointment Crawford – even if it meant parting company with the relatively productive Adrian Gonzalez.

The Red Sox proved at the Winter Meetings that getting good production at first base should not be nearly as costly as Gonzalez’s contract and landed former Texas Ranger Mike Napoli for 3 years and $39 million and filled right field with Shane Victorino at an identical price. Boston also signed lefty reliever Koji Uehara to a one-year deal. Some would say that the Victorino deal was an overpayment – but it’s still a heck of a lot cheaper than the Crawford contract. That means the Red Sox still have about $175 million to spend, and could theoretically pursue Zack Greinke (the best starter available), but are more likely linked with a second-tier starter like Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse – or even former Boston farmhand Anibal Sanchez.

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The Phillies – after shedding Victorino, as well as Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton at or soon after the trade deadline – theoretically had about $30 million annually to spend on this season’s free agent crop.

Their needs were clear: A center fielder who could bat leadoff or in the 2 hole, a third baseman – preferably a right-handed hitter with some power who might even be able to bat fifth, and a set-up reliever with a live strikeout arm who could reliably pitch in the 8th inning with a lead.

You’d think that with as long a wish list as he’s had in a while, Ruben Amaro would start aiming and firing right away. Surely the top center fielder – ex-Phillie Michael Bourn – would be in Amaro’s crosshairs. Even as word dribbled out that the Phillies didn’t like Bourn because he strikes out too much (conveniently ignoring the fact that he also walks a ton, and between his on-base ability and defense was far and away the best center fielder available), it looked like the Phillies were sandbagging everyone who was following along.

But then word came that the Phillies were perhaps more interested in B.J. Upton, as a potential right-handed power bat who could bat 5th and also fill the center field hole. After all, Jimmy Rollins could still lead off (at least the people who matter most in that decision still think so). But then news came before the Winter Meetings that Upton signed a 5-year, $75 million contract with the rival Braves. And soon after, the Nationals took themselves right out of the Michael Bourn sweepstakes by trading Alex Meyer – a relatively highly regarded pitching prospect – for Twins center fielder Denard Span.

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If the Phillies were sandbagging, they didn’t need to keep showing a poker face with their rivals folding on Bourn. But a strange thing happened – and with Scott Boras representing Bourn, strange things are not new to the Phillies and Boras (exhibit A: J.D. Drew; exhibit B: Ryan Madson) – it turned out the Phillies really didn’t want Bourn (at leas not at Bourn’s price, which is believed to be 6-7 years for $90-100 million).

First, they went after a guy who they figured would be above average, but by no means an all-star – Angel Pagan. When Pagan went back to the Giants for 4 years, $40 million, they intensified their talks with Colorado for Dexter Fowler. Word is that the Rockies need starting pitching. If you look at their 2012 season, you’d agree. The Phillies decided they were willing to part with Vance Worley – who pitched with bone chips in his elbow until he finally had to be shut down and have them removed. They presumably learned 3 things about Worley:

1. He might continue to have elbow problems with his pitching style
2. Tyler Cloyd might be able to adequately take Worley’s place
3. Perhaps most importantly, there are enough veteran free agent pitchers out there for a reasonable enough price who could replace Worley more easily and cheaply than the Phillies could fill center field…especially with Pagan off the board and Bourn being the only viable choice via free agency

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Naturally, other teams would likely worry about point #1 above – so Worley alone wouldn’t get it done. The Phillies were then willing to add Trevor May to a deal. May came into 2012 as MLB’s 69th best prospect, coming off a 2011 season at high-A Clearwater where he struck out 208 batters in only 151 innings and went 10-8 with a 3.63 ERA. Walks were still an issue – 4.0 per 9 innings, but better than the 5.4 and 5.0 marks from the prior 2 seasons. Instead of building on his 2011 campaign, May went backward at AA Reading in 2012, with a 4.7 walk rate, and alarmingly 22 homers allowed (he had allowed a total of 21 in the prior 3 seasons combined). May’s wildness in and out of the strike zone led to a 4.87 ERA.

With neither pitcher being a sure thing, it’s no wonder that the Rockies – who wanted Mike Minor and one of Randall Delgado or Julio Teheran from the Braves and were rebuffed – did not consider the Phillies’ duo comparable enough to the Braves pitchers they targeted, and therefore turned the Phillies down on Dexter Fowler.

While there is no doubt that Fowler is better than Ben Revere, Revere was available for Worley and May and is also about $3-4 million cheaper for each of the next 2 years and under team control for 2 years longer. The trade, in short, may have landed the Phillies the 4th or 5th best centerfielder on the market, but not by such a degree that the value play in still having money to spend and holes to fill may not work out far better than blowing nearly all the money on Bourn or Upton or even a big chunk on Pagan.

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In fact, the Phillies could still pursue a corner outfielder – such as Nick Swisher (a switch hitter) or a return of Raul Ibañez (a lefty). From the right side, Ryan Ludwick had been dragging his feet on an offer from the Reds – perhaps waiting on the Phillies – but did finally agree to return to Cincinnati. The Rockies could still be a trade partner – for Michael Cuddyer, rather than for Fowler. A similar player to Cuddyer, and long-rumored to be a fit here is Josh Willingham – but an expanded Revere-Willingham package did not materialize, even though it was apparently discussed. Another longtime favorite/nemesis is Cody Ross, and then there’s also the persistent Ichiro Suzuki rumor, though Ichiro would still leave the Phillies bereft of power.

Even Josh Hamilton could be in play since Revere didn’t drain the budget – though it appears than Hamilton will land back in Texas (his preference) or Seattle (his apparent #2 choice). Other options for Hamilton are Milwaukee and more of a longshot would be high pressure, high budget places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia. If Hamilton were a righthanded batter, the Phillies would much more likely be interested and more willing to take the risk on Hamilton’s prior substance abuse issues.

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At third base, the Phillies are apparently in agreement with the Rangers on a deal for Michael Young, where Texas would pick up a big chunk (as much as $10 million) of Young’s $16 million remaining for 2013 in exchange for a young reliever – probably Justin DeFratus and probably not Phillipe Aumont (too high a price) and probably not Michael Schwimer or Michael Stutes (too low a price). Apparently this deal is a go as long as Young waives his no-trade rights.

If there is any question about whether Amaro holds the cards at third base, ask yourself why Kevin Youkilis hasn’t signed yet? Sure, he supposedly has a 1-year $12 million offer to be a Yankee or a 2-year offer at a higher total but a lower annual to reunite with Terry Francona in Cleveland – but why not use the Phillies to drive up the price or even land here?

For the Phillies, while the knock on Young is declining power, the same can be said of Youkilis, who has devolved into a glorified table-setter who will clog up the bases at the top of the order. Perhaps equally important, Young can play second base in case Chase Utley‘s knees act up again. Another factor could be that with Young here, Josh Hamilton gives the Phillies more than a passing glance – the pair have been teammates for 5 of Hamilton’s 6 big-league seasons.

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The set-up man may prove more elusive than you’d think. Jeremy Affeldt, Jonathan Broxton, Joakim Soria and Sean Burnett are all off the board. Mike Adams seems to be the logical fit, but he just went from 4 years of a WHIP no higher than 1.065 (mostly in San Diego) to a 1.395 WHIP (and 3.27 ERA, his highest since 2006) in his first season in Texas. He also gave up more than a a hit per inning for the first time in his career (excluding his 2-game stint in 2006). Over-reliance on Petco-induced stats hurt Amaro badly in his pursuit of Chad Qualls last season – he does not need a repeat with Adams.

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Finally, trading Worley opens up the possibility that the Phillies are in the market for a veteran starter. I gave a short list above when talking about the Red Sox. I think that the Phillies are buyers not only to the extent that they may not think Cloyd can replace Worley (or more accurately, pitch out of the #5 and Kyle Kendrick move up to #4), but also because of questions about Roy Halladay‘s health and effectiveness, coupled with his increasingly likely free agent departure after 2013.

If the Phillies don’t spend on Josh Hamilton, they’d be foolish not to address the Halladay concerns (both relative to 2013 and beyond). The guy I think they’re most likely to land out of that group is Ryan Dempster (all they’d have to do is beat a 2-year, $26 million offer).

Or maybe Amaro will go all in – after ponying up $135 million for Cliff Lee in 2011 and $153 million for Cole Hamels in 2012, is it at all possible that Amaro shocks the world and sends Josh Hamilton into the arms of Nolan Ryan after the Rangers (and Dodgers) come up empty on the top pitcher available – Zach Greinke?

Ask yourself why Greinke, Hamilton and Bourn – likely the top 3 contracts of this free agent class – are still out there.

Ruben has the cards and the chips. All in could win him his first bracelet. A bad bet and he might be sitting outside the casino on the concrete steps, busted again.


 

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