The toughest decision the Phillies have to make this offseason does not involve Cole Hamels. Every indication I get is that the ball is in Hamels’ court. If he is determined to explore free agency, then he will. If not, the Phillies will make him a strong offer, and he will accept.
Hunter Pence is a different story. Over the next 18 days, the Phillies need to decide whether paying Hunter Pence $14 to $15 million for 2013 is a cost efficient move. That decision will require them to ignore everything that has happened before 2012 and focus on what makes them a better team in 2013 and the future. As we concluded in our earlier post, the Phillies no longer have an elite three-hole hitter in Chase Utley. Maybe he proves that conclusion wrong, but he will not be able to do so before the July 31 trading deadline, and even if he does, the Phillies cannot afford to head into 2013 relying on Utley’s knees to cooperate for an entire season. Before April of next year, they need to add a piece who is capable of hitting in the top half of the lineup. Is Pence that guy? Or is he best slotted as a five-hole hitter, where he faces less pressure?
Aside from Hamels, who we have already discussed at length, Pence is the player on the roster with the most trade value. Anybody who considers his 2012 season a disappointment was not paying attention to his first four years in the majors. He is hitting .285/.352/.482 with 16 home runs. All of those numbers are right around his career averages. As we wrote last year before the trade, he is not a centerpiece player. But he is a bat that would help a lot of teams. And the market could be a good one for his services, since the second Wild Card enables teams like the Pirates and the Indians to maintain serious hope for the playoffs. Both of those teams could be in the market for a corner outfielder. Same goes for the Reds and the Orioles.
The biggest mistake the Phillies can make is allowing the players they traded for Pence to factor into their thinking. Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart were among the organization’s top prospects, and outfielder Domingo Santana had some serious upside that he appears to be starting to realize in Houston’s system. Trading Pence could be interpreted as a wasted investment. But again, you can’t allow past decisions to affect future ones. This is all about what makes sense moving forward. In reality, if the Phillies can nab a top-level prospect in exchange for Pence, it will make the package they dealt for him appear more reasonable, because that prospect would cancel out the loss of a guy like Cosart (it is hard to imagine them landing somebody with the pedigree of Singleton).
Trading Pence could also help facilitate the trade that really needs to be made.
1) Trade Pence for a package that would include a Top 50 prospect and a solid prospect (probably outside Baseball America’s Top 100), then formulate a package that would convince San Diego to part with third baseman Chase Headley.
Third base might be a bigger question mark now than it has been since 2007. This is not new for the Phillies, who have been on a quest to fill the position since they traded away Scott Rolen. But he has a number of qualities that should be attractive to the Phillies. He reaches base (a .374 OBP in 2011 and a .368 OBP in 2012. His power has increased over the last three seasons (27 percent of his hits went for extra base hits in 2010, 30 percent in 2011, 35 percent in 2012). He has a career .299/.366/.445 line outside of Petco Park. And most importantly, he is 28 years old, eligible for arbitration for the second time after earning $3.48 million this season, and cannot become a free agent until after the 2014 season. He is also a switch-hitter.
2) Trade Shane Victorino
It is very difficult to forecast what a player like Victorino would land. He certainly has not helped his trade value over the first half of the season, but he does have a track record and a tool set that would be intriguing to several contenders, including the Dodgers. It is hard to imagine a team giving up a Top 100 prospect for two months of Victorino, but perhaps he could land a young bullpen piece or back-of-the-rotation prospect. Perhaps the prospect could be used in the Headley package. The bigger attraction would be salary relief, since the Phillies are right up against the luxury tax threshold, which is important because this blueprint still calls for them to sign Cole Hamels. Teams that exceed the $178 million threshold for the first time pay a tax of 17.5 percent of every dollar they go over the threshold. So a first-time offender that finishes the year with a $190 million payroll would be charged an extra $2.1 million. The goal for the Phillies should be to avoid becoming a first-time offender in 2012, because the tax rate for second time offenders jumps up to 30 percent, which means a team with a $190 million payroll would pay $3.6 million in tax.
Trading Victorino would save the Phillies about $3.75 million in salary, which should ensure that they remain under the threshold.
3) Offer Hamels a six-year, $138 million contract, and give him a pre-July-31 deadline to accept, telling him that if he does not he will be traded.
If Hamels rejects your final offer, you trade him and tell him you’ll be involved in the bidding if he does not re-sign with his new team before he hits free agency.
4) Target either a center fielder or a right fielder in free agency
I’d love to see Nick Swisher in this lineup. He reaches base, hits for power, and has played in a high-pressure market. He’ll be 32 years old next season. He is probably in line for a contract bigger than the three-year, $31.5 million deal that Michael Cuddyer signed last year. I’d consider going three years and $42 million for Swisher. Expensive, yes, but probably cheaper than the contract that Michael Bourn is in line for. I’d be more wary of giving five years and $60 million to Bourn than three and $42 million to Swisher. Either player would look really nice in the lineup that we are currently assembling.
5) Taking stock
Here is what we have for 2013 so far:
- Jimmy Rollins SS – $9.5 million
- Chase Utley 2B – $12.125 million
- Chase Headley 3B – $5.5 million (projected arbitration)
- Ryan Howard 1B – $25.0 million
- Nick Swisher RF – $14.0 million
- Carlos Ruiz C – $6.0 million
- Domonic Brown LF – .480 million
- Center Field
- Cliff Lee – $24.0 million
- Cole Hamels – $23.0 million
- Roy Halladay – $20.0 million
- Vance Worley – $.515 million
- Kyle Kendrick – $3.75 million
- Jonathan Papelbon – $12.5 million
- Antonio Bastardo – $1.5 million*
- Jake Diekman – $.485 million
- Setup man
- Long reliever
- Laynce Nix – $1.25 million
- John Mayberry Jr. – $.515 million
- Freddy Galvis – $.485 million
- Veteran backup catcher – $.800 million
Such a payroll would leave the Phillies at about $175 million with six positions to fill. The most expensive positions would be center field and setup man, followed by a veteran bench bat capable of playing second base and three middle/long relievers.
In other words, if the Phillies sign Hamels, they need to be content to go over the luxury tax threshold for next season, because a veteran setup man will probably cost you at least $5 million, a veteran bench bat $2.0 million, and another veteran reliever around $2.0 million, which would leave you at $184 million while still needing to sign a center fielder (figure the last two relievers come from the system and cost a total of $1.0 million). In Yankeeland, Brian Cashman signs both Bourn and Swisher, enabling the Phillies to move Jimmy Rollins down to the six or seven-hole, where he is better suited. Signing Bourn would do that, but it would leave the Phillies relying on Carlos Ruiz and/or Domonic Brown along with whatever right fielder they sign to back up Ryan Howard in the middle of the order. There are a ton of center fielders on the market, which might make it unwise to overpay for a guy like Bourn. Assuming the Phillies are not in Yankeeland and cannot afford to boast a $200 million payroll (with an extra $4.2 million in luxury tax charges), the best combination might be investing in right field and then finding the best deal among center fielders like Victorino, Rick Ankiel, Cody Ross, etc. In that case, they could fill all of their holes and keep the payroll at or under $189 million, which is the luxury tax threshold starting in 2014.
6) What if Hamels doesn’t sign?
Then you trade him, either landing you a near-major-league ready third base prospect like the Rangers’ Mike Olt, or providing you with the prospects to facilitate a trade for a guy like Headley. I would still look to deal Pence, since you can probably get a Pence-type player in Nick Swisher for a similar price in free agency, but you can’t get prospects in free agency. Either way, you have right field filled. You could then make a play for a guy like Bourn, provided you can sign a starter like Anibal Sanchez or Edwin Jackson for $10 million less than you were going to give Hamels. But you have to replace Hamels somehow.
7) In conclusion
As long as the Phillies continue to spend money, they have the ability to make 2012 a blip on the radar. I still view signing Hamels as a necessity. Even though a rotation of Lee-Halladay-Sanchez-Worley-Kendrick might look nice when combined with a lineup of Bourn-Utley-Headley-Howard-Swisher-Ruiz-Rollins-Brown, keep in mind that Halladay can become a free agent after 2013. When that happens, who is your No. 2 starter? Hamels is the Phillies’ No. 1 starter of the future. Halladay with be 36 years old next season. That might require the Phillies to bit the bullet and stretch the payroll even further next season, but the other option is a year-to-year mix-and-match with the rotation with Lee earning $24 million per year at the top.
Also, trading for a guy like Chase Headley is not nearly as easy as I made it sound. The Phillies might have to look at trading for a guy like Jed Lowrie, or they might have to hope that whatever prospect they acquire for Hamels, or for Pence, is a third baseman and pans out.
There are a lot of ifs. This is just one man’s blueprint.