Don't be surprised if Joe Blanton is one of the more popular players in camp this year, at least when it comes to the Phillies front office and pro scouts from opposing teams. Two of ESPN's national writers have reported Ruben Amaro Jr.'s interest in trading the veteran right-hander, one of them Jayson Stark, the other Buster Olney, who yesterday suggested that the Phillies were talking to the Yankees about A.J. Burnett before New York finalized a deal with Pittsburgh.
Whether Blanton stays or goes likely depends on the answer to two questions:
1. How desperate are the Phillies to stay under the luxury tax threshold?
2. How healthy is Blanton? Or, rather, how healthy do other teams judge him to be?
As Friend of the Cheese Bill Baer points out in his post on Crashburn Alley, any trade for Burnett almost certainly would have been accompanied by a trade of Blanton, unless David Montgomery really has resorted to setting money on fire for kicks and giggles. Therefore, we can probably assume that the Phillies were never close to completing a deal. Because it is next to impossible to conceive of a situation in which a team would agree to pay an appreciable portion of Blanton's $8.5 million salary after the veteran righthander missed most of 2011 with an elbow injury that was never surgically-repaired. At least before Blanton makes it through the spring healthy.
For what it's worth, Blanton said he feels like his elbow is no longer an issue. He said his relief appearance in the playoffs, as well as two subsequent starts in the instructional league in Florida, proved to him that he is healthy.
"You are talking about pitching in the playoff, so that's the ultimate intensity on your arm," Blanton Sunday morning before the Phillies' pitchers and catchers held their first official workout of the spring. "Mentally, I'm optimistic. Physically, I feel like I'm over it."
Which is all well and good. But from a risk management standpoint, the proof is in the pudding, and there is little incentive for any big league GM to act on a trade before his scouts get a chance to see Blanton pitch during the spring.
You can see why Amaro would at least take a shot. After all, the fact that Chien Ming-Wang netted a $4 million free agent payday for 11 healthy starts and a 4.04 ERA after a nearly two-year absence would give even the staunchest of realists some hope. You can never underestimate the questionable judgment that is often displayed by a supposedly learned group of big league GMs. Even beyond Wang, the free agent market reflected a strong demand for mid-to-bottom-of-the-rotation starters.
That being said, when you take a closer look at the contracts those starters signed, it becomes tough to envision a team paying more than $4 million of Blanton's salary. Below, you'll see two tables. The first compares Blanton's production from his last full season (2010) to the production of the middle-to-bottom-of-the-rotation free agent signees from the 2011 season (in other words, the season that factored most into teams' decisions to sign them). The second table looks at Blanton's numbers over the last three seasons compared to those of the FA signees during the same time period.
Blanton's 2010 Statistics vs. 2012 FA Signees' 2011 statistics
Blanton vs. 2012 FA signees, 2009-11 Statistics
So right off the bat, we can say that the market valued a Blanton-esque starter at between $3 million and $6 million per season. Unless the market changes drastically in the form of a team with payroll flexibility suffering a pitching injury this spring, there is no indication that there is any team in baseball willing to take on all of Blanton's salary. Blanton's peripherals are comparable to Capuano and Harang, but those two players were healthy all season. Garcia, Wang and Marquis have more in the way of age/health questions, and none of those pitcher garnered more than $4.0 million. In other words, if no team was willing to pay more than $4.0 million for Freddy Garcia on the open market, it's a pretty safe bet that no team is willing to pay more than $4.0 million for Blanton right now.
Furthermore, those starters finished their seasons on injury-free runs. Blanton eventually made it back for a few bullpen appearances, but he did not pitch enough to eliminate any doubt about his elbow. I'm not sure that spring training is even enough time to make a team comfortable investing more than $1 or $2 million in him. They might very well enter the season hoping that a strong April, or at least a healthy April, will bring out the suitors. If Amaro can find a way to trade Blanton before Opening Day for anything more than $4 million, he deserves a fist bump, or a hearty slap on the back, or whatever Scott Proefrock's preferred non-verbal display of affirmation happens to be at this point in time.
On the other hand, let's say Blanton looks like he is back to his normal self this spring and a market develops for his services.
If another team is willing to spend X amount of dollars on Blanton, why aren't the Phillies? After all, their pursuit of Burnett suggests they aren't completely comfortable with a situation in which Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick enter the season as the fourth and fifth starters in the rotation, with veteran reclamation projects Joel Piniero and Dave Bush the insurance (at least until June 1, when they can exercise opt outs that now come standard in veteran minor league deals if they are not on the active roster).
Which brings us to the luxury tax.
Under normal circumstances, the Phillies would probably decide that if they are going to have to pay Blanton at least $4.5 million, they might as well keep him. But what if saving $1 million or $2 million or $3 million can prevent them from going over the luxury tax threshold?
What does X have to equal in order for a trade to be worth the lighter payroll it would provide?
According to my figures, the Phillies have $165.14 million guaranteed to 20 players for 2012, but the luxury cap charge for those salaries is $167.84 million. The yearly cap charge is the average annual value, or AAV, of the contract instead of the actual year-by-year salary the team pays the player. So while Jonathan Papelbon is making $11 million this year and $13 million the final three years of his contract, his cap charge is $12.5 million each year of the deal.
Factor in salaries at or near the minimum of $500,000 for the remaining five spots (say, Michael Martinez, John Mayberry Jr., Vance Worley, Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes) and they are up around $169.64 million for the 25 players likely to be on the Opening Day roster. The luxury tax threshold is $178 million, but keep in mind that the league charges teams a certain number for player benefits. That number is estimated around $10 million, although a million or two in either direction could be the difference between barely staying under and barely staying over the cap. The Phillies clearly are determined to stay under that number if at all possible, as indicated by the decision to save roughly $400,000 by trading away utility man Wilson Valdez.
Now, the luxury tax rate itself is not such a deterrent that it would prevent the Phillies from adding payroll during the season. A team that eclipses the threshold for the first time is charged 17.5 percent of every dollar they spend over the limit. So right now, if the Phillies' cap number is $179.64 million (benefit charge included), they would pay an additional charge of just $725,000, which is 17.5 percent of $4.14 million (the amount they would be over the cap). You wouldn't expect that they would let under $1 million stop them from acquiring a player they valued highly. The bigger ramification would be their status as a second-time offender next season, which would bump the penalty rate to 30 percent. Third-time offenders pay 40 percent. Fifth-time offenders pay 50 percent.
While we are on the topic, we might as well get all of the mumbo-jumbo out of the way. Under the rules of the new CBA, a team that moves back below the threshold gets its offender status wiped clean. So if the Phillies exceeded the limit this year, but did not exceed it next year, they would be treated as a first-time offender again in 2014 or whenever they again eclipse the cap. The cap increases to $189 million for 2014, 2015 and 2016.
Long story short, the luxury tax is hardly the type of boogie monster that would handcuff a team like the Phillies.
That being said, it would certainly behoove them to stay under the cap this year, particularly when you consider that they already have $108.75 million against the threshold committed to just seven players next season. Among the players they will have to re-sign or replace: Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz and Joe Blanton. Plus Hunter Pence will get a raise from his $10.4 million salary. Just by re-signing Hamels and retaining Pence, the Phillies would likely have at least $144 million against the threshold, leaving them with less than $30 million to spend on 16 roster spots.
So as we examine all of the pieces of the puzzle, we come to see why the Phillies might decide to do their damnedest to stay under the cap in 2011. While exceeding the cap by $1 million or $2 million this year would not result in a huge cap charge, it would result in them being charged an extra 12.5 percent for every dollar they go over the cap next year. And in order to stay competitive in a fast-improving division, 2013 might have to be an expensive year. Staying under the cap this year would mean saving $1.5 million on a $190 million payroll next year. Again, not devastating. But certainly something to consider as they decide exactly how much Joe Blanton would be worth to them this year.
Around the NL East. . .
WHAT IF NOBODY DESERVES IT?: This may go down as one of the least inspiring number-swap stories of all-time, but it involves a former Phillie, so what the hell. When Aaron Rowand signed a minor league contract with the Marlins in December, Florida outfielder Scott Cousins offered up his number to the veteran outfielder. So Rowand, who will be 34 this season after hitting .231/.277/.363 with 15 home runs and 158 strikeouts in 662 at-bats in 2010-11 in San Francisco, will wear his usual No. 33 while Cousins, who has a .202/.260/.315 line with 34 strikeouts in 89 big league at-bats, will wear No. 6, which he chose in honor of the immortal J.T. Snow, who hit .268/.357/.427 with 189 home runs in 16 big league seasons and was Cousins' favorite player growing up.
FORGET PUJOLS: With Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle joining a Marlins team that already included Hanley Ramirez, Mike Stanton and Josh Johnson, it is easy to forget that Florida's only representative in the All-Star Game last season was first baseman Gaby Sanchez, whom the organization attempted to replace with Albert Pujols this offseason. Over the last two seasons, Sanchez has posted a .269/.346/.437 line while averaging 19 home runs. His .779 OPS and 19 home runs last season both would have ranked fourth among Phillies regulars. He will likely bat sixth or seventh in the Marlins lineup.
WERTH: Jayson Werth says he's over last year, when he saw fewer strikes and chased more balls and struggled for most of the season.
HANSON'S HEALTH: One of the key questions in the NL East this spring surrounds the health of young Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, pitching coach Roger McDowell has helped alter Hanson's delivery because of the shoulder problems he had last August.
From Dave O'Brien:
"Hanson went 10-4 with a 2.44 ERA and a .190 opponents' average in 17 starts before the All-Star break. Then the shoulder went from nagging to aching, and he was 1-3 with an 8.10 ERA and a .313 opponents' average in five starts after the break. And that was it. He didn't pitch again after Aug. 6. He was diagnosed with a small undersurface rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder in late August, an injury that many veteran major leaguer pitchers develop through normal wear and tear. Surgery can usually be avoided unless the tear worsens."