Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. Reagan was the Great Communicator. And over his first 2 years in office, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has dubbed himself the Cautious Aggressor. So it should come as little surprise that even in an offseason in which he moved early to sign his top target at third base, then swung the Trades Heard 'Round the World, Amaro has patiently waited as his self-professed No. 1 need - the bullpen - remains unaddressed.
There were indications yesterday that Phillies brass had reached an agreement with a reliever prior to closing up shop for the winter break, a deal that would not be consummated until a physical in the first week of January. But whether or not that physical is passed - and given the health history of some of the available arms, that is not a guarantee - there are strong indications that the fluid beast that is the baseball offseason has forced Amaro and Co. to adjust their strategy for bolstering the bullpen.
Goodbye, Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney.
Hello, Danys Baez, Miguel Batista, Bobby Howry and Mike MacDougal.
Goodbye, LaTroy Hawkins and Rafael Soriano.
Hello, Sergio Escalona, Antonio Bastardo, Scott Mathieson and Brian Rosenberg.
The Angels' signing of Rodney, who saved 37 of 38 games for the Tigers last season, yesterday to a 2-year contract worth a reported $11 million likely dealt the latest blow to the Phillies' stated goal of adding a back-of-the-bullpen arm with closing experience.
But in allowing targets Rodney and Lyon to land in greener pastures, Amaro displayed the "cautious" part of his moniker. Rodney's fastball and sparkling groundball rate would have looked good at the right price. But with his multitude of caveats - 16 runs allowed and six strikeouts in his last 16 innings of 2009; a career 5.23 ERA on back-to-back days - the Phillies did not feel that $5.5 million per season was the right price.
Lyon, who threw more than one inning in 24 of his 65 appearances for the Tigers last season and saved 26 games for Arizona in 2008, would have fit well. But history has not treated 3-year deals for relievers kindly, and such a deal would have left the Phillies with more than $20 million committed to three relievers over the next 2 years.
Last year, four players signed contracts with an average annual value of at least $5 million. Already this season, five players have signed such deals, while Takashi Saito and J.J. Putz both signed 1-year deals with incentives that could push the value over $5 million.
Which brings us back to two sets of names:
Group 1: Baez, MacDougal, Batista, Howry.
Group 2: Bastardo, Mathieson, Escalona, Rosenberg.
The first group are free-agent relievers who should command a contract significantly lower than those that have already been doled out.
The second are intriguing but inexperienced prospects from the farm system who will enter spring training with a chance to work their way into a critical role in the bullpen.
Of the first group, Baez could be the hinted-upon reliever who will be in town in a couple of weeks for a physical, although general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. could not be reached for comment yesterday. The Phillies have maintained contact with Baez' camp since the end of the winter meetings, and the 32-year-old righthander is the exact type of low-risk, high-reward reliever Amaro has said the Phillies are likely to sign. He posted a 3.42 ERA for the Indians and Rays from 2003-05, saving 71 games for Tampa Bay in '04-05. Baez, 32, returned from elbow surgery last season to post a 4.02 ERA and 1.130 WHIP in 71 2/3 innings for Baltimore. He has the best groundball rate of any free agent reliever (1.58), which could play well in Citizens Bank Park and walked fewer batters (2.8 per nine) than MacDougal (nontendered by the Nationals, but not a strong Phillies target), Batista (a former starter in Seattle) and Howry (formerly of the Giants).
But the Phillies have at least three vacancies in their bullpen to fill. And while there are still some intriguing names available who could present a cost-effective January bargain - Chan Ho Park, Octavio Dotel and Matt Capps will all likely sign elsewhere for more suitable money/better roles, but righthanders John Smoltz, Kevin Gregg, Kiko Calero and Jose Contreras are all big arms whose fates remain uncertain - the Phillies will likely be counting on at least one, and maybe two, of their minor leaguers before re-evaluating themselves at the trade deadline.
Top on the list is Bastardo, a big-armed lefty with a low-to-mid-90s fastball and improving slider who burst onto the scene with a solid start against the Padres in San Diego last June. He missed the second half of the regular season with a shoulder strain, but was on the roster in the postseason, where he faced two batters. With J.C. Romero likely to miss at least the first couple of weeks of the regular season after offseason elbow surgery, Bastardo or fellow lefty Sergio Escalona (4.61 ERA in 14 appearances last season; 3.13 ERA in 47 minor league games) could fill the void.
Mathieson, a righty who has made a remarkable comeback from two elbow surgeries, and Rosenberg, a 24-year-old righty who posted a 1.18 ERA with 22 saves at Class A Lakewood and AA Reading last season, are both viewed as players who could get a chance to contribute in 2010. (The Phillies still have not decided how they will use righthander Phillippe Aumont, acquired in the Lee trade, but the Mariners had hoped he would have a chance at the big leagues in 2010 as a reliever.)
While the Phillies would prefer to add an experienced arm to supplement Romero and Brad Lidge, who blew 11 saves last season, they might be forced to alter that plan.
None of the minor leaguers are sure things.
But, as history has shown, neither are the veterans.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.