CLEARWATER, Fla. - The second week of March is no time to make definitive judgments about a baseball team. It also isn't a time to trade away pitching depth. So, as rumors continue to circulate about the Phillies' interest in trading Joe Blanton, we can say one of three things:
* They are not true.
* They are true, and the Phillies are open to a move that, from this vantage point, constitutes a wholly unnecessary risk.
* They are true, but only as part of a bigger plan, one that may or may not rhyme with Soy, No Salt.
Go ahead and forget about scenario No. 1. Two days ago, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthropoulos dropped by Bright House Field for a few innings of the Phillies' 1-0 loss to the Orioles. Those few innings happened to be the same ones that Blanton spent on the mound. Granted, Toronto's spring training base is less than 15 minutes up the road in Dunedin, so it is entirely possible that Anthropoulos simply forgot to refresh the computer software on his GPS. But like the old saying goes, where there's smoke, there's usually somebody blowing it, and the perception among most baseball men who have passed through Clearwater this spring is that Blanton is available for the right price.
Yesterday, the Boston Globe set that price at $6.5 million, citing "major league sources" who said that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was willing to eat up to $2 million of the $8.5 million Blanton is guaranteed for 2012.
The Red Sox and Blue Jays are two of the more obvious potential landing spots for a pitcher like Blanton. Both have uncertain situations at the back ends of their rotations, and both failed to make a significant pitching acquisition during the offseason. But the Phillies aren't exactly chock full o' answers at the back of their rotation, particularly when you consider that in 2 of the last 3 years they have seen a pitcher miss at least 20 starts due to injury (Blanton missed 24 last year, Brett Myers missed 22 in 2009).
So why even think about making a move?
Trade Blanton, and an injury leaves you with whom, exactly, as your No. 5 starter? Righthander Joel Pineiro can opt out of his contract if he is not on the active roster on March 31, so there is no guarantee that he will be waiting behind the emergency glass in Triple A. We've already seen enough of Dontrelle Willis to know that his days as a first-division starter are over. Scott Elarton hasn't started a major league game since 2007. Dave Bush? Pat Misch? Austin Hyatt? These are the types of players teams like the Red Sox and Blue Jays would be acquiring Blanton to replace.
In 2010, the Phillies saw what can happen when a team thinks too much and deals away its strongest hand. Cliff Lee's plane had barely touched down in Seattle when Amaro started trying to re-acquire him. Blanton strained an oblique. J.A. Happ landed on the disabled list. Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels were great, but the Phillies were seven games out of first place in July and were forced to trade away a very nice centerfield prospect in Anthony Gose, who hit 16 home runs with a .349 on-base percentage and 70 steals as a 20-year-old at Double A last season, as well as Happ and shortstop Jonathan Villar to acquire Roy Oswalt.
We're not breaking any stories by saying that Blanton is not Lee. But he is a starting pitcher who logged at least 175 innings in each of his first six big-league seasons before an elbow injury cost him most of 2011. Unlike Kyle Kendrick or Pineiro, Blanton can actually miss a bat or two, striking out an average of 7.1 batters per nine innings since joining the Phillies midway through the 2008 season. He has a much longer track record of success than either Kendrick or Vance Worley, who, by the way, wouldn't be the first pitcher in big-league history to struggle in his sophomore season.
Unless the Phillies can somehow use Blanton to improve their offense - like, say, another righthanded hitter to join light-hitting utility man Michael Martinez on the bench - the money they would save on his salary doesn't seem equitable to the value he provides to a team that has already moved the majority of its chips behind its rotation. Fact is, general managers are loathe to part with any player with a few ounces of talent for a soon-to-be free-agent making good money and coming off a lengthy stay on the disabled list.
So again: Why do we keep getting reports of stray Blue Jays executives wandering onto the grounds of Bright House Field?
Well . . .
There happens to be a small town in Mississippi with one of the nation's highest ratios of All-Star-pitchers-per-capita. Guy named Roy Oswalt lives there. You may have heard of him. Right now, he's waiting for an offer that he can't refuse. The Red Sox have been linked to him. The Cardinals offered him in the neighborhood of $5 million, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Heading into spring training, Amaro downplayed the possibility of re-signing the veteran righthander. But he also has gone more than a year without signing or trading for a starting pitcher, and if you think nicotine withdrawal is bad, well, you've never had the pleasure of googling your name and "trade rumors."
Oswalt is no longer a sure thing, which was evident last season as a balky back sent him to the disabled list twice and robbed his fastball of its explosiveness. While pitchers like Blanton are preparing for their third outing of the spring - and looking damn good while doing so - Oswalt is back in Mississippi, showing little concern about the season starting without him.
At the same time, if a team were willing to pay a chunk of Blanton's salary big enough to enable the Phillies to sign Oswalt without any net payroll gain, you have to think Amaro would seriously consider pulling the trigger. The deal would not have to happen right away: Oswalt has said he is willing to miss a few months of the regular season before deciding where to sign. The Phillies could conceivably use April and May to evaluate the back end of their rotation with the comfort of knowing that Oswalt is available in case of emergency (or injury, or shoddy performance).
Whether that constitutes a smart decision is a worthy debate. The Phillies have seen Blanton throw throughout the spring. Oswalt has been out of sight in Mississippi. One thing is for sure: parting with pitching depth for a few million dollars is never the safest play. If Blanton goes, he needs to be replaced by something other than the heightened potential for disarray.