We are here in Nashville, Tenn. at the Opryland Hotel, which is pretty much the epicenter of American excess, a sprawling, ostentacious maze of ballrooms, bars, indoor rivers and Best Buy vending machines where rich people buy iPod nanos like you and I buy bags of Doodle Twists.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, there are no free agent vending machines on the premises, which means they are still at the mercy of a market that is showing the effects of the impending influx of cash that will arrive when baseball's new national television deal goes into effect in 2014. If it feels like I mention that influx of cash in every story that I write, it's probably because I do, because I really do think that it could end up having a drastic impact on teams that already have high payrolls and are determined not to stray too far north of the luxury tax threshold. In that scenario, the new money would provide a small market team an increase in spending power that is far greater than that provided to a team that is already a big spender, because the big spender is already close to that luxury tax ceiling (assuming, of course, that the big spender views the luxury tax as a deterrent). Consider some of the teams that have been the most active in the first month of free agency. The Braves, Blue Jays, Royals, Reds and Mariners each have already doled out more guaranteed money this offseason than they did in the two previous offseasons combined.
Let's take a look at how the market looks with regard to the positions the Phillies will be targeting.
1) Center field
B.J. Upton seems to have been at the top of the Phillies wish list. The Braves ended up signing the talented but underperforming right-handed hitter to a five-year, $75.25 million deal. Mark Bowman of MLB.com reported that the Phillies' best offer was for five years and $55 million. Which, in a normal world, would seem to be a pretty fair price for a player with the track record of Upton. But it is hard to judge what is fair this year. Take Angel Pagan, who is another player the Phillies reportedly have had ongoing dialogue with. Pagan would obviously represent a serious upgrade over the center field situation that unfolded in Philadelphia after the trade of Shane Victorino last July. But his numbers really are not a whole lot different from a guy like Coco Crisp, who signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Athletics last offseason. In the three years leading up to his free agency, Crisp posted a batting line of .262/.326/.396 while averaging 31 steals and 6 home runs per season.
Pagan over the last three years: .281/.334/.415 while averaging 33 steals and 9 home runs. Certainly better than Crisp. But not markedly. He is one year younger than Crisp was when he hit free agency. So what would you say -- at the most, three years, $30 million in last year's market conditions? Maybe that gets it done this year. Who knows. But if Upton ended up landing 40 percent more than the Phillies judged him worthy of, might that end up being true for Pagan? Is Pagan worth three years and $39 million? Four years and $48 million?
The pertinent contracts doled out thus far:
Brandon League: 3 years, $22.5 million with the Dodgers.
Jonathan Broxton: 3 years, $21 million with the Reds
Jeremy Affeldt: 3 years, $18 million with the Giants
This is an interesting situation for the Phillies, because a lot of what they decide to do could hinge on their projections for Antonio Bastardo, who was dominant in 2011 but who had a weird year in 2012, being replaced by Chad Qualls as the primary set-up man early as the Phillies at times seemed hesitant to use him. He finished the year with a 4.33 ERA in 65 appearances while averaging a career-high 14.0 strikeouts-per-nine-innings. But he also walked a career high 4.5 batters-per-nine and allowed 1.2 home runs per nine. From June on his ERA was 5.30 and he allowed 12 extra base hits in 165 plate appearances. In 2011 he allowed 13 extra base hits the entire season (225 plate appearances). In 2012, his fastball lacked the explosiveness that once characterized it, and you could never shake the feeling that he was not completely healthy.
Why does Bastardo matter? Because if the Phillies are committed to him, then it probably does not make sense for them to pursue a guy like Burnett, who probably should be valued similarly to Affeldt, who re-signed with the Giants for $6 million per year over three years. With Bastardo, the Phillies do not need another lefty. Jeremy Horst was a pleasant surprise last year and Jake Diekman has the kind of stuff that will earn him plenty of opportunities to succeed or fail. Bastardo, a first time arbitration-eligible, will earn a fraction of what Burnett will be able to command. That being said, Burnett has a longer, more consistent track record, better command, a vastly better groundball rate, and a similar performance against left-handed batters (an OPS under .600 the last two seasons).
Really, though, the Phillies biggest struggles came via their right-handed relievers last season, or at least their right-handed relievers who were not Jonathan Papelbon. The right-handed relievers in front of Papelbon (not including Kyle Kendrick) combined to post a 5.59 ERA, allowing opposing hitters to hit .252/.333/.427. Most telling, they allowed an average of 1.4 home runs and 4.8 walks per nine innings. That ain't good.
You could make the argument that the Phillies would be better off avoiding a pricey free agent position player and pouring that money into the bullpen instead. For starters, the Phillies showed last year that a team can make do with a substandard lineup, but it absolutely cannot contend without a solid bullpen. And because individuals performances tend to fluctuate wildly from year to year for relievers (perhaps because their inconsistency is what landed them in the bullpen to begin with), and because injuries seem to happen with more frequency in the bullpen (see last year), the best way to ensure a solid bullpen is to invest in a diverse portfolio. Rather than signing one upper-tier set-up man, sign two. Or sign one and then bring in two or three veterans/reclamation projects/etc.
One player who would fit into the upper tier category is Brandon Lyon, who the Phillies had some interest in a few years ago when he ended up signing with the Astros. Pedigree wise, the top set-up man available is probably Mike Adams, and I would not be surprised to see the Phillies pursue him. But he has some workload/injury concerns and is 34 years old. Koji Uehara is a name they have been linked to. But again, he is 38 years old and has some durability concerns.
Some potential reclamation projects: Jose Veras, Mark Lowe, Matt Lindstrom, Peter Moylan, Ramon Ramirez, Joey Devine.
The Phillies do have a lot of young talent that got a lot of experience last year. They also have Mike Stutes coming back from surgery. But they thought they had a lot of young talent last year, and we saw how that worked out.
While relievers like League and Broxton and Affeldt have been rewarded thus far, it still looks like the amount the Phillies will need to overpay relievers pales in comparison to the amount they will need to overpay a slightly-above-league-average hitter like Angel Pagan.