The early part of the baseball season presents a challenge when it comes to evaluating the performance of a veteran who is on the downslope of his career. When a player is in his prime, an early-season slump is usually just that: a slump, a dryspell, a random dip in production that is destined to even out over the course of a 162-game season. It's why members of the Phillies clubhouse would get that exapserated look on their faces in 2008 and 2009 when they fielded questions about their slow start. Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino -- these guys are going to hit at some point.
Eleven games into the 2012 season, we can't say that with as much confidence as in previous years.
Really, the production that the Phillies have received from most of their regulars jibes with any realistic expectations they could have had heading into the season. After last night's 4-2 loss to the Giants, Shane Victorino was hitting .302/.352/.395. Jimmy Rollins was hitting .311/.340/.333. Hunter Pence was hitting .333/.391/.524. Ty Wigginton was hitting .238/.320/.429. Carlos Ruiz was hitting .303/.324/.455. All of those numbers are roughly equivalent to each player's recent track record. Sure, you can expect a little more power out of Victorino and Rollins, and a little more on base percentage out of Carlos Ruiz. But you also can't expect Freddy Galvis (.229/.250/.400) to lead the team in extra base hits for the rest of the season (he is actually tied right now with Pence). That is the kind of stuff that we can confidently say will even out over the course of the season.
The three notable exceptions: Placido Polanco, John Mayberry Jr. and Jim Thome.
The Phillies took a chance on all three players heading into the year, hoping that the 36-year-old Polanco would remain healthy and productive even as both facets have dipped over the last few years, and that the 28-year-old Mayberry would be able to continue to perform as a regular the way he did as a part-time break-out player in 2011, and that the 41-year-old Thome would bring enough to the table as a pinch-hitter, first baseman and clubhouse presence to validate a spot on the bench.
Two weeks into the season, the Phillies are left in an uncomfortable situation, waiting for all three to provide some indication that they will fulfil those hopes, but knowing that it is far too early to rule it out.
Polanco, who went 0-for-4 with a strikeout in last night's loss, is hitting .179 with a .220 OBP and .205 slugging percentage. Mayberry , who went 0-for-3 before leaving in a double switch, it hitting .219/.219/.250 and is 5-for-29 with 7 strikeouts and no extra base hits since a 2-for-4 showing on Opening Day. Thome, who grounded out in a pinch-hit at-bat, is 1-for-10 with a walk and five strikeouts.
In reality, the Phillies did not have many options with regards to third base. The free agent market did not offer much more reliability than they secured in their acquisition of Wigginton from the Rockies. Polanco was always a risk they were going to have to take.
Left field is a bit of a different story. You look around the league and you see Josh Willingham hitting .375/.457/.800 with five home runs for the Twins after signing a three-year, $21 million deal. You see Michael Cuddyer, the player Willingham was signed to replace, hitting .372/.400/.651 with one home run for the Rockies after signing a three-year, $31.5 deal. You see Carlos Beltran hitting .351/.467/.676 with four home runs for the Cardinals after signing a two-year, $26 million deal. You even see lower-cost acquisitions like Cody Ross (.270/.349/.486, 2 HRs for Boston) and David DeJesus (.281/.439/.344, 0 HRs for the Cubs) paying early dividends for their new clubs.
The Phillies weren't necessarily wrong to prioritize the closer position this offseason. Given the composition of the roster, the last thing they can afford is to lose games in which they have a late lead. Thus far, Jonathan Papelbon has lived up to his billing, recording all three of his save opportunities. You need only look at Papelbon's previous team to realize the danger of filling out the back end of a bullpen on the cheap. The Red Sox, who acquired Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon via trades rather than re-sign their long-time closer, have two blown saves and three losses in relief. Division rival Toronto, which dealt for Sergio Santos, has four blown saves (two of them by Santos) and three losses in relief. Heath Bell, a name-brand free agent who signed for less than half of what Papelbon landed from the Phillies, is 1-for-3 in save opportunities for the Marlins.
The question that only Polanco, Mayberry and Thome can answer is whether the Phillies should have used some of their available money to bring in a veteran hitter with a longer track record or more upside than the ones they did acquire.
In Wigginton, Thome and Laynce Nix, the Phillies spent $4.5 million. Would the Phillies have been better off keeping one of those three and handing out a contract like the $3 million that Boston will pay Ross, a right-handed bat who had hit .261/.323/.432 while averaging 17 home runs while playing all three outfield positions over the previous three seasons?
If they waited for the free agent market to develop, could they have signed Papelbon to a deal worth less than the $12.5 million average annual value that they ended up giving him? Would that money, along with Thome's or Nix's or Wigginton's, have allowed them to sign a player like DeJesus, a left-handed outfielder who had hit .277/.349/417 while averaging 9 home runs over the previous three seasons? Or Willingham, a right-handed outfielder who had hit .257/.360/.479 while averaging 23 home runs over the previous three seasons?
Should the Phillies have prioritized a hitter over a closer, handing $7 million per year for three years to Willingham or $13 million for two years to Beltran rather than $12.5 million for four years to Papelbon? Could they have relied on Antonio Bastardo and the young arms in their system along with lower-cost veterans to fill out the bullpen?
Again, we come back to the daily disclaimer that the season is still young. Joe Nathan (2 years, $14.5 million) has already blown a save and taken two losses while allowing four runs in seven innings for the Rangers. Bell has two blown saves and two losses and a 9.00 ERA. Matt Capps (1/$4.75 million) is 2-for-2 in save opportunities but has one strikeout and two earned runs in four innings. Jonathan Broxton (1/$4.0) has a loss and a blown save. On the other hand, Octavio Dotel (1/$3.5) has six strikeouts, one walk and a win in relief in four scoreless innings. Fernando Rodney (1/$2.0) is 4-for-4 in saves and has a win while allowing one baserunner with three strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings.
There is a good chance that Willingham does not finish the season with 70+ home runs, and that DeJesus does not finish with 103 walks, which they are currently on pace to do. Beltran probably won't have a 1.142 OPS in September. And he still has to prove he can stay healthy for consecutive seasons, something he has not done since 2008.
Come September, our hindsight will be shaped by a number of variables that have yet to play out. First and foremost are the statuses of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. If the two players can get back on the field and perform at their previous levels, the offense might not need to worry about what might have been.
As far as the immediate future is concerned, though, the progressions of Polanco and Mayberry, and to a lesser extent Thome, are the current unknowns that will most shape this team.
Each player is difficult to forecast for their own reasons. Polanco's production is concerning given that April has been his most successful month over the last two seasons. The fact that he has struck out six times in 39 at-bats is worth noting since he has always been a player who makes contact.
At the same time, he got off to a slow start in 2008, as you can see in the table below, which features his numbers through the first 11 games of the last seven seasons. After starting the year with seven singles and no extra base hits in 44 at-bats, he hit .319/.358/.438 with nine home runs in 536 at-bats the rest of the way.
Placido Polanco through 11 games, 2006-12
Mayberry has the most upside, given his youth and the power display he produced last season. But he also has the shortest track record, one that has yet to include a 300-plate-appearance season. Mayberry has not hit a ball out of the infield in his last 12 at-bats. In 32 plate appearances, he has yet to draw a walk, and 15 of his 32 at-bats have ended with either a strikeout or an infield pop-up. He is 3-for-10 on groundballs, 3-for-3 on line drives, and 1-for-3 on fly balls, which suggests that he has not been a victim of bad luck.
On the other hand, Mayberry started last season hitting .231/.316/.365 in 117 plate appearances, averaging a home run every 35 at-bats and an extra base hit every 13.
Any way you look at it, the only conclusion is inconclusion. That can be intriguing or concerning, and probably both.