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Phillies Free Agency Preview: Will they sign Jonathan Papelbon over Ryan Madson?

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Phillies Free Agency Preview : How Team can be Improved for 2012Ruben Amaro Jr.

Ever since Ruben Amaro assumed the duties of General Manager in 2008, Phillies’ offseasons have been as exciting (and unfortunately more successful) than Phillies’ regular or postseasons.

And with free agency underway and the Phillies fresh off another crushing postseason defeat, Amaro’s offseason moves may be as critical as ever.

Amaro’s job is to assemble the 25-man roster that will ultimately take another crack at a World Title in 2012.  And quite frankly, he has some work to do over the next few months.

The Phillies currently have only 10 players under contract for next season, although that number should grow pretty quickly in the coming weeks.  With a number of players under team control and others who are arbitration eligible, many of the team’s roster moves will take care of themselves without a lot of fanfare.

When the Phillies are finished locking up the players they control, it is likely that they will see a roster that includes the following components:

Starting Pitchers (5): Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, Vance Worley
Relief Pitchers (5): Jose Contreras, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Kyle Kendrick, David Herndon
Position Players (7): Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, John Mayberry Jr., Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, Carlos Ruiz
Bench Players (2): Jim Thome, Michael Martinez

Those lists were pretty easy to assemble, with only a couple of debatable decisions.  It is assumed that Kyle Kendrick will be resigned, even though he is likely to make at least $3 or $4 million in arbitration. He has proven to be a really versatile pitcher who can provide insurance against injuries to starters, while also handling long-relief duties at a moment’s notice. While it is assumed that Kendrick will be back, it seems less likely that Wilson Valdez or Ben Francisco will return.  With the improvement of the team’s bench likely a priority, both players should be looking elsewhere for employment.

What this means is that Amaro will need to find two relief pitchers (including a closer), a starting shortstop, and 3 bench players.  There is also the popular belief that Amaro could look to improve the offense via an upgrade at third base.

So essentially, the Phillies will be approaching free agency with a shopping list of six players. Below is an assessment of each of those areas:

Relief Pitchers:
Obviously, the high profile move will be Amaro’s decision on the team’s closer. Apparently nobody can make up their minds as to whether the Phillies tendered Ryan Madson  a 4 year deal at $11 million per year.  If Amaro believes that Madson is comparable to closers like Heath Bell and Jonathan Papelbon, he may be best served to pay the equally talented Madson. There are other options that would cost less, possibly freeing up money to make a bigger offer to a shortstop or third baseman. Those options include Jon Rauch and Matt Capps, both of whom would be considered a significant dropoff from Madson and company. Finally, while it would be a super cost-effective option, relying on Antonio Bastardo to be the full-time closer would probably be too risky at this stage.

As for the other relief position, the Phillies could look to rookie Joe Savery to assist Bastardo with lefty matchups. They could also promote rookie Justin DeFratus, who dazzled in the minor leagues in 2011. Other options include aging veterans such as Brad Lidge  and Arthur Rhodes, who would provide experience with a small price tag.

The most likely scenario is a proven closer for fairly big bucks accompanied by a cast of low-priced youngsters and a crafty (and cheap) veteran or two.

Shortstop:
Shortstop is easily the most talked about position for the Phillies’ offseason plans.  It is also the decision that will likely determine the direction of their other moves.   If the Phillies resign Jimmy Rollins  to a 4- or 5-year deal, it would probably be at a salary that compromises their ability to make expensive additions at third base or the bench (or, perhaps even at closer).
Why does Jimmy Rollins always seem to be in Charlie Manuel’s crosshairs?  Photo: www.reclinergm.com
Working in Rollins’ favor is the fact that there are few options available that would result in the Phillies being considered a better team entering 2012.  Rafael Furcal could be a moderately priced veteran who bridges the gap to Phillies’ youngster Freddy Galvis. However, one of the knocks on Rollins is his injury history, and Furcal is just as fragile.  

As for Galvis, his fielding seems to be major league ready, but he would likely have as painful an adjustment to major league pitching as the seemingly more ready Domonic Brown did last spring.

So, while Phillies fans seem to pin the team’s failures on Rollins more than any other player, the fact remains that he was one of the only players to show up in the 2011 postseason (9 for 20 with six runs scored in five games).  He is also one of the best fielding shortstops in all of baseball.  And on a team that is being killed for its lack of offense, the only positions that are options for an upgrade are shortstop and (maybe) third base. It may be time to realize that the only way to upgrade the offense via a new shortstop is with Jose Reyes, and that simply is not going to happen. Expect the Phillies to strike a four-year pact with Rollins with a team option for a fifth.

Third Base:
Placido Polanco is under contract for $6.25 million for 2012, and at 36 years old, he seems to be breaking down. He should be ready to start the season at third base, but it is quite possible that his recovery from sports hernia surgery will decrease his effectiveness at the plate once again.

With limited places for a true offensive upgrade, the Phillies may have to look at third base as an area for improvement. Many have mentioned Aramis Ramirez as a power boost for the Phillies’ offense.  The 33 year-old Ramirez is coming off of a 26 home run and 93 RBI season, and would give the Phillies some much needed power at a traditional power position. Unfortunately, Ramirez turned down a $16 million option with the Cubs and is seeking a multi-year contract with someone else, so the only way he would be an option for the Phillies is if he is lining up next to Galvis in the team’s infield.Jim Thome is back!  Photo: thephillyphour.wordpress.com

Bench:
The signing of Jim Thome gives the Phillies a much-needed power bat off the bench.  Amaro will likely find a bargain option to back up Carlos Ruiz.  If Ross Gload’s hip is expected to be healthy, he may be re-signed after posting 18 pinch hits in 2011.

A popular rumor has the Phillies interested in the Twins’ Michael Cuddyer, a high-character player who just happens to be good friends with Jim Thome.  This is a move that makes sense on a lot of levels.  Cuddyer has averaged 22 home runs and 82 RBI over the last three seasons.

Cuddyer can play first, second or third base, and the corner outfield positions. This would make him a great fit to spell Polanco and Utley while also manning first base while Ryan Howard recovers from his torn Achilles. Cuddyer will not come cheap, however, as he is expected to command close to $10 million per year.

If I were Ruben Amaro:
As stated earlier, the Phillies’ offseason decisions clearly begin with Rollins. While he is not a great leadoff hitter, his offensive numbers and defensive prowess are simply better than other options at shortstop for the next few years. The Phillies should sign the long-tenured Rollins and then lock up Madson, who has his best years ahead of him. Then, they should work hard to snag Cuddyer, who provides tons of flexibility for Charlie Manuel as he juggles a lineup full of aging stars. The team’s bench could actually become a strength if this happens, as it would feature Polanco, Thome and Gload.

 

Matt Babiarz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area.  He graduated from the University of Alabama, but remained a very close observer of the Philadelphia sports scene.  He recently began covering the Phillies for Philly2Philly.com. You can also read his work at Bleacherreport.com within the Philadelphia Phillies section. 

Matt can be contacted at mattbabz@comcast.net 

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Photo Credits:
Jimmy Rollins: thesportsbank.com
Ruben Amaro Jr and Charlie Manuel: zimbio.com