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Phillies' Final Decision: Signing Michael Cuddyer or Jimmy Rollins?

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The first two weeks of the Phillies' 2011 offseason have made a couple of things pretty clear.

First, the team is still in the business of making news with its personnel acquisitions. The signings of Jim Thome and Jonathan Papelbon were the types of acquisitions that have kept the Phillies in the headlines each of the past few years. Jonathan Papelbon be the last guy on the mound in 2012? Photo:thesportsbrewery.com

Just as evident, however, was the franchise’s recognition of the rapidly approaching expiration date for its championship roster.

You don’t prioritize the signing of a 41-year old slugger to fortify the bench, or draw up the richest closer contract in MLB history  to a 31-year old flamethrower if you aren’t approaching 2012 in A.S.A.P. mode.

The 2012 season will also find Shane Victorino and Cole Hamels entering the final year of their contracts, while Roy Halladay and Chase Utley begin their penultimate go-rounds with the Fightins.

So as the Phillies steadily complete their offseason to-do list, they are doing so with the singular goal of winning a World Series next October and not with an eye toward the future. Unfortunately, World Series rosters seem to get more expensive by the day, and theirs is a budget that is just about maxed out on 8-digit salaries.

One way for the Phillies to salvage next year’s budget would be to promote Freddy Galvis to the bigs this season.  The 21-year old shortstop has been mentioned frequently as a possibility for the team’s starting lineup, and has played nearly 300 games at the AA and AAA levels.  But expecting him to develop as a hitter while transitioning to the major leagues simply is neither realistic nor fair.  The Phillies’ experiences with Domonic Brown should be all the proof we need that Ruben Amaro and Charlie Manuel do not view the everyday lineup as the place to develop raw talents.

With Galvis in the minors, the Phillies will need to sign a quality free agent to start at shortstop. That may have been made a little more challenging with Friday’s signing of Papelbon. The deal pushed the Phillies much closer to the “out of money” stage that is unavoidable when a team has eight players earning over $10 million per year (five of which make at least $15 million, with three over $20 million).  And by the time they settle on Hunter Pence’s and Hamel’s pay raises and take care of the younger players that they still control, the Phillies’ payroll is likely to be back in the range of $160 million.  All this before they even address the final bench positions, bullpen arms, and that starting shortstop.

What this means for Amaro is that he probably only has one big contract left to offer this offseason. The team simply can’t accommodate more than one more huge deal without busting its anticipated budget limit of $175 million.

Consequently, a decision may have to be made between the two major free agent deals the Phillies are currently discussing with team mainstay Jimmy Rollins and the Twins’ super-versatile free agent Michael Cuddyer.  Both of those players are believed to be seeking long-term deals that would pay them $10 million or more per season. Why does Jimmy Rollins always seem to be in Charlie Manuel’s crosshairs?  Photo: www.reclinergm.com

Let’s consider the first option, which is to bring back Rollins with a 4-year deal, which is probably the least the longest-tenured Philadelphia athlete would be willing to accept.

Signing Rollins is one way to prevent a significant offensive dropoff at the shortstop position. With Jose Reyes  out of the Phillies’ price range, there simply are not any options for the Phillies to match Rollins’ productivity as a hitter.

Rollins’ age and durability are frequently mentioned by those who are ready to see him leave town. But, if you take out his difficult 2010 season (with its significant calf injury) Rollins averaged 144 regular season games per year during his 2008, 2009 and 2011 campaigns.

His age doesn’t seem to be affecting his still-powerful throwing arm, or his all-time Phillies’ best fielding percentage (.988 in 2011 and .984 for his career).  And while his OBP is not adequate for the leadoff spot, he has still scored 76 runs or more every year except his injury-shortened 2010 season.

What will ultimately decide whether or not the Phillies re-up with Rollins is the length of the contract he demands, and whether or not the Phillies feel that the team’s new approach to hitting could begin with the removal of Rollins’ all-or-nothing batting style.

If the Phillies don’t resign Rollins, they may look to someone like Rafael Furcal. Unfortunately, Furcal has been less healthy than Rollins over the last four years and is equally lousy at getting on base recently. Furcal will certainly command less money and fewer years than Rollins and could be used as a stopgap at shortstop until Galvis is ready in the next year or two.  Signing a short-term solution at shortstop would indicate that Phillies are looking at another option to upgrade their lineup.

That is where Cuddyer could come into play.  If Amaro has only one more big contract bullet in the chamber, many believe that Cuddyer would provide a lot of bang for the Phillies’ remaining bucks.  He would give Manuel a starting left fielder if Jon Mayberry Jr. has to man Ryan Howard’s position at first base for a large portion of the 2012 season.   

Cuddyer can also be used at third base if Placido Polanco is not fully healthy at the start of the season, or if Manuel hopes to get the aging Polanco more rest during the season. Michael Cuddyer can also be used at third base if Placido Polanco is not fully healthy at the start of the season, or if Charlie Manuel hopes to get the aging Polanco more rest during the season.

Cuddyer’s offensive numbers have been better than J-Roll’s over the past three seasons, so he could actually represent an offensive upgrade for the Phillies if they can also find a suitable replacement at shortstop.  

Cuddyer has terrific character, hits left-handed pitching very well, and gives the Phillies more options with their lineup and bench.  

For all of those reasons, Cuddyer will not come cheap, but it hasn’t stopped Amaro from pursuing him.

It will, however, require Amaro to make a choice. Rollins and Cuddyer are both 32 years old.  Rollins is the better fielder, but Cuddyer provides better offense and versatility.

The money is there for one, but not both.  It is now up to the Phillies to decide which makes their ballclub better for 2012.

Their goal, clearly, is to win it all next season.  And this decision may be the biggest determinant of whether or not that happens.

 

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:
Cuddyer: courtesy of JimRome.com
Rollins: courtesy of Getty Images
Papelbon photo: thesportsbrewery.com