The recently completed 2011 campaign offered much to celebrate for Phillie faithful. A start to finish National League Eastern Division lead which ultimately culminated in a 102 win season, best in the major leagues. A trio of top of the line starting pitchers in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. A strong rookie season from starting hurler Vance Worley. A deep and solid bullpen led by closer Ryan Madson and young hurlers Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes. A mid season trade for right fielder Hunter Pence, which added depth and right handed power to a lineup that sorely lacked both before the deal. And at least a semblance of a return to health for star second sacker, Chase Utley, after many months of anguish and concern about his future with the club.
Yet these, and all the other high water marks that arguably follow such a successful season as this, have become mere footnotes in a season that ended so unexpectedly and abruptly. It has been said that defeat is only bitter if swallowed but few Phillies fans can claim not to have swallowed the bitter taste of defeat after a particularly frustrating and galling finish to an otherwise wonderful campaign.
Still, at some point, that defeat will have to be examined within the text of learning from it, and using that knowledge to better prepare for the 2012 season, one that promises more change and uncertainly than at any time since retired Phillie GM Pat Gillick took over the club following the disappointing 2005 year. Gillick made many changes during the course of the '06 season, changes that not only culminated in a World Championship in 2008 but have done much to formulate the success that has taken place since then. To wit...five straight division titles since 2007, two straight World Series berths in 2008-09, one World Championship and the best record in baseball over the past two seasons. The changes made in '06 have in many ways influenced the greatest five year run in Philadelphia Phillie history, one that may or may not continue next year.
While it is true that the Phils remain a deep and dangerous club, led by their Terrific Trio of Hurlers, there are as many question marks to answer as exclamation points to celebrate going forward and the answers to those questions will do much to determine in what direction the team is likely to head during the '12 campaign. With this in mind, lets endeavor to not only study some of the more intriguing questions of the Phillie offseason but to seek and find possible answers, answers that could turn those question marks into exclamation points soon.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the entire season is that the final play of the season, a seemingly innocent ground ball hit to second base by slugger Ryan Howard, has led to perhaps the biggest question mark of the off season. Just exactly how serious is Howard's injury and what are the chances of a full recovery for the Phillie first baseman? Yet this is hardly the only question to be answered. Here are a few of the others.
The Phils have seven free agents and decisions will have to be made on all of them. Many of them, like shortstop Jimmy Rollins, left fielder Raul Ibanez,closer Ryan Madson, former stellar reliever Brad Lidge, and starting pitcher Roy Oswalt, have played a particularly large role in the club's past success. The two others, catcher Brian Schneider and pinch hitter/first baseman Ross Gload, are more easily replaceable and less likely to stir up debate over the next couple of months.
There is also the question of age and injury, particularly when it comes to third baseman Placido Polanco. There is strong sentiment, and seemingly getting stronger, that the Phils will look to find someone suitable to either A] platoon with Polanco at third base or B] replace the steady but oft injured Polanco all together. This would allow the team to either use the 36 year old infielder as a versatile play anywhere utility player or possibly deal him to a team looking for a second baseman. Remember it is as a second sacker that Polanco achieved his greatest fame and there are more than a few teams looking for reliable middle infielders this off season.
Fortunately for the Phillies, the recently released free agency list, which is composed of over 150 names, offers possible solutions to much that troubles the team and Amaro, to his credit, has acknowledged that he is likely to use the free agency route to solve his problems rather than trade for them. The reasons for this are obvious. Not only are the Phils a large market team with a 175 million dollar player payroll budget, but in season deals for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence have left the system a bit lean on top minor league talent and Amaro is unlikely to move what is left in the system. Suffice it to say that even for a team that had a farm system as deep as the Phillies did, there comes a point of diminishing returns of said talent and the Phils have almost reached that point. Look for Amaro to steer clear of any more deals involving minor league talent and rather concentrate on restocking his roster with either free agent talent or players from the farm system.
With this in mind, let's begin to offer possible answers to all that is likely to ail the team heading into what promises to be a very busy winter hot stove league off season. The possible loss of Ryan Howard cannot be minimized, it simply would be a major loss if he is deemed unable to play for most of the 2012 season. And there are former Phillie players whose careers were effectively derailed by just such an injury as the ruptured Achilles tendon injury suffered by Howard on the last play of the 2011 season. Bill White and Bobby Tolan come to mind immediately and ironically enough, both were first basemen just like Howard. Neither ever recovered fully from their tendon injuries and both eventually retired early because of their miseries.
Still, modern science and medicine has improved greatly in the past decade and recently injured sports stars like soccer player David Beckham and basketball player Elton Brand have both recovered sufficiently to resume their careers successfully and there is little reason to suspect that Howard won't follow in their footsteps. Admittedly, it will take much work and the road is a painful and difficult one but Howard has always been known for his strong work ethic and the prediction here is that he will be back in the Phillie lineup by June at the latest, much like Chase Utley was this year. That would allow him 8 months to not only recover from his injury but also rediscover the form that has made him the Phillies most feared home run threat over the past half-dozen years.
Look for the Phils to give right handed hitting John Mayberry the first opportunity to replace Howard until he is ready to return to action. Mayberry is coming off of a strong 2011 campaign and has earned the right to see if he can become a full time member of the Phillie starting lineup. While many are now advocating that the Phils look to bring in a free agent first baseman such as Michael Cuddyer of Minnesota or Lyle Overbay of Arizona, the hunch here is that Amaro will wait and see the progress of both Howard and Mayberry this off season and into spring training before making a move.
Truth be told, first base is not the most serious concern on what is likely to be a revamped roster and if Mayberry can hold down the fort until Howard returns, this could prove a win-win situation for the Phillies...a healthy, rejuvenated and rested Howard combined with a confident and successful Mayberry ready to add depth and talent at both first base and in the outfield. While players like Cuddyer, Overbay and possibly Derek Lee look interesting at first glance, right now Amaro and Co. have more pressing issues. Like short stop, third base and in the bullpen. And here is what the Phillie braintrust is likely to do.
Jimmy Rollins is merely the greatest shortstop in Philadelphia Phillie history. Even his competition, fellow shortstops Larry Bowa and Granny Hamner acknowledge as much and they were both highly skilled in their own rights. A strong case can be made that the Phillie reign as National League Beasts of the East began on that spring day in 2007 when Rollins, to the astonishment of all, declared the Phillies as the "team to beat in the NL East." In a division dominated by first the Braves and then the New York Mets, these words might well have been blasphemous if not proven true by the teams upcoming success.
Yes, it was the battle cry of Jimmy Rollins that awoke a city and team to what has been an incredible five year run of success. And now both Rollins and the Phils meet at a crossroads for both. As a free agent for the first time, Rollins can now choose to play elsewhere and has indicated that if he receives a five-year offer elsewhere he will probably take it. At 33 years of age, Rollins undoubtedly views this as his last big paycheck and he wants to cash in on it while the cashing is good. To his credit he has indicated a desire to stay in Philadelphia, the only city he has ever known and play for the Phillies, the only team he has ever known.
And to their credit the Phils have indicated a mutual desire to continue the marriage, one that has proven to be mutually rewarding. But not for five years and probably not at the price tag Rollins is looking for. The guess is that Rollins will seek a five-year, $60 million contract and while it seems unlikely that any team would go that high on a free agent deal, it only takes one team to make it happen. If anyone doubts this reality, merely use the Jayson Werth story as an example. It now seems inconceivable than any team would have ever offered Werth a seven-year, $126 million contract, but Washington did the seemingly inconceivable and Rollins might find the market equally as volatile.
A good case can be made that teams like the San Francisco Giants, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals could use a shortstop of Rollins overall skills and might well offer that extra year [the consensus is that the Phillies will ultimately offer four years] in order to pry Rollins away from Philadelphia. This would not only serve to strengthen a National League rival but weaken
the Phillies. Rollins has often spoken of going home to play and the Giants would offer the Oakland born infielder and opportunity to play near his home.
Still, the feeling here is that when the dust settles and after much probable consternation and maybe even some acrimonious negotiations, both Rollins and the Phillies will realize the importance of maintaining the relationship to the tune of a four-year, $48-50 million contract. Simply put, Jimmy Rollins wants to retire as a Phillie, has indicated such a desire and realizes that the only way he can guarantee this is to re-sign with the club. And that is what is likely to happen, probably by the winter meetings in December.
Unfortunately, this is not likely to be the case with this year's closer and relief pitcher extraordinaire, Ryan Madson. There are many reasons to believe Madson well could bolt, none more convincing than the fact that his agent, Scott Boras, was the same agent who jettisoned another long time Phillie favorite, Jayson Werth, last off season. Simply put, Scott Boras does not believe in home town discounts, has adversarial but imposing relationships with many team owners throughout the business [Washington is one of the more prominent ones], and is unlikely to move at a pace that Amaro finds comforting.
Ryan Madson was also sending out signals throughout the season that he was very much looking forward to the free agency period and sounded very much like Jayson Werth did last year. Not surprisingly, Werth has been openly campaigning for Madson already in Washington and given the cozy relationship between Boras and the Nationals ownership, it would not be a surprise to see Madson sign with the division rival this offseason.
Watch for Amaro to make Madson an offer, wait somewhat patiently for an answer, and move on once he realizes that no answer is forthcoming. And watch for him to strike quickly thereafter, with former Red Sox closer, Jonathan Papelbon as his likely first option. Papelbon makes lots of sense for many reasons. Number one, he is still a dominant closer [31 saves in 34 attempts] with a WHIP of .093 and 87 strikeouts in a mere 64 innings of pitching. Number two, he is used to pitching in a high pressure town where Red Sox fans are very bit as fanatical as the Phillie faithful usually are. And number three, Papelbon seems likely to relish a change of scenery after a sometimes difficult time of it in Boston.
The guess here is that Papelbon will be the Phillies first choice should Madson leave, with former Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan as the second choice and Reds closer Francisco Cordero a more distant third. Amaro has already guaranteed that he will seek a veteran closer this offseason so it can be rest assured that Amaro will not turn the closer role over to a youngster like Bastardo or Stutes, regardless of their past success or pedigree.
With the uncertainly surrounding Polanco and his offseason surgery [double hernia] it is expected that Amaro will look to bring in another third baseman, preferably one with some offensive power. If you wish to dream provocatively, a case could be made that Amaro will look to make the daring move of signing slugger Aramis Ramirez, late of the Chicago Cubs. A proven 25 home run, 100 RBI power bat with a not so skilled glove to match, Ramirez would certainly add a distinctive charge to the Phillie lineup and make up for any loss of power from both Chase Utley [age] and Ryan Howard [injury.]
However, the price would be prohibitive, likely in the three-year/$48 million range, and Amaro is not likely to bite at such an expensive five-star hotel cost when he has other less expensive alternatives. One player to keep an eye on is Wilson Betemit, formerly of the Braves, Royals and Tigers. Betemit offers an interesting bat, decent defense, and the ability to play multiple positions. Add to this the fact that the Phils have long sought Betemit in deadline trade deals and this is a marriage that well could take place.
A case can be made for Michael Cuddyer here also, especially since he also plays first base and the outfield.
But Cuddyer is a Minnesota native, loves playing for his home town Twins, and is unlikely to bolt the Land of 1000 Lakes unless the Twins force his hand. That is not likely to happen. With this in mind, expect to see Betemit's name in the Phillie rumors column throughout the winter.
Despite the protestations of Amaro, the feeling here is that former phenom Domonic Brown will be given every opportunity to win the left field spot come February. It simply makes too much sense to think otherwise. For one thing, Brown was far from a washout in his two month audition last June-July and deserves a chance to reclaim a spot with the big league club. For another, with the likely loss of Ibanez, and the possible extended loss of Howard, the team is now quite shy a left handed hitter with power and grace. Enter Brown, a player with both.
The Phils could eventually determine that bringing back Ibanez on a low cost [like $3 million] one-year deal makes the most sense but with both Brown and Mayberry in the wings and Ben Francisco on the periphery, this is not likely to happen. Ibanez may resurface in the American League as a potential designated hitter, but his time in Philadelphia is probably over. One intriguing name to keep an eye on is former Indian center field star, Grady Sizemore, who recently was let go by the Tribe because of recurring knee problems. Sizemore could well be a worth while long term investment and might just enjoy the chance to re-establish his career with a team like the Phillies. He might be a tad costly but with the kind of high risk, high reward offerings that always intrigue a riverboat gamble like Amaro.
The same cannot be said for either Schneider or Gload, two off the bench players with limited success in 2011. Schneider has a small chance of returning as the backup catcher simply because he is not only a left handed but has an excellent relationship with rookie Vance Worley. However, the Phils probably will look to bring in a less costly and younger replacement such as either Chris Snyder or Ryan Doumit, both formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates. And if you are interested in a long shot player within the organization, a name to remember is Tuffy Gosewisch, a player who performed admirably for the Reading Phillies in Double-A ball this year.
Gosewisch, who has long been a favorite of such Phillie hurlers as Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, is an outstanding defensive backstop who has recently developed some pop to go along with his glove. His 13 home runs in 2011 might just garner him a look see should Amaro choose to promote within the organization rather than bring in either an outsider like Snyder or Doumit.
As for the pitching staff in general and both Oswalt and Lidge in particular, the outcomes look decidedly different for the veteran righties. Brad Lidge, whose perfect season in 2008, helped catapult the Phils to a world championship, might well return in a relief role on a mostly make do contract. It might be incentive based, and certainly for only one year. Lidge is popular in the clubhouse, worked hard to return to action this past summer, and loves Philadelphia and his teammates. The feeling is mutual and the guess is that Lidge will return.
Not so for Roy Oswalt, though he like pitching for the Phillies and the feeling is again mutual. The chances of him returning are slim, simply because the market for starting pitchers is so large and the number of outstanding free agent pitchers so small. Other than C.J. Wilson, CC Sabathia and perhaps Aaron Harang, there is a dearth of top of the line starting pitchers available in a market that features teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Cardinals and Marlins all looking for pitching. It seems reasonable to assume that any or all of these teams are likely to offer Oswalt a two year deal, one the the Phils are loathe to match.
Watch for Oswalt to leave and the Phils will try and fill their fifth starting pitcher role [after Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Worley] internally with veterans Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick getting the opportunities to claim the final spot in the rotation. And while the veterans Papelbon and Lidge might well join the bullpen in 2012 the Phils are likely to "go young" with the rest of the pen. Besides the returning slants of Bastardo and Stutes, the team might well piece together the rest of the bullpen from among the likes of rookies Michael Schwimer, Joe Savery, Justin DeFratus, Scott Mathieson and Phillippe Aumont. The veteran Jose Contreras also figures in the bullpen equation if he returns from the elbow problems that curtailed his 2011 season.
All in all, there is much to like about next season's edition of the Philadelphia Phillies and with better health, a full season from Hunter Pence and some strong free agent additions, the hope is that the team's window of opportunity is not yet closing. Yet, if Shakespeare was correct, the team could well have scars difficult to conceal even though the wounds of a bitter ending to a wonderful 2011 might already be healing.
Ruben Amaro has a daunting task ahead, one that he is likely to view both as challenging yet invigorating. He understands that despite a record breaking 102 win season and all the individual honors that the season offered to its players in the end it was the Cardinals who were the last team standing. It is now up to Amaro to insure that this does not happen again in 2012 as he studies his team through the lenses of a rear view mirror and formulates his next moves...in the aftermath.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast