The Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday declined Pedro Feliz’s $5.5-M option for 2010. I was a bit surprised that the Phillies would not just pick it up and bring Feliz, an excellent defender at third base, back for one more final season. While he is a below-average offensive performer, his defense makes him valuable enough to merit that kind of contract in a one-year situation. I discussed Feliz decision in my third basemen free agency preview, writing that the Phillies would probably pick up the option but could choose to upgrade at the position via free agency or trade.
The Phillies have a $5.0-M option on Feliz in ’10, with a $500,000 buyout. The front office obviously is high on his defense, so odds are it will be picked up. Technically, he has been worth that much every year since 2004, but the team should look long and hard to see if there is a better, more cost-efficient option who can do what he can. Philadelphia gets enough offensive pop from the right side of the infield that it can live with all-field, no-hit type at a premium offensive position, as the strategy has clearly worked for the reigning World Series Champions since Feliz came over in free agency. He is 35, though, and there is no reason why they should not look to get even better.
Philadelphia could definitely afford to receive more production from the hot corner on offense. The team boasts one of the most talented infields in baseball, with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on the right side and former M.V.P. Jimmy Rollins at shortstop. Adding an elite third baseman to the mix, however, could really make the Phillies’ infield something special.
Bringing Feliz back on a reduced rate is always an option for Philadelphia as well. The market is again likely to be cold to middle-tier free agents, so that is a realistic possibility and the decision to decline could end up saving the franchise a few million dollars. If I were calling the shots, though, I would go all in and make a run at one of the top two free agent third baseman on the market, Adrian Beltre and Chone Figgins. It is no secret that the Phillies have a core in place right now that will allow them to continue contending for the immediate future. The window for success will not be open for too much longer, however, as several of the key members of the roster become more expensive through arbitration and near closer to free agency.
Given where the club falls on the success cycle, then, I would take a chance and spend the necessary dollars to upgrade at the position right now. As I wrote in the third base piece, Figgins is the best third sacker available. His struggles in the postseason were a common storyline in the Los Angeles papers, but he had an exceptional campaign in 2009 that cannot be overlooked. The 31-year-old free agent hit .298/.395/.393 and led the league with 101 walks. That kind of ability to get on base and set the table would be a welcome addition to the Phillies’ lineup. Indeed, Howard and Utley would certainly enjoy the increased RBI chances that would come from hitting behind him.
Figgins is an elite defender at third base and is extremely versatile in the field as well. He ranked fourth in the majors at the position with an 11.8 UZR/150, actually topping the sure-handed Feliz’s total. When factoring in batting, fielding and positional factors, he produced 5.9 Wins Above Replacement; he led all free agent position players in WAR.
Given the performance, the market for Figgins will be competitive. If there is one player most likely to be overpaid, in fact, it is probably him; reports already indicate that contract negotiations will start at five years, $50-M. Since he is not a 5.0-win player going forward when he regresses on offense and loses a step in the field with age, the risk may outweigh the reward with him if the bidding gets out of control.
For that reason, I would gauge the market if I were the Phillies and, if Figgins becomes too pricey, then redirect my focus on Beltre, the second-best third baseman available who is likely to be more affordable and could be a great fit in Philadelphia. For starters, like Feliz, he is an outstanding defensive player. If he should indeed end up with the Phillies, he will actually be an upgrade defensively at third base. Beltre, in fact, was the premier glove man at the hot corner in baseball in ’09, ranking first in the majors with a 14.7 UZR/150. Single-season UZR totals are known to fluctuate wildly, but his performance has been consistently excellent every year outside of what appears to be a fluke in 2007; since 2002, he has graded out 104.0 runs above average.
The 30-year-old Beltre has some weaknesses on offense, of course. Most notably, he is an impatient hitter who strikes out too much and does not walk enough. And he came nowhere close to matching his production from 2004, when he slugged an NL-leading 48 homers and posted a 163 OPS+ during his walk year with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Contrary to popular belief, Beltre actually lived up to his five-year, $64-M contract with the Seattle Mariners, anyway, thanks to his Gold Glove-caliber defense. His offensive numbers definitely left some to be desired, though, as he managed a disappointing five-year line of .266/.317/.442 with a 101 OPS+ during his tenure with the team. He picked a bad time to slump this past season as well, putting up his worst slash line—.265/.304/.379—as a Mariner, with only eight homers.
That said, Beltre still produced OPS+ totals of 105, 112 and 109 from 2006 to ’08, respectively, and is a much better hitter than Feliz, who has not posted an OPS+ total higher than 85 since 2003. Also, it would be foolish to ignore context and his home ballpark. Pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, like it does for many right-handed hitters, greatly suppressed his offensive output, making his struggles appear worse than they actually were. Indeed, his numbers were considerably better on the road; from ’07 to ’09, he posted a line of .287/.331/.488 with an .819 OPS in 809 at-bats, compared to just .252/.304/.399 with a .703 OPS in 791 at-bats at home. While he is unlikely to ever come close to his ’04 line, he will surely benefit moving into a more hitter-friendly home environment such as Citizens Bank Park. Philadelphia saw first hand with Raul Ibanez how much a player can benefit from moving away from Safeco Field, and it would not be surprising to see it happen again with Beltre.
On paper, Beltre really does appear to be a fine fit. One of the Phillies’ biggest strengths is their strong team defense, and he would help improve the club on that front. Plus, he would provide an offensive upgrade, increasing the team’s chances of winning the division again and getting another shot to roll the dice in October in the short term. He is also still relatively young and his defense will make him valuable even if the bat does not come around or falls of the map towards the end of any contract.
Price could be an issue. The perception out there is that Beltre was a total bust in Seattle because he failed to duplicate his 48-homer season, though, which will hurt his free agency status. Combine that with his disappointing year and the market for his services should be reasonable. If that is the case, the Phillies should make it happen.