A.J. Burnett

2014 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: Can the Phillies have all of their key players stay healthy for an entire season?

The one thing you’ve heard about the Phillies ad nauseam for the past few years and plenty of times going into spring training this year is that they are very old. Aside from third baseman Cody Asche and including catcher Carlos Ruiz, their entire infield is in their mid-30’s. New right fielder Marlon Byrd is 36. Cliff Lee is 35. Jonathan Papelbon is 33. Teams with so many relatively old players generally don’t win championships, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks the Phillies will even make the playoffs, let alone win it all in 2014.

Ryan Howard is the big X-factor for the Phillies. He tore his Achilles at the end of the 2011 NLDS and kept him out of action until the second half of the 2012 season. He was gimpy and unproductive. He seemed to rebound somewhat in the first half of the 2013 season, but his season ended when he tore his meniscus. The thought has been that if Howard can have a completely healthy season, he can go back to being one of baseball’s feared sluggers. However, opposing teams have figured him out in recent years, countering him with lefty relievers and ordering them to throw him sliders low and away. As a result, the response from the Phillies should be to platoon him, but as has been the case for years, they don’t seem too enamored with the idea.

Chase Utley portends to be the team’s most productive player once again. Among position players, he led the team in WAR according to Baseball Reference, which put him at 3.5. He isn’t the player he used to be, when he was arguably an MVP-caliber player and a Gold Glove-caliber defender. But he still ranks close to the top-five second basemen and is still an above-average defender, even if he has lost a bit of range. The Phillies signed him to a two-year extension with three vesting options last August, and they don’t have any appetizing options to supplant him, so if Utley can’t produce in 2014, the Phillies are plum out of luck.

The Phillies were uncharacteristically quiet in the free agent market during the off-season, only jumping out to sign Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million deal to play right field. The signing was harangued at the time, but it turned out to be better than expected given how the market played out. Of course, banking on a 36-year-old to replicate what is in all likelihood a fluke season – Byrd posted an .847 OPS with 24 home runs – may be a fool’s errand, but Byrd should be worth $8 million a year even if he sees a drop in production.

In February, the Phillies surprised the baseball world when they announced the signing of A.J. Burnett to a one-year deal worth $15 million. The deal also includes a $15 million mutual option or a $7.5 million player option for 2015. Burnett was mulling retirement, but decided to continue playing as long as he could stay close to home. That left the Pirates, Nationals, Orioles, and Phillies. The Nationals were never really involved and the Orioles made themselves look bad by botching deals with Jim Johnson and Tyler Colvin – something which Burnett said factored into his decision to pick a team.

What else is going on?  

  • Papelbon’s fastball velocity declined from 95 MPH in 2011 to 92 MPH last season. His results last season weren’t terrible by any means, but there is some cause for concern given his age. Early reports out of spring training have him hitting 92-93 MPH, so if he can ramp it up back to the mid-90’s for the start of the regular season, the Phillies will finally exhale. They still owe him $26 million and potentially an additional $13 million if his 2016 option vests.
  • Domonic Brown broke out for the Phillies in 2013, his first season as a starter. He finished with an .818 OPS and 27 home runs. He earned a spot on the NL All-Star roster with a 12-homer May and an .884 OPS in June. Brown, however, struggled defensively and pitchers seemed to have a better game plan against him as the season went on. Baseball is a game of adjustments and if Brown can adjust properly, he should emerge into a reliable regular.
  • Jake Diekman may be a star in the making. The lefty posted a 2.58 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings last season. He turned it on in August, compiling 26 strikeouts and nine unintentional walks with a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings in the final two months. Relievers are volatile, but Diekman has a mid-90’s fastball and a nasty slider that has made some very good hitters look very bad.
  • The Phillies may be better than people expect since they’ll be running Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and A.J. Burnett out to the mound three out of every five days. The trio certainly ranks among baseball’s most fearsome 1-2-3 punches. 

Prediction: As fun as it is to hope the Phillies have everything break right and get back into the playoffs, it just isn’t all that likely. Older players do break down, and the Phillies more than everyone know that for a fact. Fourth place, NL East.

The Orioles signed Rafael Palmeiro’s son

Rafael Palmeiro
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Last summer we posted about Rafael Palmeiro coming out of retirement to play for the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters. The reason: to play a game with his boy Patrick. In that game the elder Palmeiro went 2-for-4 with an RBI, a walk, and a run scored. His son, who is now 26, went 2-for-4 with a grand slam.

Did that serve as an audition for Patrick? Possibly, as Jon Meloi of the Baltimore Sun reports that the Orioles just signed him to a minor league deal.

As Meloi notes, it’s certainly just an organizational depth move, as Patrick is no prospect. And it’s actually likely something of a coincidence that it’s the Orioles who signed him, as Palmeiro doesn’t have any real contacts with the Orioles baseball operations people, all of whom are different folks now than back in his day.

This may not be the last of the Palmeiros, by the way. Peter Gammons tweeted this morning that Patrick’s younger brother, Preston, is a first baseman at North Carolina State who could be drafted this june. Gammons says he has a swing “remarkably similar to dad.”

Diamondbacks, A.J. Pollock avoid arbitration with two-year contract

Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder A.J. Pollock drives in two runs against the Cincinnati Reds during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
AP Photo/Gary Landers
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Steve Gilbert of MLB.com reports that the Diamondbacks and outfielder A.J. Pollock have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year extension. The deal is worth $10.25 million, per ESPN’s Buster Olney.

Pollock was arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter. The 28-year-old requested $3.9 million and was offered $3.65 million by the Diamondbacks when figures were exchanged on January 15. It wasn’t much of a gap, but the two sides were ultimately able to find common ground on a multi-year deal. Pollock will still be under team control for one more year after this new deal expires.

Pollock is coming off a breakout 2015 where he batted .315/.367/.498 with 20 home runs, 76 RBI, and 39 stolen bases over 157 games. He ranked sixth among position players with 7.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), according to Baseball Reference.

Report: Blue Jays and Josh Donaldson agree to two-year, $29 million extension

Toronto Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson celebrates his two run home run against the Kansas City Royals during the third inning in Game 3 of baseball's American League Championship Series on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015, in Toronto. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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The Blue Jays and 2015 American League Most Valuable Player Josh Donaldson have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a two-year, $29 million contract, reports Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca.

Donaldson was arbitration-eligible for the second time this winter. He filed for $11.8 million and was offered $11.35 million by the Blue Jays when figures were exchanged last month. It wasn’t a big gap, but since the Blue Jays are a “file and trial” team, they bring these cases to an arbitration hearing unless a multi-year deal can be worked out. As opposed to last winter, they were able to avoid a hearing this time around. Donaldson was originally a Super Two player, so he’ll still have one year of arbitration-eligibility once this two-year deal is completed.

The 30-year-old Donaldson is coming off a monster first season in Toronto where he batted .297/.371/.568 with 41 homers while leading the American League with 123 RBI.

Giants and Brandon Belt have an arbitration hearing scheduled for Wednesday

San Francisco Giants'  Brandon Belt reacts after being called out on strikes by home plate umpire Jim Joyce to end the top of the first inning against the Colorado Rockies in a baseball game Friday, Sept.. 4, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Brandon Belt filed for $7.5 million and was offered $5.3 million by the Giants when arbitration figures were exchanged last month. That’s a pretty sizable gap. While there’s still a chance that an agreement will be worked out at the last minute, Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that an arbitration hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

The Giants haven’t gone to an arbitration hearing since 2004, when they lost to catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Schulman hears from one person involved that because of the gap between Belt and the Giants, there’s a real chance this will break that string and require a hearing.

Belt batted .280/.356/.478 with 18 home runs and 68 RBI over 137 games in 2015, but he dealt with concussion symptoms for the second straight season. An arbitration hearing could bring some unpleasant conversation to the surface.