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.

Six of seven players decline $17.9 million qualifying offers

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Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only one of seven eligible players to accept his $17.9 million qualifying offer. Bryce Harper, A.J. Pollock, Craig Kimbrel, Patrick Corbin, Yasmani Grandal, and Dallas Keuchel each rejected his, officially making them free agents. Teams that had their QO’s rejected will recoup a draft pick once the player signs elsewhere.

That Harper rejected his QO comes as no surprise, as he is expected to strike perhaps the largest free agent contract in baseball history. Though the free agent market has been less lucrative lately than in previous years, the combination of Harper’s elite talent and his age — he’s only 26 years old — makes him a primary target for more than a handful of teams. Harper reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million contract extension offer from the Nationals, so that would seem to be a baseline.

It is also not surprising that Kimbrel, 30, turned down his QO from the Red Sox. Despite a so-so showing during a championship run, Kimbrel is still young and talented enough to land another lucrative contract on the free agent market.

Keuchel bet on himself in turning down the Astros’ QO. He’s been solid since winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2015, owning a 3.77 ERA across 83 starts over the last three seasons. However, he turns 31 years old at the beginning of 2019, and his already mediocre strikeout rate declined even further this past season, so there may be some skepticism about his ability to perform over the course of a multi-year deal. Keuchel will still get one eventually, but his market may be slower to develop.

Pollock, soon 31 as well, will be the outfielder most coveted once Harper is off the market. When he’s healthy, he’s a dynamic five-tool player. However, Pollock hasn’t played in more than 113 games in a season since 2015, so that may be a red flag. Pollock ended 2018 batting .257/.316/.484 with 21 home runs, 65 RBI, 61 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases in 460 plate appearances while playing above-average defense according to various defensive metrics.

Grandal, 30, could’ve gone either way with his QO, but ultimately chose to decline. He had a disappointing postseason, both offensively and defensively. Given how humans are prone to recency bias, it stood to reason that his October performance could have hurt his market. The catching position, however, is rather weak and Grandal stands out in a market that is otherwise focused on Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. Grandal did swat 24 home runs with an .815 OPS in 140 games for the Dodgers this past season.

Corbin, 29, was the most obvious QO decline after Harper. The lefty is coming off of a career year, finishing with a 3.15 ERA and a 246/48 K/BB ratio in exactly 200 innings. Corbin is the best free agent pitcher on the market this offseason. The Yankees have been seriously linked with Corbin even before the season ended.

Ryu likely chose to accept his QO because of his age and injury history. It would have been a gamble to pursue a multi-year deal. He did, however, make 15 starts during the regular season to the tune of a 1.97 ERA with 89 strikeouts and 15 walks in 82 1/3 innings. Those are great numbers. And most clubs would have been smart enough to look beyond his 5.21 ERA in the postseason, which has more to do with a leaky bullpen than his own personal failings. Still, it’s hard to fault Ryu for playing it safe and taking the guaranteed $17.9 million for one year.