Analysis

Mission Possible? Build A Contender For 2016



NolaAs it’s late January, and there isn’t a ton of Phillies news to report (okay, we hired a Google guy; also, mediocre spring training duds), we’re in the hot zone for half-baked thought experiments.

Tuesday I gave you one: Please help me predict the 2019 Phillies major league roster. Please read it, then send me an email or comment in it. I’d greatly appreciate it. When I get a few more findings, I hope to start presenting some projects using the data.

Meanwhile, I came across this terrific thought experiment from Grant Brisbee over at SBNation. His idea was to build the Phillies into a contender for 2016, solely using free agency. He came up likely short of a playoff team, but it’s a great concept. Why? Because everyone seems to think the Phillies are “tanking” this year.

So here we go. I’m lovingly taking Brisbee’s concept and trying it for myself. Let’s imagine the Phillies hired me, Tim Malcolm, as general manager, and my strategy was to build through free agency and minimal trades. You know, I’m basically Ruben Amaro Jr.

My goal is to build a team that can compete for a 2016 postseason berth, while also remaining competitive for 2017 and beyond. By the way, this is a long read. Hang on …

Going into the offseason, the Phillies 25-man payroll looked like this (arbitration and projected rookie salaries added):

Pos – Player – 2016 / 2017 / 2018 (opt)
C – Carlos Ruiz – $8.5M / $4.5M (club or $500K buyout)
C – Cameron Rupp – $550K
1B – Ryan Howard – $25M / $23M (club or $10M buyout)
1B – Darin Ruf – $600K
2B – Cesar Hernandez – $600K
SS – Freddy Galvis – $2M (arb)
3B – Maikel Franco – $550K
3B – Cody Asche – $600K
IF – Andres Blanco – $1.45M (arb)
OF – Odubel Herrera – $550K
OF – Aaron Altherr – $500K
OF – Darnell Sweeney – $500K
SP – David Buchanan – $600K
SP – Aaron Nola – $550K
SP – Jerad Eickhoff – $525K
SP – Adam Morgan – $500K
SP – Alec Asher – $500K
RP – Jeanmar Gomez – $1.4M
RP – Ken Giles – $550K
RP – Mario Hollands – $550K
RP – Luis Garcia – $525K
RP – Elvis Araujo – $500K
RP – Dalier Hinojosa – $500K
RP – Colton Murray – $500K
RP – Hector Neris – $500K

Plus:
SP – Matt Harrison – $13M / $13M / $13.25M (club)
RP – Miguel Gonzalez – $4.6M
XX – Cliff Lee – $12.5M

So that’s approximately $78.7 million tied up in those salaries. Considering the Phillies were approaching $200 million in payroll during the glory years, we can assume we have about $100 million to play with this offseason. So let’s play.

Assessment

I see many obvious holes. First, the starting rotation has a few promising arms (Nola, Eickhoff, Morgan, Asher) but no standout ace, and no true depth. It needs plenty of work.

The offense is in similar shape. Other than Franco and Herrera, I’m not sure there’s a certain everyday player in the bunch. I need a bigger sample from Altherr and Rupp, and Hernandez and Galvis are below-average offensive players with potentially overrated defensive skills. I need to be smart to upgrade the offense.

The good news is the payroll is astoundingly low. With that, I have a cachet of prospects ready to blend into the roster either this year or next year (J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Jake Thompson, Jorge Alfaro, Andrew Knapp). I don’t want to block every prospect, but I also may want to move a prospect or two for immediate need.

November-December

The pitching market heats up first. I’d like to slot Nola in the rotation and let Eickhoff continue his progression in the back of the line this April, but I’m not sold yet on Morgan or Asher (or Buchanan or Severino Gonzalez) in a playoff rotation. So I need three proven arms. David Price is the big prize, but I’m wary. Price was worth around 5.5-6 WAR. I can pay $30 million per year for him, then grab another one or two pitchers worth 3 WAR total, but I’m probably paying $20-$30 million on those arms, slashing half my budget. I need to spread out the value here.

I like Jordan Zimmermann, who’s 29, is worth an average of 4 WAR over the last four seasons, and has solid strikeout numbers (172 per 162 games). His asking price is a shade more than $20 million per year, which is my cap for a pitcher. His five years is probably one too many for me, but he’s proven himself over five durable seasons already.

Signed: Jordan Zimmermann (5Y/$110M — $18M / $18M / $24M / $25M / $25M)

Getting Zimmermann for a $21 million AAV works for me.

Another name I watch is veteran Scott Kazmir, a lefty who put up solid numbers in 2015, including a 7.6 K/9. He’d be a decent No. 2 or 3 starter; I get him for three years and $48 million, front-loading the deal.

Signed: Scott Kazmir (3Y/$48M — $18M / $16M / $14M)

As the winter meetings approach, I start thinking about trades. I know I need to upgrade the outfield, which make Altherr, Williams and fellow prospect Roman Quinn available. My goal is to grab either a No. 2 pitcher or a premium bat in a trade, dangling two top-10 prospects and another top-30 name.

Looking across the league one name intrigues me most: Ryan Braun. He’ll be making $96 million over the next five seasons (though $18 million of the contract is deferred, to be paid from 2022-31), with a $15 million mutual option for 2021. So I’m guaranteed to pay $78 million over the length that he’s meant to be in Philadelphia. The 32-year-old had a slight return to form in 2015 (.285/.356/.498) and has always been an on-base threat. His defense is passable. His power remains, though it’s not at 2008-2012 levels. The big knocks: injuries (thumb, back) and reputation (PED suspension). Still, Braun would be more affordable than Heyward or Upton, and I’m not as bullish on Yoenis Cespedes.

The Brewers want me to eat the entire contract. Fine, but that limits the return. I offer Alfaro, Quinn, Ben Lively and a non-top-30 prospect. Braun waives his no-trade clause; deal done.

Acquired: Ryan Braun (5Y/$73M — $16M / $16M / $16M / $16M / $14M / $15M (mutual or $4M buyout)

It’s a risky move, absolutely, but it sets me up for this year with a likely 3-WAR player (and possible 4-5-WAR player) over the next three to four years each.

And since we’re at the winter meetings, one more move:

Selected: Joseph Biagini in Rule 5 Draft

Let’s say I draft Tyler Goeddel and trade him to another team for Biagini, a right-handed pitcher from the Giants. I go with Biagini to give me pitching depth.

After those moves I’ve spent just over half of my allotted budget.

But I still have a lot more to accomplish. I’d like to improve my infield by two players. First, I’m uncertain about a Howard-Ruf platoon for 2016, primarily because it’s entirely too one-dimensional, and secondarily because it provides terrible defense.

I decide to eat Howard’s contract. He provides negative value, and there’s little reason to believe he adds positive value in 2016. So I look out and see Mike Napoli, a low-risk but higher reward player with much better first base defense than both Howard and Ruf. The one drawback is his numbers against right-handed pitching, which won’t make for a solid platoon with Ruf. That’s okay, I don’t want a platoon. Ruf can go back to triple-A; if I need a platoon, lefty hitter Brock Stassi can get a shot.

I can bring in Napoli for one year, as he’s really a bounceback candidate after a down 2015 (he was improved in the second half), and keep options open for 2017 and beyond. I make the deal for $7 million.

Signed: Mike Napoli (1Y/$7M)

And I want to improve the middle infield. I’m confident that J.P. Crawford can win the starting shortstop job in 2017, but for 2016 I would like an upgrade either there or at second base. Between Hernandez and Galvis, I don’t see a middle infield worth more than 2 WAR; that has to change.

Two players are of interest: Ben Zobrist and Ian Desmond. The former is a surer thing, a solid offensive contributor with on-base skill and position flexibility. The latter played poorly to start 2015 and improved in the second half; still, there’s doubt about his 2016 ability. He does provide more power potential, and he could slide to second base. As far as salary, I’d be paying more, and for more years, for Zobrist. I’d rather a little more flexibility here, so I take a shot with Desmond for two years and $24 million, adding a club option.

Signed: Ian Desmond (2Y/$24M — $12M / $12M / $10M (club or $2M buyout)

With that I still have $29 million to spend for 2016.

January

What else do I need? One more veteran starter, pitching depth, a veteran reliever or two, and probably a couple hitters. Yikes. But these are mostly small deals. Like do them.

Signed: David Hernandez (1Y/$4M)

Hey, it’s a good deal either way.

Signed: Neal Cotts (1Y/$4M)

Banking on the lefty to provide some decent innings.

Signed: Tim Lincecum (1Y/$9M)

Oh yeah. Hoping for a bounceback here. He could be a setup man for Giles, or he can start. The possibilities … are … two!

Signed: Franklin Gutierrez (1Y/$3M)

Having a great offensive season in a short sample in 2015, the man nicknamed “Death to Flying Things” is a nice all-around talent to stick in the outfield with Braun, Herrera and Altherr.

After these moves I have $9 million to play with. I’ll make one more pitching move.

Signed: Mark Buehrle (1Y/$7M)

I’m taking a one-year flier on Buehrle, talking him out of retirement.

And that’s it, sans depth signings for triple-A and beyond.

Here’s my new 2016 Phillies – with salary figures for the upcoming season and beyond:

Pos – Player – 2016 / 2017 / 2018 / 2019 / 2020 / 2021 / 2016 PROJ WAR (Steamer)
C – Cameron Rupp – $550K / 0.8 WAR
C – Carlos Ruiz – $8.5M / $500K / 0.7 WAR
1B – Mike Napoli – $7M / 0.9 WAR
2B – Cesar Hernandez – $600K / 0.4 WAR
3B – Maikel Franco – $550K / 2.5 WAR
SS – Ian Desmond – $12M / $12M / $2M / 1.5 WAR
IF – Freddy Galvis – $2M / 0.6 WAR
IF – Andres Blanco – $1.45M (arb) / 0.2 WAR
LF – Ryan Braun – $16M / $16M / $16M / $16M / $14M / $4M / 1.9 WAR
CF – Odubel Herrera – $550K / 1.6 WAR
RF – Franklin Gutierrez – $3M / 0.4 WAR
OF – Aaron Altherr – $500K / 0.5 WAR
OF – Darnell Sweeney – $500K / -0.5 WAR
SP – Jordan Zimmermann – $18M / $18M / $24M / $25M / $25M / 2.4 WAR
SP – Scott Kazmir – $18M / $16M / $14M / 2.6 WAR
SP – Aaron Nola – $550K / 2.3 WAR
SP – Mark Buehrle $7M / 1.6 WAR
SP – Jerad Eickhoff – $525K / 1.3 WAR
RP – Luis Garcia – $525K / 0.4 WAR
RP – Elvis Araujo – $500K / 0.1 WAR
RP – Jeanmar Gomez – $1.4M / 0.1 WAR
RP – David Hernandez – $4M / 0.3 WAR
RP – Neal Cotts – $4M / 0.1 WAR
RP – Tim Lincecum – $9M / 0.7 WAR
CP – Ken Giles – $550K / 0.7 WAR

Adding the contracts I’m on the hook for in 2016, I’m paying $175 million for talent in 2016. And for 2017 I’m on the hook for around $85 million, before pre-arb and arbitration deals. Let’s say I’m paying $100 million for 2017’s team – the only major holes would be catcher, first base, middle infield, outfield and one starting pitcher spot. No problem, as I introduce Knapp, Crawford, Williams and Thompson. First base may need to be a free-agent deal; no problem.

As for performance? Steamer (which is bearish on bounceback guys) says my team is worth 24.1 wins above replacement in 2016. That’s actually worse than Brisbee’s 29 WAR that he put together, before even adding bench and bullpen. That said, he spent $120 million, and he spent everything without adding bench or bullpen. Without those contracts and with an extra $20 million, I have plenty to sign Heyward, Upton or even Price. That would put me up there with Brisbee.

It’s still not enough.

In 2015, 24.1 WAR made you … the Brewers. So not much better than the Phillies. Even 29 WAR isn’t good. You’re hanging with the Diamondbacks, Athletics and Padres. So still below .500.

Even if I spend $120 million, don’t upgrade the bullpen or bench, don’t trade for Braun and simply sign Heyward and Upton … I’m at maybe 33 WAR. The Royals actually were worth 32.9 WAR in 2015, but so were the Tigers and White Sox. Can’t guarantee anything.

Now there’s one more hack. Say I can spend $120 million and simply buy the five biggest free agents (Heyward, Upton, Cespedes, Price, Greinke). I can do a Herrera, Heyward and Cespedes outfield, move Upton to first base with Hernandez, Galvis and Franco, have Rupp behind the plate, and make my rotation Price, Greinke, Nola, Eickhoff, Morgan. That may get me an extra 18-20 WAR, which would potentially put me in contention. But where’s the depth? Also, *now* we’re talking fantasy.

So here’s the point: Even if the Phillies tried to field a “formidable” team with more veterans in 2016, they wouldn’t be very good. They’d still be a low-tier team, and they’d be losing the opportunity to look at more young and high-reward players.

I’d much rather do things this way, the way they’re being done … especially when above took way too long to do.

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