November 1, 2011

Jimmy Rollins or Ryan Madson?

In roughly 34 hours, Major League Baseball free agents will be allowed to sign with whichever team they please.

For the Philadelphia Phillies, this'll require saying goodbye to players like Raul Ibanez, Brian Schneider, Roy Oswalt and Ross Gload. For the most part -- or, in Oswalt's case, for the money it'd probably take to keep him around -- they won't be missed.

And then we come to Ryan Madson and Jimmy Rollins. The general consensus is that one of these two guys will be back for 2012 and beyond; figuring out which one it'll be has been the tough part.

I've advocated resigning both of them in the past, but I also recognize that doing so might be a financial stretch. The Phillies are a big market team, one that shouldn't have to cut too many corners, but even the richest teams have a breaking point.

So if it comes down to one or the other, bring back Jimmy Rollins.

I know that Ruben Amaro Jr. has already expressed his desire for a "proven closer," and Madson certainly fits that bill after last year's 32 saves and 2.37 ERA. But I think bringing back Madson -- or blowing a bunch of bucks on a name guy like Heath Bell or Jonathan Papelbon --  would be a poor allocation of resources.

Is it really wise to go big (and long) for a closer? The Phillies locked up Brad Lidge after his epic 2008 season and were rewarded with a disastrous 2009 and only 65 innings in 2010-2011. Maybe if they had made the smart business decision and turned to Madson in 2009, Amaro wouldn't have been forced to trade Cliff Lee in December of that same year for quick salary relief and (as of right now) a bunch of prospect-shaped doorstops.

Granted, there's no Madson-esque arm-in-waiting for 2012. Antonio Bastardo's numbers might suggest that he's ready, but the way he faltered down the stretch (and his left-handedness) probably convinced Amaro to look elsewhere. Phillippe Aumont is a fun name to throw around, if only to prove that the aforementioned Lee trade wasn't a total disaster, but he have to perform at the Major League level before they hand him any important innings.

If the Phillies insist on signing a veteran, I pray that they think old and cheap. Joe Nathan and Francisco Cordero are long-time closers, and their age (37) would, presumably, increase their interest in a shorter, simpler contract. Guys like Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco have closed before -- albeit relatively unimpressively -- and they can also slot into a setup role if one of the young guys decides to step up after all. And if you really want to roll the dice, the bloated corpse of Jonathan Broxton is also available. Just keep him away from Matt Stairs.

Meanwhile, there are two Type A shortstops on the market this offseason: Jose Reyes and Rollins. And although it would be a sportswriter's dream, the Phillies are unlikely to spend the nine figures necessary to snare the 29-year-old Reyes.

So if not Rollins or Reyes, then who? Rafael Furcal? Alex Gonzalez? Of all the names on this list, they're the only two even remotely "worthy" of starting on a legitimate contender. I'm really not interested in either one, and I highly doubt they tickle Amaro's fancy.

The solution could end up being Freddy Galvis, the 21-year-old prospect with the supposedly dazzling glove. But, as more than a few commenters on Beerleaguer have noted, a team with World Series aspirations and a league-average offense probably shouldn't turn to an unproven rookie with a weak bat.

Plus, there's the intangibles-oriented argument: Jimmy Rollins is the Phillies, he's meant so much to this organization, etc. I don't know how you'd quantify that, but I do agree with the idea that the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. I'm not sure Jimmy "deserves" one more big contract from the Phillies, but I'm not sure I'd want to roll the dice with anyone but him.

Some fans are probably (justifiably) nervous that Rollins will break down by the end of any deal (he's 33), and I know that there's a lot of rumbling about whether players can truly "live up" to extravagant deals like the ones Rollins and Madson are sure to sign.

But most free agents (or players in their 30s that choose extensions over free agency) rarely perform at the level, or for the length, of their new deals. The key, especially if you're a team with a massive payroll, is to limit your mistakes. Organizations like the Phillies and the Red Sox can survive a Geoff Jenkins, a J.D. Drew, even a John Lackey or (gulp) a Ryan Howard. But bury yourself under too many massive deals (like the Yankees may have done in a few years, as Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia continue to age) and you might find your window of championship opportunity has suddenly slammed shut.

The Phillies aren't even close to in trouble. Whether it's Dom Brown or John Mayberry in left field next year, the end result will (finally) be a cheap, young, competent bat to go with the old, expensive ones. As for their long-term financial interests, the only Phillies signed beyond 2012 are Howard, Lee, Roy Halladay and Chase Utley. And even after the Hunter Pence trade, the team's farm system should still be ranked as (at least) average.

Simply put, signing Jimmy Rollins won't cripple the Phillies. Neither will bringing back Ryan Madson. But when it comes to what they need, what they should really be willing to spend for, the stud shortstop trumps the stud closer.

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