February 8, 2012

Introducing the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies: Who's in.

Yesterday, we discussed those who have moved on. Today, we'll talk about the new guys! Ruben Amaro's offseason focus was pretty simple: Improve the bench, overpay a closer, add a few extra bullpen arms. And for better or worse, he can check off each of those goals. Whether it'll bring the Phillies, who won 102 games last season, any closer to the one more darn championship that everyone craves, that everyone believes will legitimize this mini-dynasty, is another story.

Ty Wigginton. Gettin' Wiggy with it! Most fantasy baseball players know Ty Wigginton as "that guy who gets hot for a month, hits a bunch of homers and then cools down for the rest of the season." This could actually work to the Phillies' advantage; his best month has historically been May, and the latest reports indicate that Ryan Howard won't be back until at least then.

There's no doubt that Wigginton's a part-time player on the decline, but he can still play a bunch of positions -- albeit not particularly well -- and provide a little bit of pop (22 homers in 2010, 15 in 2011). He'll be the primary right-handed bench bat and the logical replacement whenever Chase Utley or Placido Polanco go down with injuries. He's a hobo's Michael Cuddyer at a considerably cheaper price, and bringing him in was exactly the kind of smart move the Phillies should have made this offseason.

Laynce Nix. Nobody is really sure why Nix is in Philadelphia. He's 31, so it's not like he's suddenly going to blossom. He hits .181/.235/.271 versus left-handed pitching, so no one with a brain is handing him a starting job. And even a John Mayberry/Laynce Nix platoon in left field, which everyone initially assumed was the plan, seems silly once you check the numbers. Mayberry's .785 OPS versus righties in 2011 was a few points ahead of Nix's .781.

As David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News noted in December, a Wigginton/Nix platoon at first base (until Ryan Howard returns, of course) might make a little bit more sense. This would also ensure that John Mayberry gets more than his fair share of outfield playing time, which would be equally wise. The Phillies to find out whether Mayberry can be a full-time player. He's exactly what they need -- a cheap young(ish) outfielder -- especially since the organization continues to shovel dirt on Dom Brown like The Undertaker in a Buried Alive Match. Whether Nix stands in the way of Mayberry's continued growth or not should determine how he's accepted by the Philly faithful. Good thing Ruben Amaro signed him to a two-year deal!

Juan Pierre. There's no guarantee that Pierre will make the team, especially since he's a left-handed bat on a bench packed with them. But he's a skilled bunter (led baseball in sacrifice hits last year) who could also serve as the primary pinch-running threat. Also, his competition is Scott Podsednik, who's a little older and even more washed-up.

That said, Pierre's topped a 100 OPS+ once since 2004, and he was caught stealing 17 times last year while snagging only 27 bags (his lowest total since 2000). Sounds like a guy that's mostly cooked to me, but we all know how Charlie Manuel loves his veterans. Look for Pierre to make the squad out of spring training and probably be released by June.

Jim Thome. The big man is back. The last time he plied his trade in Philadelphia, an injury-shortened 2005 season opened the door for Ryan Howard, who began his rise to the top by stepping in and winning National League Rookie of the Year. So everyone on the Internet who despises Howard's gigantic contract, you only have Jim Thome to blame.

Thome hit .256/.361/.477 in 324 plate appearances last year, but he should see the plate much less in 2012 while serving as Howard's occasional first-base replacement and the bench's primary left-handed bat. He's very unlikely to bash 15 homers again, but that on-base percentage would have trailed only Hunter Pence and Carlos Ruiz amongst Phillies regulars. If Big Jim brings that good eye and the occasional dinger to the table this year, he'll be worth every penny of his $1.25 million.

Chad Qualls. Public enemy number one of Justin De Fratus, Michael Schwimmer, Phillippe Aumont and every other young Phillies arm who had hopes of starting the season with the big leaguers. But don't fret too much, boys, because Mr. Qualls' strikeout rate has been plummeting since 2008. And his 2010 was an unmitigated disaster: 7.32 ERA, 3.2 walks per 9 innings, 13.0 hits per 9 innings. He bounced back in 2011, but that was in the friendly confines of Petco Park in San Diego. And he threw 74 innings in the process.

If Qualls looks out of gas by the summer, a one-year deal worth just a little over a million dollars won't keep Amaro from releasing the 33-year-old and promoting a young gun. That makes this a risk worth taking -- mostly because you can never have enough decent arms on staff -- but there's a very good chance that Qualls won't outperform whoever the Phillies stash in the minor leagues. If Manuel does anything silly, like, say, give him the eighth inning outright, I fear for the Phillies' bullpen.

Dontrelle Willis. Juan Pierre, Jose Contreras, Jim Thome, Dontrelle Willis, Placido Polanco, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard. If only Ruben Amaro could acquire a time machine, this team would dominate Major League Baseball in 2005.

That's a clever way of saying the Phillies are old, but at least they're also smart: Willis, signed as a LOOGY, has held lefty hitters to a line of .200/.274/.288 in his career. If he can keep his walks in check (got them down to 4.4 BB/9 last year, still not good at all but a decent sign), this could be the shrewdest signing of the year. And for $850,000, there's no reason not to give it a shot.

For the most part, the Phillies went bargain shopping this offseason, and for the most part, the deals they inked are low risk and medium-to-high reward. I just wish we could lop a year off that Nix contract....

Jonathan Papelbon. And then, of course, there's the big signing. The one that had everyone talking, good or bad.

For the record, I like Jonathan Papelbon, and I think he's a top-5 closer. I see no reason that the Phillies can't get two stellar years out of him followed by two at least halfway-decent years (which probably won't add up to exactly $50 million of value, but them's the breaks). The organization wanted to lock up an elite closer for an extended amount of time, and they felt more comfortable giving that money to Papelbon instead of Ryan Madson. At the moment, I feel like that's six in one hand, a half-dozen in the other.

But it remains extremely unlikely that Papelbon (or Madson, or whoever the closer could've been) will live up to his end of this deal. I know most free agents don't entirely pan out, and the thinking here is presumably that the aging, top-heavy Phillies win the World Series either this year or next and justify all these expensive contracts in the process. That's probably not a gamble worth taking in most cities, but with Cole Hamels potentially a year away from free agency, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay getting older and Utley and Howard and Rollins beginning their inevitable, age-related regression, maybe it's the only choice Amaro felt he had. Go for break with a playoff-tested closer and hope that the bounces finally go their way again in the postseason.

That kind of wishful thinking won't score you any points in the sabermetric community, but it's where the Phillies stand in 2012. They're almost certainly the best team in the National League, and if all the aces finally decide to pitch like studs come playoff time, there's no reason they can't beat the Angels, Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox, whoever. Time is not on their side, though, and we'll see if doing nothing but tweaking a team with growing flaws proves to be dangerously short-sighted.

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