Thursday, December 09, 2004

Winter Ball
As the Democratic Party continues its months-long process of overreaction and navel lint review, I figured this might be a good time to get back to the other ostensible major subject of this blog. The Phillies have been busy early Xmas shoppers this past week, making a trade for outfielder Kenny Lofton last Friday; re-signing two veteran role players, catcher Todd Pratt and reliever Rheal Cormier; and then adding former Yankees starter Jon Lieber to their rotation. They also offered salary arbitration to infielder Placido Polanco (and, ugh, Doug Glanville), and cut ties with starting pitchers Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood by declining to offer them arbitration.

I'm never particularly jazzed when the team makes a bunch of moves that has the combined effect of getting older, and Pratt, Cormier and Lofton will all be 38 next season while Lieber turns 35 just before Opening Day. But, taken one at a time, all these moves--aside from the team's puzzling and infuriating obsession with Glanville's dazzling smile, quick wit, and utterly craptacular game--make some sense and probably help for next season.

Adding Lieber is the most significant action. He's neither a proven ace like Oakland's Tim Hudson, a rumored trade target, nor an ace-level talent like Matt Clement or Odalis Perez, two other free agent possibilities. But the guy eats innings (480-plus innings and 11 complete games with the Cubs in 2001-2002, and an average of better than 6 IP per start with the Yanks last year), and doesn't give up walks (second-best ratio per 9 IP in MLB last year, I believe). In his second year back from the Tommy John surgery that kept him out for all of 2003, he should be even stronger, and his contract is quite reasonable for this year ($5.25 million) and not so bad in the two following years at around $7 million per. Philosophically, I'm pleased to see Ed Wade not running away from last season's rotation model--find five guys who perform like #2 or #3 starters rather than an ace and a bunch of question marks--just because single-occurence (hopefully!) injuries and Larry Bowa's incompetence torpedoed the concept in 2004. Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers are all pretty good bets to improve next year, and the team even has some depth now with Ryan Madson in the bullpen and Gavin Floyd starting the season at AAA.

I'm not quite as happy with the Lofton move, which sent setup reliever Felix Rodriguez to the Yankees, but it could prove to be a cost-effective solution to another fairly significant problem. Lofton wasn't great in 2004, but over the last three years he's still hit right-handed pitching fairly well. If Charlie Manuel uses lefty-mashing Jason Michaels as the right-handed half of a platoon with Lofton, it's reasonable to expect the Phils to get decent production from centerfield at a cost of below $4 million (less if you factor in the $1.5 million New York sent back with Lofton in the trade). If he tanks, it's only a one-year deal and either way, hopefully the team is that much closer to having one of its three centerfield prospects--Chris Roberson, Michael Bourn, and Greg Golson--ready to take over.

The Pratt and Cormier re-signings are what they are; both should be fine in the roles they're given, and neither is unduly burdensome from a cost standpoint (though two years with an option, at just under $6 million total, seems a lot for a 38 year-old reliever). That leaves the Polanco arbitration offer. I'm liking this, too, because it shows that Wade is more comfortable with risk than I would have thought: clearly, the team wants Polanco to sign elsewhere, so it can recoup the draft pick it forfeit to sign Lieber. Since Polanco wouldn't start in Philadelphia next year, and would surely prefer a multi-year deal for more guaranteed money and a starting job elsewhere than the $5 million or so he'd make as a "super-sub" with the Phillies, it's not likely that he'll take the arbitration unless his market proves non-existant. Given his versatility, strong defense and very solid offensive production the last two years, I think he'll get an offer and some team (St. Louis?) will consent to giving up its draft pick. If the Phils do get "stuck" with him, though, that's not so bad either: Polanco would make a great platoon partner for 2b Chase Utley, and a useful caddy for creaky 3b David Bell. Finally, even if a team doesn't choose to give up its draft pick for Polanco, it still might want to trade for him come springtime or summer--giving the Phils a good bargaing chip for injury replacement or other as-yet unforeseen need.

Given that the Yankees are evidently close to finalizing something with Eric Milton, I might have offered Milton arbitration as well and hoped to collect another supplemental draft pick. But, strange as it is to say, Ed Wade had a pretty good week for himself. Let the countdown to Spring Training begin...

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