Phillies look to strike balance between regulars and newcomers

Spring training is in the air as the sun shines on palm trees at Bright House Field in Clearwater.
Spring training is in the air as the sun shines on palm trees at Bright House Field in Clearwater.
Posted: February 17, 2010

HE IS A LOGGER, and his roster is his forest, and his job is twofold:

1) Milk enough value out of the land to satisfy the bottom lines of both his customers and bosses.

2) Sustain the ecosystem to ensure future prosperity.

Sometimes, it means harvesting trees at their peak value. Other times, it means clearing old ones while hoping to promote new growth. Always, it carries the risk of disrupting the forest canopy and nature's delicate balance.

It is an arduous task, both in forestry and in baseball, yet it is the task with which Ruben Amaro Jr. and his team of personnel are charged.

"It's great to have the core players that we have," the Phillies' general manager said not long after his club saw its season come to an end in Game 6 of the World Series. "At the same time, I welcome change. I think it's good, if you're changing in the right way."

Three months later, as the Phillies prepare to open their second straight spring training as National League champions, Amaro's philosophy manifests itself in the roster that will begin to shake off the winter rust tomorrow.

Last year, 23 of the 25 players on the 2008 World Series roster reported to spring training with the club. The lone exceptions - Pat Burrell, who was replaced by Raul Ibanez, and So Taguchi, who was essentially replaced the previous August by Matt Stairs - were obvious ones.

After an offseason in which the Phillies signed just two new players to guaranteed dollars - Ibanez and righthander Chan Ho Park - the questions heading into spring training weren't about change, but about the lack thereof.

One year later, the Phillies are coming off an offseason in which they signed six newcomers to guaranteed contracts, traded three prospects for righthander Roy Halladay, and dealt postseason MVP Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners for three prospects who are long on potential but short on projectable, short-term impact.

They bid adieu to nine players from last year's postseason roster - Lee, Park, Stairs, Pedro Feliz, Brett Myers, Scott Eyre, Pedro Martinez, Eric Bruntlett, Paul Bako - and welcomed seven newcomers (Halladay, Placido Polanco, Danys Baez, Jose Contreras, Ross Gload, Brian Schneider, Juan Castro).

They increased their faith in one group of young players (Cole Hamels, Ben Francisco, J.A. Happ, Antonio Bastardo, Kyle Kendrick, Sergio Escalona, Domonic Brown) and parted with another (Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, Travis D'Arnaud).

As spring training begins - pitchers and catchers hold their first workout tomorrow - we will get our first glimpse at the ramifications of the changes.

Top of the rotation

The move: Roy Halladay for Cliff Lee.

Upside: The Phillies trade a Cy Young-caliber lefty riding 2 years of dominance for a Cy Young-caliber righty riding 9 years of dominance. Over the last 2 years, Lee averaged 18 wins, a 2.89 ERA and 228 innings. In the same time period, Halladay averaged 18 wins, a 2.78 ERA and 243 innings to go with his 3.13 ERA and 1.131 walks/hits per inning (WHIP) since 2002. The rotation is also more balanced, and the Phillies have Halladay locked up through at least 2013.

Downside: Not much in the short term, since we are assuming the Phillies would not have acquired Halladay if they did not first deal Lee. In the long term, they thinned their organizational depth at pitcher, trading top prospect Drabek, and catcher, trading top prospect D'Arnaud, while putting plenty of pressure on top outfield prospect Domonic Brown to outperform Michael Taylor. Also, there is always risk in giving $60 million guaranteed to a player, especially a pitcher. But Halladay is as safe a bet as there is.

Third base

The move: Placido Polanco for Pedro Feliz.

Upside: Polanco brings a much more consistent bat to the lineup than Feliz, who had some big hits during his 2 years in Philly, but hit just .259 with a .699 OPS (on-base plus slugging average) and 26 home runs. The downside on Polanco is supposedly his lack of power, but over the last two seasons he hit just eight fewer home runs than Feliz and had a higher slugging percentage (.407 to .393). Polanco gives the Phillies a prototypical No. 2 hitter, something they felt they were lacking over the last 2 years.

Downside: Not much of one offensively. The big questions: Can Polanco, who hasn't played third regularly since 2002 but has won two straight Gold Gloves at second base, replace the excellent defense Feliz provided? Also, were the Phillies wise to give Polanco a 3-year contract? He hit .285 with a .331 on-base percentage last season at 33 years old, but his average, OBP and OPS have fallen in each of the last two seasons.

Bullpen

The moves: Danys Baez, Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero and Antonio Bastardo for Chan Ho Park, Clay Condrey and Scott Eyre.

Upside: Baez and Contreras both have the capability to have big seasons. Baez had a strong year for the Orioles, posting a 4.02 ERA and 1.130 WHIP in the toughest division in baseball. He also saved 71 games for the Rays in 2004-05, giving the Phillies closing experience that they lacked outside of Brad Lidge last season. Conteras, meanwhile, has a big arm and pitched well in a bullpen role for the Rockies late last season. Bastardo, who was on the postseason roster, is a young lefty with immense potential as a reliever, while Romero has a 2.25 ERA in three seasons in Philadelphia.

Downside: There are plenty of questions about all four players, starting with the elbow surgery from which Romero is attempting to battle back. Bastardo is unproven and had shoulder problems last season. Baez, 32, posted a 5.40 ERA in the two seasons before elbow surgery cost him all of 2008. Contreras is 38 and hasn't pitched regularly in relief in seven big-league seasons. It remains to be seen who will replace Park, who posted a 2.52 ERA, 1.180 WHIP and struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings as a reliever last year.

Back of the rotation

The moves: Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick for Brett Myers and Pedro Martinez.

Upside: Myers was never the same after spending most of 2007 as the Phillies' closer. Hip surgery sidelined him for most of last year, and he battled injuries when he attempted to make a late return as a reliever. Martinez was a tremendous midseason addition at the bottom of the rotation, but struggled in the World Series and was years removed from his last full, effective, healthy season. Kendrick showed strides at Triple A Lehigh Valley and went 3-1 with a 3.42 ERA in nine big-league appearances, two of them starts. Although he is 47 and attempting to recover from two offseason surgeries, Moyer is just 2 years removed from a solid 2008 in which he was one of the Phillies' most consistent starters.

Downside: Kendrick and Moyer appear to be the two options for No. 5 starter, although former Pirate Ryan Vogelsong and minor leaguer/spot starter Andrew Carpenter will get looks. Kendrick went 11-9 with a 5.49 ERA in his only full season as a major league starter, while Moyer has plenty of health obstacles to overcome, not to mention a 2009 season in which he went 12-10 with a 4.94 ERA. Myers, meanwhile, will compete for a spot in the Astros' rotation.

The bench

The moves: Ross Gload, Juan Castro and Brian Schneider for Matt Stairs, Eric Bruntlett, Miguel Cairo and Paul Bako.

Upside: The bench loses power in Stairs but gains versatility and a proven contact pinch-hitter in Gload. Schneider has a much better offensive track record than Bako, and was a regular catcher as recently as 2008 with the Mets.

Downside: Apart from Ben Francisco, the light-hitting Castro is the only other righthanded bat on the bench.

In summation . . .

Amaro's first full year as general manager was capped by a frenetic offseason. Once again, the Phillies enter the year as a favorite - if not the favorite - to win the National League. Did they change enough or too much, and did they do it in the right (or wrong) places?

The lengthy evaluation process begins tomorrow.

For more Phillies coverage and opinion,

read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.

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