Too early to judge offseason

Posted: April 19, 2012

This is an excerpt by Daily News staff writer David Murphy, from the paper's Phillies blog, www.philly.com/HighCheese.

THE EARLY part of the baseball season presents a challenge when it comes to evaluating the performance of a veteran who is on the downslope of his career.

When a player is in his prime, an early-season slump is usually just that: a slump, a dry spell, a random dip in production that is destined to even out over the course of a 162-game season. It's why members of the Phillies' clubhouse would get that exasperated look on their faces in 2008 and 2009 when they fielded questions about their slow start. Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino - these guys were going to hit at some point.

Eleven games into the 2012 season, we can't say that with as much confidence as in previous years.

Really, the production the Phillies have received from most of their regulars jibes with any realistic expectations they could have had heading into the season.

After Tuesday's 4-2 loss to the Giants, Shane Victorino was hitting .302, with a .362 on-base percentage and .395 slugging percentage. Jimmy Rollins was hitting .311/.340/.333. Hunter Pence was at .333/.391/.524. Ty Wigginton was at .238/.320/.429. Carlos Ruiz was at .303/.324/.455.

All of those numbers are roughly equivalent to each player's recent track record. Sure, you can expect a little more power out of Victorino and Rollins, and a little more on-base percentage out of Ruiz. But you also can't expect Freddy Galvis (.229/.250/.400) to lead the team in extra-base hits for the rest of the season (he is actually tied right now with Pence). That is the kind of stuff we can confidently say will even out over the course of the season.

The three notable exceptions: Placido Polanco, John Mayberry Jr. and Jim Thome.

The Phillies took a chance on all three players heading into the season. They were hoping the 36-year-old Polanco would remain healthy and productive even as both facets have dipped over the last few years, and that the 28-year-old Mayberry would be able to continue to perform as a regular the way he did as a part-time break-out player in 2011, and that the 41-year-old Thome would bring enough as a pinch-hitter, first baseman and clubhouse presence to validate a spot on the bench.

Two weeks into the season, the Phillies are left in an uncomfortable situation, waiting for all three to provide some indication they will fulfill those hopes, but knowing that it is far too early to rule it out.

Polanco, who went 0-for-4 with a strikeout in Tuesday night's loss, is hitting .179 with a .220 OBP and .205 slugging percentage. Mayberry, who went 0-for-3 before leaving in a double switch, it hitting .219/.219/.250 and is 5-for-28 with seven strikeouts and no extra-base hits since a 2-for-4 showing on Opening Day. Thome is 1-for-11 with a walk and five strikeouts.

In reality, the Phillies did not have many options at third base. The free-agent market did not offer much more reliability than the Phillies secured in their acquisition of Wigginton from the Rockies. Polanco was always a risk they were going to have to take.

Leftfield is a bit of a different story. You look around the league and you see Josh Willingham hitting .375/.457/.800 with five home runs for the Twins after signing a 3-year, $21 million deal. You see Michael Cuddyer, the player Willingham was signed to replace, hitting .372/.400/.651 with one home run for the Rockies after signing a 3-year, $31.5 deal. You see Carlos Beltran hitting .351/.467/.676 with four home runs for the Cardinals after signing a 2-year, $26 million deal. You even see lower-cost acquisitions like Cody Ross (.270/.349/.486, two HRs for Boston) and David DeJesus (.281/.439/.344, no HRs for the Cubs) paying early dividends for their new clubs.

The Phillies weren't necessarily wrong to prioritize the closer position in the offseason. Given the composition of the roster, the last thing they can afford is to lose games in which they have a late lead. Thus far, Jonathan Papelbon has lived up to his billing, recording all three of his save opportunities. You need only look at Papelbon's previous team to realize the danger of filling out the back end of a bullpen on the cheap. The Red Sox, who acquired Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon via trades rather than re-sign their longtime closer, have two blown saves and three losses in relief. Division rival Toronto, which dealt for Sergio Santos, has four blown saves (two of them by Santos) and three losses in relief. Heath Bell, a name-brand free agent who signed for less than half of what Papelbon landed from the Phillies, is 1-for-3 in save opportunities for the Marlins.

The question that only Polanco, Mayberry and Thome can answer is whether the Phillies should have used some of their available money to bring in a veteran hitter with a longer track record or more upside than the ones they did acquire.

In Wigginton, Thome and Laynce Nix, the Phillies spent $4.5 million. Would the Phillies have been better off keeping one of those three and handing out a contract like the $3 million that Boston will pay Ross, a righthanded bat who had hit .261/.323/.432 while averaging 17 home runs while playing all three outfield positions the previous three seasons?

If they waited for the free-agent market to develop, could they have signed Papelbon to a deal worth less than the $12.5 million average annual value they ended up giving him? Would that money, along with Thome's or Nix's or Wigginton's, have allowed them to sign a player like DeJesus, a lefthanded outfielder who had hit .277/.349/.417 while averaging nine home runs over the previous three seasons? Or Willingham, a righthanded outfielder who had hit .257/.360/.479 while averaging 23 home runs over the previous three seasons?

Should the Phillies have prioritized a hitter over a closer, handing $7 million per year for 3 years to Willingham or $13 million for 2 years to Beltran rather than $12.5 million for 4 years to Papelbon? Could they have relied on Antonio Bastardo and the young arms in their system along with lower-cost veterans to fill out the bullpen?

Again, we come back to the daily disclaimer that the season is still young. Come September, our hindsight will be shaped by a number of variables that have yet to play out. First and foremost are the statuses of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. If those two players can get back on the field and perform at their previous levels, the offense might not need to worry about what might have been.

As far as the immediate future is concerned, though, the progressions of Polanco and Mayberry, and to a lesser extent Thome, are the current unknowns that will most shape this team.

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