Inside the Phillies: Phillies should wade cautiously into free-agent pool

Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton is a possibility for the outfield, but he has hit below .250 each of the last four seasons.
Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton is a possibility for the outfield, but he has hit below .250 each of the last four seasons. (STEVE NESIUS / AP)
Posted: October 01, 2012

The Phillies know they are going to need free agency to make some roster repairs this offseason.

They also know what risky business that can be.

You only have to look back to last offseason to find two teams that went deep into the free-agent pool without reaping the reward they were seeking.

By the time the winter meetings wrapped up in Dallas last December, one would have thought the Miami Marlins had reached the World Series. When the Los Angeles Angels signed Albert Pujols a day after the meetings ended, one would have thought they had already won the World Series.

For the small fee of $191 million, Miami acquired lefthanded starter Mark Buehrle, righthanded closer Heath Bell, and switch-hitting shortstop Jose Reyes. That didn't prevent the Miami Marlins from finishing in last place, just as the Florida Marlins had the year before.

Only the venue changed, and once you've seen the backstop fish tanks and the outfield home run sculpture at Marlins Park a couple of times, it's impossible not to notice that the baseball being played by the team is about the same. The Marlins, in fact, are going to win fewer games this season.

The Angels, meanwhile, spent more than $324 million on Pujols and C.J. Wilson. They went into the weekend fighting for their playoff lives. By now, they were at least supposed to have a wild-card berth clinched, but instead they are chasing an Oakland A's team that is paying its entire roster slightly more than the Angels are giving Pujols and Wilson.

You can't place all the blame on the free-agent signings for the failures of those two teams, although Bell was awful and Reyes made a lot more money than Jimmy Rollins for a similar contribution. Buehrle was solid but hardly an ace.

Pujols eventually became Pujols, but the Angels are still recovering from a slow start to which he made a significant contribution. Wilson, like Buehrle, had an OK season but was not a second ace to Jered Weaver.

The bad news for the Phillies and other teams hoping to improve through free agency this offseason is that the risk factor with this class is even greater than last year's group.

The Phillies, for example, appear to be focusing on outfielders, although they'll probably dip their feet in the relief pitching pool and may consider adding a free-agent starter as well.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is on record as saying he has no desire to shop for the available items at third base, which is why his ears perked up when Chase Utley suggested a possible move to the position. The well is equally dry at second base, which is one of the reasons the Phillies want Freddy Galvis to return there.

After Friday's developments in Miami, when the team effectively pulled the plug on the Utley experiment, it's possible Galvis will end up at third and Utley will remain at second. Galvis, whose season was cut short by a fractured back and a drug suspension, is playing in the instructional league in Clearwater, Fla., and later this winter he will play in his native Venezuela. Amaro said last week that Galvis would play some third base, shortstop, and second base in the instructional league and in Venezuela.

"At this point, we don't know the right answer" at third, Amaro said. "We're just looking at all the options."

Eventually, the Phillies will reach the point where they have to act on their free-agent options, and it's impossible to find one in the outfield without significant risk.

Under normal circumstances, a chance to land the guy who led the major leagues in hitting would seem like a wonderful opportunity, but Melky Cabrera's potential for a big payday was tarnished by a failed drug test with the Giants. Without chemical help for Cabrera, one has to wonder if he is more like the guy who hit .255 with a .317 on-base percentage two seasons ago in Atlanta.

The opportunity to get a former MVP who leads baseball with 43 home runs sounds exciting, but Texas' Josh Hamilton has a troubled past with drugs and alcohol that will serve as a red-flag warning to potential buyers.

Atlanta's Michael Bourn was raised in the Phillies' farm system and has emerged as one of the game's best base stealers and centerfielders, but entering Friday he had hit .222 since the all-star break, .203 in September, and had struck out a career-high 151 times this season.

Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton is tremendously talented and only 28 years old, but he has hit below .250 in each of the last four seasons and had a .298 on-base percentage entering the final weekend of the season. If the Phillies were frustrated by Shane Victorino's play at times, its likely that Upton would drive them insane.

Victorino, of course, is also a free agent, but he has a .227 batting average since being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in late July. One gets the feeling from the Phillies that they have been there, done that, and do not want to do it again.

Nick Swisher has hit more than 20 home runs in eight straight seasons, and after spending the last four years with the New York Yankees he'd bring some swagger with him. A report surfaced last month, however, that he wants a deal similar to the seven-year, $126 million contract that Washington gave Jayson Werth. Is Swisher worth that much?

There are options, but none without risk. At least one of the above is probably going to make some team happy next season. And more than one is likely to be a free-agent bust.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @brookob.

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