Puzzle comes together for Phillies

Posted: February 10, 2013

The longest offseason in recent Phillies history finally comes to an end this week when pitchers and catchers report for the first workout of spring training Wednesday morning in Clearwater, Fla.

In essence, it was an offseason that started July 31 when the Phillies traded centerfielder Shane Victorino to the Los Angeles Dodgers and rightfielder Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants.

The same day as those trades, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was asked if he expected to sign a big-name free agent once the season was over.

"Maybe more than one," he said.

Stuff happens. Plans change.

The blueprint from the past was not going to work this time. Instead of spending big on one player - Jonathan Papelbon in 2012 and Cliff Lee in 2011 - the Phillies opted to fill multiple holes with much less money than they had in the past.

"We were hopeful that Domonic [Brown] would lock down one of those corner outfield spots," Amaro said. "He did not do that. He still may do that . . . but we can't necessarily count on that to happen. Because of that, then we were kind of filling all three outfield positions."

The most urgent order of business was center field. Ben Revere, for a number of reasons, was among the least likely of candidates when the search began. There was no shortage of free agents at the position, and the Phillies inquired about all of them, even making an offer for B.J. Upton, who signed with the National League East rival Atlanta Braves for five years and $75 million.

Michael Bourn was also in the conversation, but the Phillies quickly decided agent Scott Boras' asking price was well beyond what they were willing to pay.

As Upton went off the board, the Phillies were in trade talks with the Minnesota Twins for Revere's teammate, Denard Span. Amaro said the sides first talked during the trade deadline. The Twins were looking for young pitching. The Phillies, with the acquisition of Ethan Martin in the Victorino deal and the emergence of some of their own minor-leaguers, felt they were a good fit. Instead, the Twins traded Span to the NL East champion Washington Nationals, who surrendered pitching prospect Alex Meyer.

"We just felt like what we would have to give up for him was more than we were willing," Amaro said.

What happened next surprised the general manager.

"We figured Ben would not be available," Amaro said. "We had some inquiries about some other players with Minnesota, and when they mentioned Ben we were immediately interested."

The Phillies gave the Twins Vance Worley, the team's true fourth ace in 2011, and Trevor May, the pitcher many considered the organization's best prospect before the 2012 season.

"Once we knew B.J. was off the market and what it would probably take to sign Bourn at that time, we decided we couldn't leave ourselves in a position where we did not have an everyday centerfielder," Amaro said. "We gave up some quality arms for him and some controllable [salary] arms. But to get an everyday centerfielder for now and for the future . . . we thought it was the right thing to do."

It was also a low-cost move. Revere, 24, will not even be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2014 season, so he'll likely be making less than $1 million the next two seasons.

Favorable finances

Next on Amaro's to-do list: a third baseman. Unlike center field, at third the free-agent cupboard was practically bare.

Amaro had spoken to Rangers general manager Jon Daniels in the past about Michael Young, who had become more designated hitter and less position player the last two seasons. Young's strained relationship with Daniels since the start of the 2011 season and the Rangers' abundance of young major-league-ready talent made the former Gold Glove shortstop available.

"I think I probably approached them," Amaro said. "I think it really worked out quite well. Michael might end up playing for us for several years. But the fact of the matter is that we have a kid in Cody Asche who we think has a very good chance of being the guy in the next couple of years [at third base]."

A favorable financial agreement for the Phillies was worked out when Texas agreed to pay $10 million of Young's $16 million salary this season. The Phillies will pay an additional $1.2 million to offset the tax increase Young must pay in moving from Texas to Philadelphia.

The cost in terms of players was Josh Lindblom, a 25-year-old reliever acquired in the Victorino deal, and Lisalverto Bonilla, a hard-throwing, 22-year-old minor-leaguer who climbed to double-A Reading last season. Amaro said it was a worthwhile price for a righthanded hitter with extra-base power and a career .301 batting average.

Lindblom's departure, however, meant that the two major-league players the Phillies acquired in the Victorino and Pence deals at the trade deadline were both gone. At the end of November, the Phillies allowed outfielder Nate Schierholtz to become a free agent after he had hit .273 in 37 games. He had missed significant time with a fractured toe and ended up signing with the Chicago Cubs for $2.25 million.

Amaro said the Phillies had enough quality young arms to part with Lindblom and that they would not have been able to make their biggest free-agent splash without letting Schierholtz walk away.

"Unfortunately, Nate didn't get a chance to play enough for us to be able to evaluate him to see if he was going to be an everyday player for us," Amaro said. "We wanted to give ourselves some clearance to do the things we needed to do - in particular, being able to sign a guy like Mike Adams for $6 million a year."

Adams' two-year, $12 million deal represented nearly three quarters of the $16.35 million the Phillies spent on the free-agent market this offseason. The hope is that the 34-year-old reliever fills the black hole that was the eighth inning for the Phillies in 2012. The team's eighth-inning ERA was 4.89, the second worst in baseball. Adams, by contrast, has a career 1.82 ERA in the eighth inning.

The big gamble

The Phillies nearly went in a different direction for their setup man. In late November, they came close to completing a trade for Houston's Wilton Lopez. That deal crumbled after Lopez took his physical.

"We just weren't sure what the [setup man] marketplace was going to be, especially for Mike Adams, who was coming off an injury and a surgery we didn't know that much about," Amaro said.

Adams underwent surgery to repair a condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome shortly after his 2012 season with Texas. The Phillies sent special assistant Charley Kerfeld to watch him throw in December. Even though the Phillies were satisfied with the reports on Adams' condition, Amaro realizes he has taken a gamble on the veteran.

"He could blow up, but we feel like it was a good risk," Amaro said. "If he comes back and pitches 95 or even 90 percent of what he was, he's the best setup guy in the game."

Shortly after the Phillies acquired Revere and Young, Amaro declared that he was looking to make a series of low-risk, high-reward moves.

That's the best way to describe his final three free-agent signings. For a guaranteed $4.35 million, he added a fifth starter (John Lannan at $2.5 million), a middle reliever (Chad Durbin at $1.1 million), and the team's likely starting rightfielder (Delmon Young at $750,000).

Lannan, 28, was the odd man out in Washington's deeply talented rotation last season, but he is an experienced veteran who has pitched 180 innings or more three times in his career. That's a valuable statistic for a fifth starter.

Durbin, 35, returns after two seasons away from the team, including a solid year last season in Atlanta.

Low-risk, high reward?

Delmon Young, meanwhile, might have been Amaro's most difficult decision. He has a worrisome past that included a racial incident last April in New York.

"We talked about Cody Ross internally," Amaro said. "We talked about Jerry Hairston, and we talked about [Nick] Swisher. But in our minds we felt if we signed those guys we wouldn't have been able to sign Adams."

They settled on Young and announced he'd have the inside track to becoming the everyday rightfielder.

"I was skeptical from the beginning about what he might have to offer," Amaro said. "We didn't like what we saw out of him defensively. But we've seen him have success in the past, and we've seen his athleticism in the past, and we decided it was a low-risk, high-reward move."

For better or worse, that's how the 2013 Phillies were altered by the general manager. Amaro wants to believe it is for the better.

"I think sometimes it's about the pieces you put together," he said. "We had some pieces to put together, and we think the pieces we put together were championship-caliber pieces. Our big splashes were made when we signed Cole Hamels and when we signed Cliff Lee and when we signed Papelbon and guys like Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. These are big-money guys. The fans may forget that we spent that money, but we don't."

The message was clear: If the big guns misfire, the offseason additions won't really matter.

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

comments powered by Disqus