Following a season that saw the Phillies fall from the class of the National League back to the middle of the pack, the team's off-season decisions will go a long way to determining whether they will be a contender or a pretender next season. As has been well detailed throughout the off-season, if the Phillies maintain their payroll at the luxury tax threshold, they should have about $25-30 million to work with with major needs to fill in the outfield, the bullpen, and at third base. Without further ado, my plan for the offseason:
1. Sign Josh Hamilton. Crazy? I don't think so. Hamilton is one of the top hitters in baseball and is hands down the best hitter on the free agent market. He is coming off a 43 homer, 128 RBI season and is only a few years removed from a MVP season that saw him capture a batting title. Though he is left-handed and there has been talk of the Phillies wanting to add a right handed power bat to make up for Hunter Pence's departure, Hamilton's production against lefties throughout his career has been more than adequate as he has hit .280 with an OPS of .808. By comparison, Hunter Pence is a CAREER 285 hitter with an OPS of .814. Even better, he can play center field, a clear area of need for the Phils. Of course, Hamilton's personal baggage is well documented. However, he has not missed any legitimate time do to drug use. Additionally and just as importantly from a baseball standpoint, there has never been any indication that he is a bad teammate - his Rangers teammates even showed how much they care for him when the celebrated their playoff series victory a couple a years ago with soda, not champagne. He was a central member of back to back pennant winning teams, demonstrating he was far from a distraction from his team. There has been concern about his durability, but I would consider this to be overplayed. Since 2008, his first full year with the Rangers, Hamilton has played in at least 120 games and gotten at least 487 at bats in 4 of his 5 seasons. Last year, Hamilton played in 148 games and got 562 at bats. It may be a stretch for Hamilton to reach the 624 at bats he got in 2008, but seems 500 at bats per season from him is more than likely. Consider also that though Hamilton has abused his body with substances, he does not have the normal amount of baseball under his belt as someone his age. Speaking of his age Hamilton is 31 years old. While not a spry youngster, he is still clearly in his prime and should remain there for at least another season or two, if not longer. Coming off a year in which he made nearly $14 million, Hamilton is in line for a raise, but considering the questions surrounding his drug use and his durability, he will struggle to get the money he deserves for his on the field performance. Additionally, rumors are already flying that the Rangers are looking elsewhere. I would guess that a 4-5 year deal with an average salary in the $18-20 million dollar range would get this deal done. While the Phillies would probably get bitten on the back end of this deal, the reward is high enough to justify the risk for a team that has world series aspirations right now and no clear answer for center field on the team or in the minor league system (Tyson Gillies has baggage and injury issues of his own and is not ready to take over in the majors). Signing Hamilton would easily make the Phillies a top notch offensive team on paper and would make the middle of their order frightening, even with the potential continued decline of Howard and Ultey.
2. Re-Sign Placido Polanco. If there is an immediate negative of signing Josh Hamilton, it is that the Phillies will instantly have only about $10 million left to spend. Currently, 3rd base is being filled by Kevin "speed" Frandsen and apparently Freddy "roids" Galvis. Frandson was excellent at the plate last year hitting .338. What is critical to remember however is that he has a whopping 195 at bats. Additionally, his career average of .269 and whopping OBP of .322 suggest that his .338 average is not sustainable. Further more, he has never amassed so much as 300 at bats in a season and is already 30. Unless he is the late bloomer to top all late bloomers, he will be no more than a fill in next year at the plate. His defense, will solid, as not great, and could over a full season prove detrimental. Galvis, while flashing great leather, is a black hole at the plate as I don't need to remind anyone and has never actually played 3rd base. Peanut Head on the other hand, if used in a platoon role, should come cheaply (1-2 million) and with ample rest, could very well sustain a .300 average at the plate. He will provide defense better than any Galvis in theory might possess and will outhit both Galvis and Frandsen. He would also allow for the 3 players to rotate and take bench spots that will help both the aging Rollins and Utley rest. I'd love to take a shot in the dark and sign Kevin Youkilus, but doing so would empty the treasury before other moves could be made.
3. Bring back Ryan Madson. One of my all time favorite Phillies, Madson should be fully rehabbed from Tommy John surgery and ready to open the season. While he has said he wants a closing job, he may have a hard time finding a team that will hand him the reigns. What better way to rebuild his value then coming back to the only place he has every thrown a major league pitch - Philadelphia. I am not a big believer in spending money on the bullpen, considering the heavy volatility of relievers, but the Phillies clearly need a reliable veteran arm to set up Papelbon. A 1 year deal for 4-5 million plus incentives should get this done. And if Papelbon falters, Madson can step right in to the closers role.
4. Sign Wilson Valdez to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. Why the hell not? Wilson is available and will be had cheap after last years performance. Stash him at AAA and when Frandson or Galvis inevitably struggles, you have a fan favorite to come to the rescue.
5. Non-tender Nate Schierhotz. With Nix and Mayberry taking bench roles, Schierholtz becomes useless.
6. Start Brown and Ruf in the corners. With Hamilton plus hopefully a full year of Utley and Howard, it is time to start the youth movement. See what these guys have to offer. If things backfire, work mayberry and Nix in as platoon players.