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March 9, 2007

Prospectus Today

Let's Make a Deal!

by Joe Sheehan

In a market that values a league-average starting pitcher at $10 million a season guaranteed for performance that is decidedly not so, finding five guys who fit that description isn't easy. Looking around, there aren't five teams who, even in hopeful sunshine of March, can expect to get a full season of work from five guys, much less a full season of average or better pitching. Almost every team in the game will spend months trying to identify contributors at the back end of the rotation.

Then there's the Phillies, who have six major-league-caliber starting pitchers, or at least guys they've treated as such. Four pitchers on their roster made at least 27 major-league starts last year. A fifth, Cole Hamels, is their best pitcher. And they went out and made a three-year, $24-million commitment to Adam Eaton, who is certainly the worst of the bunch, but has the shiny free-agent deal that makes it hard to turn him into a reliever. In fact, one problem with this group of pitchers is that none of them stands out as a candidate to go to the bullpen. The six pitchers combined have six relief appearances in the last decade.

The most tradeable commodity, based on skills, performance and price, is veteran Jon Lieber. Lieber, 37 in three weeks, is in the last season of a three-year contract that pays him $7.5 million this season, a pittance. Since missing the 2003 season after Tommy John surgery, Lieber has averaged 30 starts and 187 innings a season, with an ERA of 4.46. There aren't many gremlins hiding in those numbers; his translated stats and Stuff scores are consistent with his baseball-card stats. Lieber is a league-average starting pitcher, leaving the Phillies with a $10 million asset that may go unused.

What to do, what to do…. Well, the Phillies could keep Lieber, as well as the other five starters, use either Lieber or Eaton as a long reliever and wait for someone to get hurt. A strong argument in favor of this plan is that the Phillies have very little rotation depth beyond the front six. They traded Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez, Scott Mathieson is out for the year, and turning to Clay Condrey again isn't high on the list of wants. Ryan Madson seems settled in the bullpen. There's something to be said for keeping him around as an insurance policy.

On the other hand, the Phillies have a chance to win this year, a good enough one that they should be looking to maximize their talent on hand. The Phillies have soft spots behind the plate, at third base and in right field. Signing Rod Barajas to catch and Wes Helms to play third base were partial solutions; both players are useful as backup or part of platoons. Minor-league veteran Shane Victorino is much the same in right, a good fourth outfielder. These players can all be contributors, but it's unlikely that any will be an effective regular. Getting one six-win, seven-win player at any of these spots would make a difference to the Phillies. They could also use help in the bullpen, where a Fabio Castro/Madson combination, along with Geoff Geary, may make getting to Tom Gordon dicey.

There aren't many teams in baseball that couldn't use a Jon Lieber, but which ones are the best fits? The Phillies could use a left-handed hitting third baseman or catcher, or an everyday right fielder, or bullpen help, and they're looking to match up with a team that is playing for 2007 and needing a starter. Based on that, the top choices are:

  • To the Diamondbacks for Chad Tracy and Juan Cruz. Josh Byrnes has been very protective of the D'backs' pool of young talent. However, both of these players are older, about to become more expensive, and moving them would create space for younger, less expensive players such as Alberto Callaspo and Tony Pena. It's arguable whether the Diamondbacks need to add another starter, although a winnable NL West would be moreso with Lieber, rather than Edgar Gonzalez, in the #5 slot. The Phillies would get an excellent platoon partner for Helms at third base and a true power arm for the seventh and eighth innings.
  • To the Rangers for Brad Wilkerson. Wilkerson's value is down, coming off an injury-plagued and power-free 2006 campaign. If healthy, he's a good defensive outfielder and a source of OBP and doubles, a player who allows Victorino to stay in his natural fourth-outfielder role, pinch-running and being a defensive replacement for Pat Burrell. The Rangers still need to fortify the back end of their rotation to challenge in a soft AL West, and they have an assortment of corner outfielders who may approximate Wilkerson's production.
  • To the Astros for Morgan Ensberg. Ensberg's low batting averages and high strikeout totals have made him an undervalued player in Houston, even as he remains the team's second-best player after Lance Berkman. The Astros have Mike Lamb, who's not better than Ensberg but a good player in his own right, as well as Mark Loretta, who can also play third base. The back end of their rotation is very shaky, with Wandy Rodriguez and Matt Albers. It's not terribly likely that the Phillies would trade for a right-handed-hitting third baseman-they'd probably have more interest in Lamb-but Ensberg would be a significant improvement over Helms, especially against right-handers and in the field.

There are other teams that could be matches if there was enough motivation, including the Red Sox (Wily Mo Pena or Kevin Youkilis), the Yankees (Melky Cabrera), the Nationals (Ryan Church and an arm) or the Brewers (assorted corner outfielders). Whether to one of these teams, or to one that I haven't considered, trading Lieber would better align the Phillies' talent and make them an even stronger threat in the NL East.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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