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As most fans turn their eyes to Chicago, parts of the Angels front-office are no doubt beginning to dust off their spreadsheets in preparation for the off-season. A preliminary look at the Angels roster shows them to have more than a half dozen significant arbitration cases, and potentially three free agent losses.

Pitchers Jarrod Washburn, Paul Byrd and catcher Ben Molina all gain their free agency at the end of this season. The loss of Molina can be borne easily enough; brother Jose Molina and Josh Paul are still under club control and shouldn’t be too expensive in arbitration. If the team decides they need more of a hitter behind the dish they can turn to any of the various retreads available every season or hand duties over to prospect Jeff Mathis, who had a nice little season at Triple-A Salt Lake City (beware, though, of Salt Lake’s aggressive park factor).

The loss of two-fifths of the starting rotation will be harder to bear. In this lean year for free agent pitching a capable lefty like Washburn could command a king’s ransom; with Scott Boras as his agent, he might be seeking just that. It’s not hard to imagine that Byrd could be easily stolen away with a lucrative multi-year deal. As much as the team may like Chris Bootcheck or Joseph Saunders, it’s hard to imagine them going with those two in the rotation every week.

Complicating matters is the upcoming 3+ year arbitration for John Lackey. By VORP he was the 5th most valuable pitcher in the American League, with strong peripherals (8.6 SO/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9) all through an incredibly unlikely year in terms of Batting Average on Balls in Play (.328). It’s pretty easy to see where Lackey would probably land based on the final contracts signed by pitchers entering their first arbitrations.

Roy Oswalt 2004* $ 3.25 mm
Jarrod Washburn 2003 $ 3.875 mm
Roy Halladay 2003 $ 3.825 mm
Carlos Zambrano 2005 $ 3.76 mm
Wade Miller 2004 $ 3.4 mm
Joe Kennedy 2005 $ 2.2 mm (w/ $125k in incentives)

*YEAR denotes the season after the player’s 3+ Service Time year, the
season after the player won his arbitrated salary (or settled before
arbitration), except in the case of Roy Oswalt who entered his first
arbitration as a Super-Two Year player.

Lackey’s 2004 and 2003 were weak compared to some of the pre-3+ years that these comparables had, so he probably slides in somewhere around $3,400,000 (those 199 strikeouts will help balance things out a bit).

Of course the really scary hearing is for reliever Francisco Rodriguez, aka K-Rod. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine how an arbitration panel will handle his case. Eric Gagne pulled down a 3+ award of $5,000,000, though he could have probably earned more if his agent hadn’t filed at an absurd $8,000,000. The only other 3+ closer to go through arbitration recently was Shawn Chacon but his track record doesn’t even come close to Rodriguez’s (for what it’s worth he earned $2,350,000 for his 35 saves and 7.11 ERA season in 2004, with 52 K against 52 BB).

The trick for Rodriguez’s agent will be to argue that he is a player of “special accomplishment” and hence not comparable to players in his service time class. It’s hard to imagine this argument failing: K-Rod’s record doesn’t compare at all to that of other arbitration-eligible relievers. Gagne’s $8,000,00 over-reach maybe the only guidepost.

With healthy pay-raises due to a half-dozen players, including very healthy raises to Lackey and Rodriguez, and with two potential holes in the rotation, the question is: how high can the team budget go?

Fall League News: We might be developing a man-crush on Brandon Wood. Wood is absolutely crushing the ball in the Arizona Fall League: .444/.483/1.370 with eight home runs and 16 RBI in six games. The other day he went deep four times in one game. It’s a little early to handicap the race, but Wood will likely figure prominently in our BP2006 Top 50 Prospects list.

Tom Gorman

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Two major decisions will have a dramatic impact on the 2006 season and beyond. The Phillies need to decide the futures of Jim Thome and Ryan Howard, and they need to decide whether or not to resign relief ace Billy Wagner. As the decision with Wagner is likely more imminent, we will leave the Thome vs. Howard debate for another time.

Which is better–an above average rotation with an above average closer, or an average rotation with an elite closer? In an ideal world, one would not have to choose, but the Phillies don’t have George Steinbrenner’s pockets (or his TV deal). As a team’s rotation will be responsible for far more innings over the course of the season, it is paramount that fixing the rotation be at the top of the Phillies’ priority list. By glancing at two general Phillies statistics we can see that two factors tip the scales even further in this direction. Looking at our Team Records by R/RA and Streaks chart, we can see that the Phillies played a slightly below average number of games that had “closer” situations. Second, the Phillies had a below average starting rotation in 2005.

What would the Phillies best options be if they did not retain Wagner? The best player currently with the team is Ryan Madson:

Reliever Stats, 2004 - 2005
Player       IP   ARP  WXRL  INS  INR  H/9  HR/9  BB/9  K/9
Wagner    126.0  35.7   6.9   16  2.4  5.3   .75   1.4  9.8
Madson    164.0  35.2   3.9   64  9.6  8.1   .81   2.0  6.9

Madson is not a Wagner clone, but he’s no scrub either. Madson is used to pitching longer outings, and would likely be able to routinely pick up four- and five-out saves, shortening the “bridge” between starter and closer. Madson is a more flexible pitcher–as his INS and INR numbers indicate, he is effective when entering games with runners on base. Wagner holds a significant edge in terms of H/9 and K/9, but one of the more important peripheral stats for pitchers at Citizens Bank Park is HR/9–where the two are very close. The most important factor however, may be age. Wagner will be 34 next season, while Madson will only be 25. Wagner has an injury history that Madson does not, and just because Wagner turned in a healthy 2005 does not mean we should ignore this history. For a little perspective, let’s look at Will Carroll’s comment in his 2005 Philadelphia Team Health Report, where Wagner was listed as a red light: “Wagner’s devastating when healthy–it’s just tough to keep him healthy.” Given all these factors, is the difference between Madson and Wagner worth the $9 million difference they will likely have in salary? Doubtful.

Turning to the free agent market, we can see that the Phillies have a chance to take Wagner’s money and upgrade their rotation:

Pitcher comparisons           2004-2005
Player            06 Team   SNLVAR   VORP
Jeff Weaver           ???      9.3   66.3
Jarrod Washburn       ???      9.0   71.2
AJ Burnett            ???      8.1   59.9
Jon Lieber            PHI      7.3   56.2
Kevin Millwood        ???      7.2   61.6
Paul Byrd             ???      6.7   53.5
Brett Myers           PHI      6.3   39.8
Cory Lidle            PHI      6.2   22.3
Matt Morris           ???      6.1   32.3

Though the aggregate numbers are not there for Brett Myers, he established himself as the ace of the staff for 2006. Myers aside, this is a rotation that could be improved, and though this is not an elite crop of free agents, there are good pitchers here. Guys like Jeff Weaver and Jarrod Washburn would be a definite upgrade. Weaver’s home run rate would definitely be a concern at home, but there are two other factors at play here. First, Weaver’s home run rate in 2005 screams fluke. Weaver allowed 16 more homers this year, despite only pitching four more innings. Second, the rest of the NL East is populated with pitcher’s parks.

In theory, the Phillies should be waiting to see what their new General Manager can do with Thome’s contract before pursuing any free agents. In reality, the Phillies have to balance losing their exclusive negotiating window with Wagner versus their payroll flexibility for 2006 and beyond. This is not an enviable task, one that is made even more difficult by the fact that they do not know who their next leader will be. In a perfect world, the Phillies will be able to resign Wagner, trade most of Thome’s contract, and use the savings on a free agent starter (or two). Will this scenario unfold? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the new Phillies GM to personally deliver a case of Crown Royal to Omar Minaya and/or Theo Epstein and talk a little shop. If it does not, the Phillies would be better off in 2006 if they focused on bolstering their rotation.

Paul Swydan

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