Pat Burrell at one year and $16 million, or Raul Ibanez for three years and $30 million? I’m pretty sure that there’s a right answer to this question, and just as sure that the Phillies didn’t land on it.

I’d mentioned in one of the recent chat sessions that there’s a perceptions gap between Ibanez and some of the other corner outfielders on the market. Largely because of size and speed, or lack thereof, guys like Pat Burrell and Adam Dunn have terrible defensive reputations. Neither is a good defensive outfielder; Burrell is actually bad. However, as with Barry Bonds, the size of this problem is overstated in part because the player’s defense isn’t being evaluated so much as judged-how he looks as opposed to what he does-and because a left fielder’s defense isn’t quite as important to his value as the rest of his game.

The thing is, Ibanez can’t play the outfield. He’s been one of the worst left fielders in the game the last two years, and he’s one of the few options whose glove work has been comparable to Burrell’s. Per the Plus/Minus system developed by John Dewan:

Year    Burrell   Ibanez
2006      -26       +2
2007      -27      -25
2008      -20      -18
Total     -73      -41

According to Dewan, these are the two worst defensive left fielders in baseball over the last two seasons, with Ibanez being just slightly better than the guy he’s now replacing. However, because Ibanez doesn’t look as awkward as Burrell does, he gets a pass for his defense. Let’s be clear about this: the Phillies didn’t get any better with this deal. They got an outfielder who is just as poor a glove man as the guy he’s replacing, likely a worse hitter, somewhat older, and at a cost of two additional seasons and maybe $14 million. They had an option two weeks ago to offer Pat Burrell arbitration, a decision that could have returned a good player on a one-year contract in the $16 million range, potentially less. Now, they have spent more money without making themselves better. Last year, the two were virtually identical:

Guy       Age   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA  VORP
Burrell    31  .250  .367  .507  .295  34.8
Ibanez     36  .293  .358  .479  .295  38.5

Check the number in the left-hand column. That five-year age difference is very significant, as one player is in his late prime and could be had for a commitment to just his age-32 season. The other is out of his prime, and while he’s aged well as a hitter, he’s now signed from 36 through 38. Given how close the players’ performances have been, and the marginal difference between the two in 2009 of maybe $6 million, it’s incomprehensible that the Phillies would decline to offer Burrell arbitration and then sign the same player, five years older, for more years and money.

If you want another reason to hate the deal, consider that Ibanez is a left-handed batter who will clearly be asked to bat second, fifth, or sixth. The Phillies already set up their opponents by batting Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back-to-back. A third left-handed batter in the middle of the order will make the target for lefty specialists that much bigger. Whether you agree with my assessment of Howard or you don’t, you have to concede that making it easy for managers to run the Scott Schoeneweises of the world at him from the sixth inning on is a bad idea. It’s not about whether Howard is a threat against lefties, but about how effective those pitchers tend to be at their jobs. If Ibanez and Burrell are identical, and they seem to be at the plate, the Phillies are better served by having the right-handed batter.

The Phillies simply made a bad play. Burrell probably would not have accepted arbitration, eventually yielding two draft picks in exchange, and even had he accepted, that would have been a better outcome than signing Ibanez will be. Ibanez is the same player, but because of his age, more likely to decline in the short term, and because he bats left-handed, he doesn’t fit the Phillies’ lineup very well. The perceived defensive gap between the two players is an illusion; Ibanez is just as bad as Burrell in the pasture.

The deal is an excellent one for Ibanez, who was probably the least attractive of a group of good-hit, no-field outfielders currently finding the market a bit cold. Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, Burrell, and Bobby Abreu are all free agents as the Christmas music gets a little bit louder, and all signs point to them being out in the cold a bit longer. Teams are finding other ways to fill their corners, mostly through trades, rather than to commit to flawed players for multiple seasons at eight-figure salaries. I’m more convinced than ever that at least one of these guys is going to be this year’s Kyle Lohse, still available after Presidents Day for a fraction of the cost of his production, and someone who will go on to be a great signing.