Could Nelson Cruz Be in the Phillies Plans

Can Amaro swing the deals necessary to bring Cruz to Philadelphia

Can Amaro swing the deals necessary to bring Cruz to Philadelphia

What’s a scarier question…that Ruben Amaro Jr. has no short term plan for the Phils and flies by the seat of his pants, or that he does have a plan and we’re witnessing it come to fruition right in front of our eyes? Amazingly the Phils do appear to have a long term plan that includes not dealing their top minor league prospects, fast tracking J. P. Crawford to Clearwater to start his 2nd season of pro ball, and possibly taking advantage of the fact they have a top 10 protected pick this year, which if the rumors are true, Amaro may still utilize by signing a marquee player that received a Qualifying Offer.

What rumor… there are several. One floated out of the Phils camp is that Domonic Brown could be made available to a team that would part with 2 or 3 young, cost-controlled pitchers. The Phils have a shortage of pitching depth, particularly starting pitching. However, after finishing 13th in runs scored in 2013, trading their team leader in HR’s, RBI’s and SLG% may not be the best way to solve their lack of pitching depth. Complicating matters further is that Brown is only 26 years old. With five of their starting eight position players age 34 and older to start the 2014 campaign having Brown on the team makes sense now and for the future.

Depending on who you talk to Brown is an up and coming hitter who blossomed at the plate once he got regular playing time. The other school of thought on Brown is he had one excellent month in May followed by and a very solid month in June, and that’s it. In May and June Brown had a slash line of .290/.326/.613. In 56 games he had 10 doubles, 3 triples, 18 HR’s and 46 RBI’s. Those two months aside, Brown was a bitter disappointment at the plate. In April, July, August and September Brown’s line was a rather pedestrian .258/.322/.401. In 83 games he had 11 doubles, 1 triple, 9 HR’s and 37 RBI’s. We know Brown’s a weak defensive outfielder, and after eight years of professional baseball it’s unlikely he’ll improve that part of his game. To his credit Brown does possess a cannon for an arm.

For this writer the jury’s still out on Brown. It’s hard to discern anything from his first three years with the Phillies due to the sporadic way he was used (or misused depending upon your point of view) and the number of injuries he sustained. Last year Brown was sidelined twice. The first time he got a concussion diving for a fly ball in July. On August 30th he was sidelined a 2nd time with a strained right achilles tendon. The body of work just isn’t big enough to know who the real Domonic Brown is. At the tender age of 26 Brown has already been labeled by some as injury prone. The argument is not without it’s merits.

Personally, I don’t think Brown can net two or three young, starting pitchers…one of whom would preferably be a middle of the rotation type pitcher. Let’s look at what the Halo’s got back for Mark Trumbo in their three team trade with Arizona and the Chicago White Sox, as the Phils view Brown as a left hand version of Trumbo.

The Angels received 22 year old Tyler Skaggs, a former first round draft pick and young starter with electric stuff. Skaggs was once an untouchable in the Diamondbacks organization, but is coming off an injury plagued season and has only 13 career starts to his name. If healthy, and all reports are that he is,  he projects to be a solid middle of the rotation pitcher. Santiago turns 26 this month. In his first year with the White Sox he had four starts and 15 relief appearances. Last year he was primarily used as a starter and went 4-9, 3.56 ERA for the South Side boys. Could the Phils net an equivalent pitching tandem for Brown?

Since Mark Trumbo was the centerpiece of the three team trade let’s see how he matches up to Brown. The Phils believe Brown is the best OF bat available for trade right now and he just may be, but how does the league view him, especially when compared to Trumbo? Do the other 29 GM’s view Brown the same way they did Trumbo? It’s doubtful.

Trumbo has 95 HR’s the past three seasons and his HR total and RBI’s have increased each year. His rookie season Trumbo hit 29 HR’s and drove in 87 runs, both of which are slightly better than Brown’s breakout 2013 numbers. However, Trumbo has shown for three straight years that he is a long ball threat that drives in runs. The downside on Trumbo is he won’t hit for a high BA, doesn’t take many BB’s and strikes out a lot. His career slash line is .250/.299/.469 while averaging less than 40 BB’s per season and striking out over 150 times. Consistently good and consistently bad, but the Diamondbacks knew what they were getting. Could a team acquiring Brown say the same thing?

For me, knowing what you’re getting is huge, especially when dealing young pitchers with upside. There is a dearth of major league starting pitching and parting with two or three of them is likely too high a price for Brown considering he’s still somewhat of an unknown entity with a proclivity to get injured. Trumbo’s ability to stay on the field puts him up a rung or two on the ladder above Brown. His proven power numbers elevate him another rung or two. With Brown you’re still buying potential – a word Brown has heavily carried with him since his minor league days. This doesn’t mean Brown doesn’t have value. I just don’t see his value being as high as Trumbo’s.

Let’s try another direction and see if this doesn’t work out to be a win-win where everyone can walk away happy. There’s another player the Phils would like to move this winter, closer Jonathan Papelbon. It’s no secret the Phils are shopping Paps, but most teams are reluctant to take on the 33 year old relief pitcher who has at least two years left on his contract.

Paps is coming off the worst season of his career and most analysts point to his lowered velocity as the main cause of his sub par 2013 season. According to Pitch Info Data Paps fastball averaged 95.6 MPH his last three years in Boston. In 2012 it was down to 94.6 and last year it was 92.7. Paps was definitely throwing more off-speed pitches last year than in his first year as a Phillie. Though not widely reported last year, Ryne Sandberg defended his closer saying he was suffering from an undisclosed hip injury last year.

It’s widely assumed the Phillies would have to eat a good portion of  Paps contract if they were to trade him, but what about trading Jonathan Papelbon and Domonic Brown as a package? Individually traded, you would trade the former in an effort to save money, and little to nothing else. The latter, in an attempt to add pitching.

What about improving the outfield defense, a stated objective of new manager Ryne Sandberg? Trading Brown for pitching help may solve the SP depth issue depending on whom they get back, but they still need to replace a starting outfielder with one that is presumably going to improve the defense. Who fills the hole in LF once Brown is gone?

As a package deal how would other MLB general managers see acquiring Papelbon and Brown with no salary relief, but giving little in return? I could see that happening. Someone can net a closer just one year removed from elite status. In 2012 Papelbon had 38 saves on an 81-81 Phils team. His ERA was 2.44 and his WHIP was 1.057. Along with Paps the other team would also receive a young, cost controlled left hand bat that’s shown he can excel at the major league level. This move doesn’t solve the Phils pitching depth problem, but it does solve other problems for the Phils beleaguered GM.

Who would make a good trade partner here? How about the Baltimore Orioles? The Orioles have done very little this winter. They traded closer Jim Johnson because they didn’t want to pay him as a super two arbitration eligible player. Next year he’s eligible to be a free agent and is likely to receive a multi-year contract with dollars approaching Paps contract. After earning $6,500,000 in 2013, his 2nd straight season leading the AL in saves with 50, Johnson is probably looking at 10 million and possibly more in arbitration this year.

Johnson was traded to the A’s for 26 year old 2nd baseman Jemile Weeks and a player to be named later. Weeks had a very good rookie year in 2011 – .303/.340/.421 and a very bad sophomore season – .221/.305/.304. Last year Weeks only had one hit in nine AB’s before spending the rest of the year at AAA. The O’s also lost starting pitcher Scott Feldman to the Astros and last year’s starting left fielder Nate McClouth, age 32 to the Washington Nationals.

They could fill the holes left by Johnson and McClouth with Papelbon and Brown, at a lower cost in both 2014 and 2015. If Brown proves his 2013 season was no fluke this would be a big win for the O’s, as Brown’s salary this year and at least next year will be less than McClouth’s, who received two years and 10.75 million from the Nats.

Financially this trade would be a small win for the O’s. If Brown realizes his potential it then becomes a huge win, as Brown won’t reach free agency until 2018. Why did the O’s send Johnson to the A’s for seemingly so little? Is it because even though he led the league with 50 saves his peripheral numbers weren’t that good? His ERA was 2.94, Paps 2.92. Johnson’s WHIP was 1.280, Paps 1.135, Johnson’s SO/9 was 7.2, Paps 8.3 and SO/BB ratio Johnson was 3.11 while Paps was 5.18. Was Paps 2013 really so terrible? Could he not perform just as well as Johnson did last year had he been with O’s? The numbers say he would have.

I also believe Paps would be rejuvenated by returning to the AL East and pitching for a contender. Papelbon thrives in big games and he missed that atmosphere playing for the 2013 Phillies death march. How many times did Papelbon enter a game last year with nothing on the line just because he needed some work? Too many for the adrenaline junkie that he is.

If Brown’s 2013 season was in fact a break out year he’ll be a big upgrade offensively for the Orioles. McClouth finished the season with a line of .258/.329/.399 including 12 HR’s and 36 RBI’s in 35 more AB’s than Brown. Brown still has four years of team control left, with this year’s salary being well below $1,000,000. The O’s could realize a lot of offense from this deal while losing little to nothing in the closers role. Baltimore also gets a young, every day left fielder who just made his first all-star game in 2013 and a savvy veteran closer. After winning 85 games in baseball’s toughest division the Orioles are not about to throw in the towel on 2014 before the season starts.

Who would the Phils get back in this deal? Probably nobody of significance…perhaps a mid-level prospect or two. What they really gain is payroll flexibility. By dumping Paps and Brown the Phils would have the money to make a serious run at Nelson Cruz. Cruz is reportedly seeking a deal similar to the one signed by Curtis Granderson this week. The Mets shelled out 60 million for four years on Granderson. Most analysts believe Cruz will get a little less than Granderson, as he’s not quite as versatile. Without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the deal let’s just assume it goes down, as it’s obvious the Phils already decided to make another run this year with an older team instead of rebuilding.

The Phils lineup is more balanced with Cruz in the lineup and his offensive skills are proven, as well as superior to Brown’s at this stage. Defensively neither is going to win a Gold Glove any time soon, but Cruz’s dWAR is limited by his lack of speed more so than bad decisions or a bad glove. Brown still has trouble reading the ball off the bat and makes far too many ill-advised dives on plays he has no chance of making.

While Cruz isn’t that fleet of foot he makes the plays he gets to, which in effect would make the outfield defense more stable. It wouldn’t be as athletic as Sandberg would like, but there’s something to be said for not making mental mistakes, as this would at the very least add stability to the OF defense.

Cruz’s right handed power is more reliable and needed than Brown’s bat in the Phils lefty dominated lineup. Cruz’s 5-year slash line of .272/.331/.511 would slot in nicely in front of Ryan Howard. The Big Piece would be surrounded by two RHH for the first time in his career. That can’t hurt at this stage of his career where teams have shown less respect for Howard’s big bat.

It also breaks up the lefty-lefty Utley/Howard in the 3-4 holes that have been together too long. Teams have been exploiting the heart of the Phils lineup with left handed relief pitching as the two former superstars no longer produce as they did in their primes. Cruz’s addition would allow Utley to move into the number two hole where he is better suited to hit at this stage of his career. With Cruz batting behind Utley he should see a lot more fastballs he can pull through an open right side of the infield when Revere is on base. All these dominoes should set up nicely to give Howard lot’s of RBI opportunities.

The Phils lineup with Cruz would have 4 right hand hitters, 3 left hand hitters and Rollins, a switch hitter. A lineup that goes Revere, Utley, Cruz, Howard, Byrd, Rollins, Ruiz and Asche is more balanced and potent than a lineup that includes Brown. Since Amaro has already picked experience over youth this move is right in line with that thinking. These moves would be revenue neutral for the Phils, something that appears Amaro has been instructed to be in his construction of the 2014 roster.

The downside here is that the Phils are left without a closer and are older, but Paps has worn out his welcome in Philadelphia. On a team that’s more concerned with public relations than fielding the best possible team this might just work. With regards to the team being older I don’t see that as an immediate concern for Amaro. If it was they wouldn’t have resigned Chooch and Utley or brought in Byrd. The Phils want to win this year and have already decided to do it without Papelbon if possible, and with veterans over youth.

The Phils have to try something to improve last year’s club other than hope everyone comes back healthy. There are three possibilities to close next year if Paps is moved. The first and most obvious choice would be Antonio Bastardo. He’s the most experienced arm with closer capability and has enjoyed the most success of the relievers currently on the club. If Bastardo isn’t ready to step up they have two fireballers in Diekman and Martin who could challenge for the job. Each is capable if they can stay around the plate.

The final reason for making this trade would be to generate some excitement among the fan base who are clamoring for a big name signing. In a year where the Phils first round draft choice is protected the timing couldn’t be better. The Phils need to sell tickets this year and with Amaro making this kind of splash, we think the fans will be somewhat encouraged. We’re already resigned to the fact this will be an old team that has put off rebuilding for at least one and probably two years. With that being the case, and the team needing to score more runs than in 2013, these move make sense for the Phils. It’s not often you can make a win-win trade, but this one may work out for both clubs.

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About yougottalovethepain

I'm a long time sports fan that's passionate about Philly sports. I agree with Vince Lombardi when he said "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing". To win, you gotta love the pain and do what your competitors aren't willing to do.

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