Hamels: Every offseason needn't be exciting

Hamels: Every offseason needn't be exciting
January 31, 2014, 11:00 am
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Carlos Ruiz (right) was the Phillies' priciest signing this offseason, at $26 million over three years. (USA Today Images)

The Phillies didn't add much payroll this offseason.

Carlos Ruiz was brought back for three years, at $8.5 million per. Marlon Byrd's annual average salary is a tick lower, at $8 million.

Roberto Hernandez will cost just $4.5 million for one year, and backup catcher Wil Nieves is set to earn $1.125 million.

That's a total of $47.625 million for four players, one of which is a spare part and another of which is a fifth starter.

It was a pretty boring winter.

"It doesn't need to be exciting every year," Cole Hamels told CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury earlier this week. "The past couple World Series champions, it's not like they have a huge, big key [acquisition] every year. They have a couple small guys that then play a bigger role. I think that's what ultimately is going to happen, and we hope those smaller guys are now more of a pivotal part of our team."

Partially true. The 2013 World Series champion Red Sox didn't exactly splurge on any one player in particular, but their free-agent class last winter was much more impressive, both at the time and throughout the season.

The Red Sox added a starting outfielder in Shane Victorino, who rejuvenated his career. They added Ryan Dempster, who the year before was lights out in the NL. They brought in Jonny Gomes to mash lefties, Mike Napoli to get on base a ton and hit homers, David Ross to be one of the top backup catchers in the league, and they struck gold on Koji Uehara.

There's a difference between Uehara and Brad Lincoln. There's a difference between Ross and Nieves. There's a difference between Dempster and Hernandez. And Napoli has an .895 OPS the last three years -- we're betting no Phillie will reach that mark in 2014.

Still, Hamels says GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has "done a great job with getting those key guys" and thinks the most important thing is "to get those guys to all play and function as a unit."

Maybe. The fact remains that the Phillies are thin in the rotation, largely unproven in the bullpen and hopeful of avoiding injuries to the offense. There are a lot of question marks that one more signing -- A.J. Burnett, Scott Downs, Ryan Webb, Jesse Crain, John Axford -- might have cured.

Instead, they're in "everything-must-go-right" mode for the second consecutive season.

The offseason isn't technically over yet -- Burnett is still out there. But to this point, it's been a confusing winter. The Phils chose to bring back Ruiz and Chase Utley, but didn't supplement the aging core with enough to help it truly contend for a championship or even a playoff spot in 2014. By acquiring nothing more than mid-tier players, they're trying to accomplish two things at once -- get better and avoid financial hazards.

It's extremely difficult to do both. Pointing to the Red Sox as a reason it would work doesn't fly, either, because Boston already had an assortment of more talented, younger players than the Phillies, even after a disastrous 2012. Boston had Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz ready to rebound. It had David Ortiz still performing at an extremely high level. It had Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia at the top of the lineup, it had a better bullpen and it had one of the game's top prospects in Xander Bogaerts.

Perhaps most importantly, the Red Sox have a front office concerned with adding players who get on base. Daniel Nava is a perfect example. He had a .385 on-base percentage in 2013. How many teams, entering last season, would have been willing to commit 536 plate appearances to a 29-year-old with no real track record?

"I know that time is definitely not gonna come back -- '08, '09 aren't coming back any time soon," Hamels admitted. "But you have to make another '08, '09 appear. That comes down to me, comes down to my teammates. It's a lot more difficult than you think, but it's attainable if you have the right mindset and the sort of fight to go get it.

"Jimmy Rollins has played a ton of years here. [Howard], obviously the age, you do see the age there and your understanding is most careers have a certain point and this is where we need to go and this is what need to do right now and this is the time to do it. You can't keep hoping for next year.

"This is the focal point, and to definitely make the younger guys understand that, and I think that's what it's going to take for all of us to make guys have their career years right now. I think that's what's going to be exciting in spring training is to hopefully really watch us talk and see it worked out on the field."

We'll see. What the Phillies do have in their favor is a weakened National League. The Nationals got significantly better, the Dodgers have an extremely expensive and talented roster, and the Cardinals will always contend. But the Braves stayed the same, the Reds lost Shin-Soo Choo and probably will lose Bronson Arroyo, the Diamondbacks and Brewers didn't add much, the Pirates figure to be less lucky, and the Giants are in a similar spot to the Phils.

So, yeah, if everything goes right, they could theoretically contend for the second wild-card.

But that's not the goal when you have a payroll of about $160 million, and that's certainly not the goal when you choose to keep nearly every one of your veterans.

Pitchers and catchers report in 12 days.