For Phillies, 'getting young' isn't so simple

For Phillies, 'getting young' isn't so simple

What are the remaining concerns facing Phillies?

November 24, 2013, 12:00 pm
Share This Post

Ryan Howard (34), Chase Utley (35) and Jimmy Rollins (35) join Carlos Ruiz (35) and Marlon Byrd (36) as Phillies starters age 34 or over entering 2014. (USA Today Images)

There was an eye-opening fact exposed the other day by Jayson Stark: Since 1900, only four teams have gotten 120-plus games out of five players age 34 or older.

That doesn't bode well for the 2014 Phillies, who will head into the season with projected starters Ryan Howard (34), Carlos Ruiz (35), Chase Utley (35), Jimmy Rollins (35) and Marlon Byrd (36).

It also validates the point many Phillies fans have made this offseason, last offseason and at pretty much any time over the last several years on talk radio or in comments sections.

"The Phillies are too old."

"The Phillies need to get younger."

"Amaro needs to stop signing past-their-prime veterans."

It's very easy to sit back, look at the roster and make those proclamations. It's much, much more difficult to find a solution.

Let's start with recent events:

The Ruiz re-signing
The Phillies re-signed Carlos Ruiz to a three-year, $26 million contract because they feared the Red Sox would outbid them on a two-year deal. It wasn't panic from GM Ruben Amaro Jr. so much as it was the realistic belief that the Phillies were in danger of losing Ruiz to another deep-pocketed organization.

So that's why he went three years. Some might ask, "Well, why not just let Ruiz walk and fill the hole with a younger catcher?"

The retort here would be ... "Who?"

First off, there are no internal candidates to replace Ruiz. Cameron Rupp has caught three major-league games. Tommy Joseph struggled offensively and defensively in 2013, missing most of the season with concussion issues. Sebastian Valle is no longer seen as a top prospect, not after hitting .203 after a demotion last season and walking 72 times against 387 strikeouts since 2010.

Erik Kratz? He's a 33-year-old backup.

It's not like the Phillies had a young guy waiting in the wings to take over for Ruiz. If they did, they may have let the Red Sox take him.

On the free-agent market, the prices for players like Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia worried them. According to multiple reports on Saturday, McCann agreed to a five-year deal worth around $85 million (see story). Saltalamacchia was and is in line for four years because of his age, switch-hitting bat and power production. There are a lot of suitors for Salty.

At that point you have to move past the simplicity of, "But Ruiz is another guy in his mid-30s!" and try to figure out a solution. There was no solution. Had the Phillies not re-signed Ruiz, they would be getting worse, offensively and defensively, next year and probably the year after. You can't want to win but also experiment with unproven players who aren't yet ready, especially behind the plate. You can't risk losing Ruiz then also lose out on the other high-priced catchers. Imagine what that reaction would have been.

Finally, there's this: Ruiz should be as good a bridge to the Phillies' next franchise catcher as anyone. Even if the Phillies signed a second-tier option like Dioner Navarro (30 in February), it's not like Navarro would have been here five years. He'd also be a stopgap until one of the Phillies' young catchers were ready.

And really, that's what Chooch is -- a valuable stopgap who, at best, can be an elite offensive catcher and, at worst, a mediocre bat with a great glove.

The Byrd signing
This one was more questionable. It's hard to praise or bash Amaro for the Byrd signing until we know the totality of the Phillies' offseason. If paying Byrd $8 million per year instead of Nelson Cruz $14-16 million per year allows Amaro to sign a decent starting pitcher and/or a bullpen piece, then it's a job well done.

Folks with pre-determined opinions were quick to point out that Byrd hit .210 with one homer in 2012. It remains one of the more confusing arguments. He had 153 plate appearances in 2012, which was his only bad season since 2007. Even if you include that shaky campaign, Byrd has hit .287/.339/.447 the last seven years with full-season averages of 36 doubles and 17 homers. He's also graded out positively on defense.

You may respond, "But the Phillies are paying for his next two years, not his last seven," and that's true. But Byrd is coming off the best season of his career at age 35. Do you put more stock in the 47 games he played in 2012, or the 147 he played in 2013?

There were few right-handed options on the corner outfield market. If there were more, the Phillies probably wouldn't have signed another mid-30s player. That gets us to the final point ...

Getting young isn't easy in baseball
Baseball isn't like football or basketball. You don't fill a hole by drafting a young difference-maker. There aren't Lane Johnsons or Earl Wolffs in baseball. If you draft a position of need, you're hoping that player makes a difference at the pro level in three to five years.

An example: The Phillies drafted 21-year-old catcher Andrew Knapp in the second round this past June. They are very high on his bat. But even if he progresses well, you probably won't see him in the majors until he's 25.

And unless you draft those players and push them through the system, you're not "getting young" at the big-league level. In today's game, teams lock up their young studs early, so rarely does a player even make it to free agency until he's 29 or 30 years old. The youngest free agent this winter is Phil Hughes, who is 27. And there's a reason the Yankees chose not to lock him up for his prime years. He’s stunk lately.

In free agency there are pretty much two classes of player. There are the 29- or 30-year-olds coming off a few very good seasons who, because of their age, will land four- or five-year mega-deals. Those are your Jacoby Ellsburys, your Shin-Soo Choos and Matt Garzas.

Then there are the mid-30s guys who know they're probably signing their last meaningful major-league contract. Those are your Byrds, your Bronson Arroyos.

You don't get young in free agency. You get young by developing talent. And the Phillies traded an enormous amount of young talent to contend at a World Series-level from 2009-11.

They traded eight young pitchers from 2009-13: Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, Kyle Drabek, J.A. Happ, Jarred Cosart, Josh Zeid, Trevor May and Vance Worley.

Over that same span, they dealt two young catchers (Travis D'Arnaud and Lou Marson), two middle infielders (Jonathan Villar and Jason Donald) and four outfielders (Jonathan Singleton, Domingo Santana, Anthony Gose and Michael Taylor).

It would be foolish to argue against the first Cliff Lee trade, or the deals for Roy Halladay or Roy Oswalt. Each of those pitchers helped the Phillies take things to another level. All of them performed extremely well after the deals.

The Hunter Pence situation ended up being a debacle, as the Phils gave up a ton of young talent to acquire him, only to unload him for significantly less. But again, Pence made a difference with the Phillies, transforming them from an inconsistent offense during the 102-win season to one of the best in the NL after he arrived.

There are plenty of good reasons the Phillies are in this unfortunate position today. And this is by no means a championing or defense of Amaro, who has made crucial mistakes over the last few years, with the Lee-to-Seattle deal in December 2009 being the most notable. (That was the worst move Amaro's made -- it looked foolish at the time and even worse in retrospect. Phillippe Aumont can't throw strikes, Tyson Gillies can't stay healthy and J.C. Ramirez was already granted free agency.)

But next time you hear someone lazily say, "The Phillies need to get younger!" ask them to try to figure out some sort of realistic solution that would keep a declining team competitive and give the players and fans hope of a playoff berth in the near future.