The Phillies front office has been frustrated lately with its lack of success on the trade market, but it is still trying to complete at least one deal before Thursday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Ruben Amaro Jr. traveled with the team to New York, where it opened a three-game series tonight against the Mets at Citi Field. But Amaro was nowhere to be found before the game as he continues to call teams to find a trade partner for a group of players that includes right fielder Marlon Byrd and left-hander Antonio Bastardo.
“Am I expecting any (trades)?” Ryne Sandberg said. “I don’t know one way or another. Just from what I hear, if there is (a trade) it’ll be very late in the process.”
Byrd and Bastardo remain the most likely Phillies to be moved, which is nothing new. Byrd is hitting .266 with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs. His 20 homers are tied for eighth among right-handed hitters in baseball, which makes him valuable. Byrd can block trades to four teams, including the Mariners and Royals. He makes $8 million next season and he has an $8 million club option for 2016 that automatically vests with 600 plate appearances in 2015 or 1,100 plate appearances in 2014-15, including 550 plate appearances in 2015, which is a sticking point to some teams.
Left-hander Cole Hamels remains available, but the asking price remains extraordinarily high. This also is nothing new. The Phillies want to keep Hamels because he is the rare Phillies player signed to a mega contract still in his prime, but they will consider trading him if they are absolutely blown away by an offer.
Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon are unlikely to be moved by Thursday, but they could be traded in August if they clear waivers. Lee is owed at least $37.5 million following this season, while Papelbon is owed at least $13 million. A.J. Burnett remains a possibility, but he seems to be a second choice for teams still hoping for a pitcher like David Price, Jon Lester or Hamels. Burnett’s player option could be worth more than $10 million next season. The money owed to Lee, Papelbon and Burnett has made trading them difficult.
“I fully expect him to be our first baseman next year,” Amaro said. “I don’t know where people are coming up with him not having a future with us. He’s a very big part of our organization.”
Ryne Sandberg benched Howard for the third consecutive game Friday, and he said Thursday there could be a platoon situation at first base going forward. Howard is the highest-paid player in baseball this season and he is owed $60 million after this year, which makes the benching and possibility of a platoon a strong indication the Phillies are looking at other options for the future.
Sources also said the Phillies have discussed multiple scenarios about Howard’s future, including the possibility of releasing him in the offseason. Asked about that, Amaro said, “All I can tell you is that’s not in our best interest. It’s not something that we’ve discussed.”
Amaro denied this is a matter of a player not being good enough to play every day. He instead said it is a measure meant to get him back on track.
“Let him mentally get regrouped,” he said. “Listen, everyone needs a break. And I think that’s more of what this is about than anything else. All of us want Ryan to be back and for Ryan to be as productive as he can be. I think that’s the goal. … We’re hopeful. We went through this with Pat Burrell. He had some good years, some bad years and some years in between. I think that’s a part of the baseball process, particularly when you get older. Chase Utley went down and became an All-Star. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. A guy can have a poor year one year and a great year the next.”
Howard’s .682 OPS this season is 207 lower than his career average (.889) and 36 points below his career low (.718 in 2012). His .377 slugging percentage is 155 points lower than his career average (.532) and 46 points below than his career low (.423 in 2012).
“I don’t have any issue with his effort,” Amaro said. “There’s some combination of relaxation and focus, there’s some combination in there that will help him get there. We’ll see. … It’s not about (upsetting him). I think it’s more about … giving him a break to get away from it.
“We don’t expect Ryan to be the Ryan Howard of ‘06, ‘07, ‘08. But we know he’s a more productive player than he has been over this past month.”
He also received a friendly reminder.
“Today is the big day,” a longtime friend texted Rollins today.
Rollins essentially will have next season’s $11 million club option automatically vest tonight following his second plate appearance against the Diamondbacks at Citizens Bank Park. Rollins needed 1,100 plate appearances in 2013-14 or 600 plate appearances this season for the option to vest. He hits the 1,100th mark with 666 plate appearances last season and 434 this season.
“It’s just like the hits record,” Rollins said. “If you’re out there it’s just going to happen. When? Who knows? But it’s going to happen. It’s nothing I was focused on.”
Of course, Rollins must finish the season healthy. If he finishes the season on the disabled list and a mutually agreed upon doctor says he will not be ready by Opening Day 2015, the option does not vest. But in that case, Rollins still could pick up a $5 million player option or the Phillies could pick up an $8 million club option.
But assuming Rollins remains healthy, the option turns his contract from a three-year, $33 million deal into a four-year, $44 million deal. Rollins always considered the contract a four-year deal from the beginning. He had 625 or more plate appearances in 12 of the previous 13 seasons, so hitting the 1,100 mark was not a problem.
“I’ve been here so long,” Rollins said about the team’s mindset in the plate appearances clause. “Just go out there be healthy and play. If you play we know you’re going to be able to help us win. We’ll make it attainable. We won’t make your stretch yourself out and do things to put your career in jeopardy. Just be healthy.”
There is a real possibility Jonathan Papelbon will not get his wish to be traded before the July 31 trade deadline. There aren’t many teams looking for closers right now, and if they are they might not like the remaining money on his contract. He is owed $13 million next season with a $13 million club option in 2016 that automatically vests if he finishes 55 games in 2015 or 100 games in 2014-2015 and is not on the DL at the end of 2015 with right shoulder or elbow injury. (He has finished no fewer than 53 games in any season the past seven years.)
If that’s the case, it means he’s stuck in Philly for the foreseeable future.
If that’s the case, he is ready to accept the villain role.
Phillies fans booed him as he entered this afternoon’s 2-1 victory over the Giants. Papelbon pitched the previous two games, blowing a save Tuesday and taking the loss Wednesday. But he retired the side in order to pick up his 24th save in 27 opportunities this season. He is 2-2 with a 1.91 ERA in 42 appearances.
Do the boos bother him?
“No, I enjoy it,” he said during an entertaining (in my opinion) postgame interview.
“I just think it’s fun,” he said. “It brings a little bit of energy and life to the ballpark. It gives me a little bit of something to look forward to every day.”
So maybe the fans weren’t loud enough.
“I heard some of them,” he said.
Sure, but only about half of the ballpark booed.
“Maybe we can get the whole park booing here soon,” he said.
Sandberg drove home that point soundly today, as he benched Howard in favor of Darin Ruf for a second consecutive game, but this time against Giants right-hander Tim Hudson. That is noteworthy because Howard has faced Hudson more than any other pitcher in his career, hitting .328 (22-for-67) with seven home runs, 17 RBIs and a 1.112 OPS against him.
“The way I see things,” Sandberg said before their 2-1 victory over the Giants, “I basically wanted to give Ruf two days in a row, just to get his feet wet, see him against a right-handed pitcher, then go from there. But in all likelihood, at least after today, it will be a scenario of … I’d be considering a platoon system at first base.”
The p-word has been uttered: platoon.
Sandberg and Howard held a closed-door meeting in the manager’s office for at least 10-15 minutes about three hours before the game. Howard was unavailable to comment afterward. He made a bee line to the back of the Phillies’ clubhouse upon leaving Sandberg’s office. He returned to his locker to grab his cell phone before going outside the clubhouse to make a call. The clubhouse closed almost immediately after he returned.
Howard had no interest in commenting about his situation after the game.
“Talk to him,” he said after the game, referring to Sandberg. “Bye. Talk to the manager.”
Asked if Howard was receptive to his talk, Sandberg said, “He wants to play and he wants to be in the lineup and that’s totally understandable. So as we go forward and there are some options on some days, then I’ll look at those options.”
It does not take a genius to see the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player is not happy.
If Sandberg follows through and platoons Howard and Ruf it would make Howard, who signed a $125 million contract in April 2010, a part-time player with $60 million owed to him after this season. What that means for Howard’s future remains to be seen. Sources said the Phillies have kicked around multiple scenarios regarding Howard’s future, including the possibility of releasing him in the offseason.
It would seem to be an awkward situation for Ruf, who is trying to prove himself as a regular big-league player. But he said he will not let the spotlight bother him as he is asked to take an iconic player’s place in the lineup.
“Ryan is a great player,” Ruf said. “He’s going to be counted on to help this team win in the last two months hopefully. If we can share a role in making that happen, or he becomes the player that he once was and that we know he can be, and if it’s my opportunity I’ll just look forward to proving I can be that guy, too.”
Ruben Amaro Jr. was unavailable to comment on Howard’s situation and future with the organization.
“Ryno wants to be in there,” Sandberg said. “I totally expect that, so we’ll go forward and make up lineups.”
There just won’t be any guarantee Howard will be in them.
Why would anybody want to play on a losing team, he said recently?
But the past couple games have not helped his cause. A night after he blew his third save of the season in a 9-6 loss to the Giants in 14 innings at Citizens Bank Park, he allowed three runs in the ninth inning in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Giants. It was the first time he allowed runs in back-to-back appearances this season after allowing runs in only three of his first 39 appearances.
“I think if you were to put an entire season into two games it would be pretty dumb,” Papelbon said.
Papelbon is 2-2 with a 1.96 ERA and 23 saves in 26 opportunities, so he could help a contending team. But with the Tigers acquiring Joakim Soria from the Rangers on Wednesday and the Angels recently acquiring Huston Street from the Padres, there are fewer and fewer landing spots for the Phillies’ closer.
“Nope,” he said, asked if the news about Soria disappointed him. “I have no control over that. I don’t worry about things in life I have no control over.”
But the possibility certainly exists Papelbon could be in Philly after the 31st.
“I have no control over it,” he said. “I love the bullpen that I’m in right now. I love the guys down there. To me, it makes no difference. Whatever happens, happens. I have no control over that. What are you going to do? I don’t really worry about it. I try to prepare every day and do my best. Let the hits land where they land and let the umpires call the calls they call.”
The Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract extension in April 2010 partly because they believed making a deal more than a year before he hit free agency would become a bargain with fellow first basemen Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez scheduled to hit free agency at the same time.
It hasn’t worked as planned.
Howard is struggling through arguably the worst season of his career, following two injury-riddled seasons, and Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg is ready to look at other options at first base, something unimaginable just a few years ago.
“I know what Ryan Howard can do,” Sandberg said this afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. “I think it’s also important to see what other guys can do.”
Darin Ruf started at first base against Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner, and he could be there more often going forward, although Sandberg said that decision will be made daily. Triple-A infielder Maikel Franco could see playing time at first, if he gets healthy and gets called up in September. Asked if this means he is looking for Howard’s replacement at first base, Sandberg said, “No, but I think it’s also important to see and gauge other players to see where they’re at.”
Howard is making $25 million this season, which makes him the highest-paid position player in baseball. He has $60 million remaining on his contract over the next two seasons, which includes a $10 million buyout on a club option worth $23 million in 2017.
Sandberg said the massive contract isn’t a factor in filling out his lineup card.
“It’s also about wins and losses out here,” Sandberg said. “When the game starts it’s about winning the game and being productive and chipping in and doing the part and doing something to help win a game. If that means playing somebody else there and there’s production right away that’s trying to win a baseball game.”
Double-A Reading played Erie this afternoon in Erie, and the Phillies had a scout there to watch Tigers right-hander Jake Thompson, who pitched last week in the All-Star Futures Game. He allowed five hits, one run, two walks and struck out five in five innings in a 6-1 victory over Reading.
The Tigers drafted Thompson, 20, in the second round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. He went 6-4 with a 3.14 ERA in 16 starts this season with Class A Lakeland before recently being promoted to Erie, where he is 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA in two starts.
The Tigers are looking for bullpen help and it is well known Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon and left-hander Antonio Bastardo are available.
Some came to see other Phillies players available before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, including left-hander Antonio Bastardo. If a team needs relief help it almost certainly has contacted the Phillies about him.
In fact, Bastardo seems to be one of the likeliest Phillies to be traded before the deadline. He is 4-3 with a 3.30 ERA in 43 appearances this season. Left-handers have hit just .148 against him, while right-handers have hit .168, which makes him much more than a situational lefty. He makes just $2 million this season, so his contract is not an issue. He also does not become a free agent until after the 2015 season, so he is not a two-month rental.
“I’m just staying focused on what I can do and how I can pitch,” Bastardo said of the trade speculation. “I’m just trying to get people out. If I can distract myself from that stuff, I won’t let it get into my mind. I don’t want to lose my focus.”
Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval hit a line drive off Bastardo’s left forearm Monday. Bastardo finished the scoreless inning and had the forearm wrapped Tuesday afternoon, but he said it felt much better. He said he wouldn’t know if he could pitch until after he tried throwing later in the day.
He struggled in his return from the DL against the Giants at Citizens Bank Park, allowing 12 hits, six runs and failing to command his pitches in 5 2/3 innings. You’d think the guy forgot to pitch, but one scout afterward correctly pointed out that Lee maintained his velocity throughout the night, which indicates he is healthy. The struggles? Most likely the result of a two-month layoff.
If Lee is healthy there is no reason to think he will not return to form as one of the top starting pitchers in baseball.
If the Phillies can’t trade him before the July 31 trade deadline, perhaps he clears waivers next month. If he does the Phillies have until Aug. 31 to trade him. If he doesn’t clear waivers, there is nothing to prevent the Phillies from trading him in the offseason. A couple more months isn’t going to hurt anybody, if Lee is healthy and pitching well. In fact, it would get more teams involved in the offseason because right now the only teams interested in Lee are contending teams.
ESPN.com reported Lee can be traded to nine teams without his consent: the Braves, Indians, Astros, Marlins, Twins, Mets, Padres, Rays and Nationals. ESPN.com also reported that A.J. Burnett, who shares the same agent as Lee, can be traded to nine teams without his permission: the Orioles, Red Sox, Reds, Royals, Mets, Yankees, Pirates, Cardinals and Nationals.
I still think the three Phillies most likely to be traded before the deadline are Jonathan Papelbon, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo. The Phillies are listening, but not actively shopping Cole Hamels, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. I would be incredibly surprised if any of those three are traded.