Free agent reliever Braden Looper comes to terms with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Phillies can scratch him off their Christmas list.
For Braden Looper’s sake, it’s good he settled with a pleasant mid-west town like St. Louis. If he selected Philadelphia, his neck would already be on the chopping block, right next to Flash Gordon. Thursday night, he came to terms on a deal that will pay him between $13.5 and $15.5 million over three years.
Nothing personal, Braden, but most of us don't care. We’ve seen enough to know you’re not a sure bet, so anything longer than a year would have been insane. Philadelphia doesn’t take kindly to free agents that don’t meet expectations, or even exceed them. Please understand that history is part of it, too. The Phils are snow-deep in the hot stove and a reliever hasn’t been uncovered like some fans think it should. And as always, our angst has dual purpose. There’s always a reserve tank for the front office.
Free agency reaches the cutoff point
The truth is, new GM Pat Gillick shouldn’t pursue free agents like Looper anymore. The desperate situation comes not for lack of trying. The Phils made an aggressive play at Billy Wagner but lost him to the Mets. They were prepared to make an offer to B.J. Ryan but he quickly signed with Toronto.
Besides those two, there was no relief pitching of comparable quality to be had, at least not through free agency. Gillick did what he could with free agency, signing Gordon out of necessity and developing a bullpen collection agency to round out the rest.
The virtues of a bullpen collection
A while back, we talked about the idea of getting creative in the bullpen instead of spending on free agents. The springboard is the belief that pitching, both starting rotation and bullpen, cannot be solved entirely through spending.
A.J. Burnett, the prize of the free agent market, signed a deal with Toronto worth $55 million. For all the hype, his career looks awfully similar to that of Vicente Padilla, who was just dumped for a player to be named, either a relief pitcher with a plus-5 career ERA or a 17-year-old Dominican infielder. (The deal will be finalized shortly).
What a crazy game. For all their spending, Toronto will probably finish third.
If the player to be named is indeed reliever Ricardo Rodriguez, Gillick will have added three arms, besides Gordon, to the bullpen fray by different means: Julio Santana was a free agent; Chris Booker was a Rule 5 pick; Rodriguez was acquired in a trade (if he’s the one).
The projected relief corps is growing fast. Here are some possibilities:
R. Tejeda (possible rotation)
E. Brito (second season)
G. Geary (fourth season)
B. Sanches (3.69 ERA, AAA)
T. Minix (1.53 ERA, AAA)
G. Floyd (possible rotation)
Y. Hernandez (Venezuelan Winter League, 28 IP, 30 K, 1.61 ERA, 11 SV)
J. Santana (free agent)
C. Booker (rule 5)
A. Lopez (second season with Phils)
A. Fultz (second season with Phils)
R. Cormier (sixth season with Phils)
R, Rodriguez (trade)
R. Madson (possible rotation)
T. Gordon (free agent)
It’s not impossible to believe that a prospect like Travis Minix or the hard-throwing Yoel Hernandez could dazzle. Frankly, it’s just as easy to believe that Looper would find his stuff again in a setup role, or Miguel Batista, or Danys Baez, or some other potential veteran patch-up.
In addition, it would be especially hard for a free agent like Looper to fit in here. I can’t remember the last outsider who didn't eventually storm out in a huff. Meanwhile, homegrown talent like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard can cruise for years before hearing a single boo. Even Ryan Madson, who looked dismal late in the season, could ride the positive wave of support.
It’s just another reason to develop more talent internally instead of paying for it.
The door is still open to pull off a trade to add depth to the unsettled back end. Make no mistake, the back end is still shaky and must be upgraded. Reports indicate Gillick is working at it, and his pursuit of Looper indicates it remains a top priority. The Phils can float players like Jason Michaels, David Bell, or even young players like Robinson Tejeda.
As a fan, the uncertainty is the hardest part of this bullpen collection, but something tells me one or two of these unknowns will surprise us, just as Aaron Fultz did last year.