The Importance Of Team Roles - Part Four

Depth becomes critical over the course of the grueling 162-game marathon. Sometimes a handful of rookies will play an important role on the way to a pennant--names like Marty Bystrom or Kevin Stocker come to mind. If the Phillies finally decide to join the pennant race in 2006, which young players will make a splash?

Over the past three weeks I've been analyzing the 25 man roster in order of priority roles. Here is the final ranking:

1. ace of the staff
2. number two starting pitcher
3. cleanup hitter
4. three-hole hitter
5. number three starting pitcher
6. leadoff hitter
7. defender up the middle (ranked: C, SS, 2B, CF)
8. closer
9. two-hole hitter
10. five-hole hitter
11. another defender up the middle
12. left-handed set-up man
13. number four starting pitcher
14. right-handed set-up man
15. number five starting pitcher
16. the final starting fielder (3B or 1B or LF)
17. left-handed middle reliever
18. right-handed middle reliever
19. fourth outfielder
20. back-up infielder
21. left-handed long reliever
22. back-up catcher
23. right-handed long reliever
24. second back-up infielder
25. fifth outfielder or extra relief pitcher

This list offers nothing more than a starting point. One GM may believe that a five-hole hitter (Jason Giambi) is more important than a leadoff hitter (Johnny Damon) but probably wouldn't argue that he is more valuable than the cleanup hitter (Alex Rodriguez). Another GM may decide that a three-hole hitter (Albert Pujols) is more important than his number two starter (Mark Mulder). Nothing about the list here flies too much in the face of conventional wisdom with the possible exception of ranking the closer eighth on the list. I believe that "elite" closers are overrated and that their salary premium is way out of proportion with the difference they provide in field-value over a merely good closer. Another GM may feel differently.

As you round out the bottom of the roster the priority rankings may be shuffled depending on the available talent and how you plan to use it. For example the back-up position players may be more important than the middle relievers if they are part of a platoon (Sal Fasano and Abraham Nunez, who should be). Or maybe you want to pay a veteran a higher salary because he is a strong presence in the clubhouse (Fasano) or he has been successful in postseasons past (Nunez, Aaron Rowand).

Ultimately a team has limited resources and must allocate them in an optimal way. Unless your name is George Steinbrenner it is necessary to have some kind of field-valuation methodology to evaluate the team's needs and skew the payroll towards the priority roles. According to my methodology, a baseline pay scale should be roughly 50% for the top five players, 25% for the next five, 15% for the next five and just 10% for the bottom ten.

For smaller market teams like the Kansas City Royals, the only way they can compete with the New York Yankees is to develop young talent to fill the higher priority roles before their players are eligible for free agency. Perhaps it isn't fair that George Steinbrenner can simply out-bid everyone for proven talent, but baseball, like life, isn't fair and the Royals can't sit around and cry about it. They have to compete by being more efficient with the resources they have. Ideally they will spend proportionately more money on drafting and developing their minor league talent than on signing players at the major league level. This may help them to catch lightning in a bottle when they promote the youngsters to fill the higher priority roles at a major league discount. Once the top young talent is in place they may have to pay a premium for players in the lesser roles to balance the roster behind them, but it makes no sense for the Royals to sign two or three popular superstars for big money at the expense of the rest of the roster. It still takes all 25 men to win. Teams like the Royals can't outspend the Yankees at the top of the roster but they might be able to outspend them at the bottom if they have saved enough money by using young talent at the top.

With the exception of a few years under GM Paul Owens, the Phillies real problem has been the lack of a consistent and sensible front office methodology. For the last fourteen seasons the Atlanta Braves made a science of winning with starting pitching and by developing talent at the minor league level. During all those years the Phillies never seemed to adopt a coherent set of guiding principles. Each move seemed to be made in isolation and didn't reflect a recognizable organizational philosophy. If you never learn from losing, how can you ever expect to win? Hopefully with GM Pat Gillick at the helm the Phillies will finally be able to take two steps forward without taking three steps back.

With the revenue from the new stadium the Phillies have become one of the bigger market teams. Unlike the Royals they can afford to keep players like Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell and still compete on the free-agent market with most clubs. But unlike the Mets or the Yankees they cannot afford to grossly overpay for stars, especially ones who are not among the top five priority roles. Phillies fans and ex-players (Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner) have repeatedly complained that the Phillies don't have a commitment to winning; many cite the failure to re-sign Wagner as "Exhibit A". The idea of going for broke may sound good in theory but where is the method in that? What good it is to overpay obscenely for a closer when the team still lacks an ace? Signing Tom Gordon was a much better option and I still say he might outperform Wagner in any case. Certainly the margin in performance will not be as extreme as the margin in pay. Simply put, signing Wagner would have been a waste of limited resources which can be better applied elsewhere.

At the moment, the Phillies hopes in 2006 are pinned on the pitchers performing above their heads at the top of the rotation. Jon Lieber isn't an ace but he isn't as bad as his record in the early going either. Brett Myers is showing signs of becoming the ace the Phillies so desperately need. Or maybe Pat Gillick will make a shrewd move to acquire an ace if a suitable candidate becomes available. At the moment the market for true aces is razor thin. Meanwhile, the margin for error by Ryan Madson and Cory Lidle is equally razor thin.

The Phillies in the middle roles are quite talented but as we move to the bottom of the roster they are more of a mixed bag. Certainly there is room for improvement. Sal Fasano, Abraham Nunez, David Dellucci, Shane Victorino and Alex Gonzalez are solid players who should have a positive impact as the season wears on. As a group they can't possibly continue to be as wretched as they've been so far, can they? If the bottom ten players fail to improve then surely the youngsters in the minor leagues will get a chance to contribute. Expect Rule 5 selection Chris Booker to get a long look in the pen since the Phillies don't want to give him back without at least a proper chance to stick. He may arrive within a few short weeks. If he pitches like he has in the minors he'll be here to stay.

To count on Randy Wolf or Cole Hamels to come in and save the season is a little unrealistic, though Hamels will likely replace Gavin Floyd before too long. Hamels, a lefty, absolutely dominated in his first start since being promoted to AAA, striking out 14 batters in 7 innings while yielding only three hits and walking none. A few more starts like that and Hamels will get his chance to be a star. The cream always rises to the top. When Wolf returns later this summer it will be interesting to see if he will be a starter or a reliever, especially if Hamels makes the team first.

Which other young talents will make a mark in the Show this year? Pitcher Clay Condrey is already here thanks to Julio Santana's stomach ailment. Catcher Carlos Ruiz and speedy outfielder Chris Roberson are both knocking on the door. Ruiz in particular looks ready now, though the Phillies aren't in a rush to replace the veteran leadership of Lieberthal and Fasano.

Who else might get a chance? Brian Sanches, Eude Brito, Jim Crowell, Matt White, Ryan Cameron or Travis Minix? None of these hurlers have anywhere near the talent of Hamels, but they have more experience and appear to be capable of filling relief roles at the bottom of the roster. Yoel Hernandez might have been the closest of the bunch to making the leap until his arm injury last week.

What about infielders Chris Coste, Danny Sandoval or Bobby "tip the" Scales? These guys may get a cup of coffee when the rosters expand in the fall, but don't expect a major contribution unless the whole team gets a shake-up. Other players at AA may get a chance to skip a level, but most likely they are being tracked for 2007. Still, it's early and Giovany Gonzalez, Daniel Haigwood or Scott Mathieson may yet earn their way aboard sooner.

Meanwhile, the most nagging question for 2006 is whether a different manager could get more out of the roster by making the right moves on the field. Despite their early struggles the Phillies are a talented bunch. While the atmosphere under Charlie Manuel is much looser and positive than was under Larry Bowa, it is plain to see that Bowa ran circles around Manuel as a field strategist. Moving Ryan Howard up to fifth and inserting Chase Utley into the two-hole was a good sign, but no doubt Manuel will be packing his bags sooner rather than later if the Phillies continue to under-perform. No matter what, if the Phillies aren't at .500 by the end of May then Manuel's ticket out of Philly should be punched.

Check out Part One, Part Two and Part Three of the series.

By the way, the engineers who moved back the fence at Citizens Bank Park look like geniuses now, don't they? Already the changes have saved seven or eight balls that would have been homers last season. Their prediction of 12 -18 fewer homers a season looks like a lead pipe cinch.

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