Well, I had a snappy beginning to this post all set but then Jayson Stark over at ESPN had to go an take my idea. I should have expected a professional would hit on the Phillies cornering the market on starting pitchers named Roy and gotten this post up faster. With the addition of Roy Oswalt, who the Phillies got in return for J.A. Happ, Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar, (an absolute steal in my opinion), the Phillies significantly upgraded their rotation. They were able to accomplish this without trading their best prospects and GM Ruben Amaro rectified the mistake of trading Cliff Lee to Seattle in the off-season. While Oswalt doesn’t have the sterling numbers of Lee this season, he’s no slouch. As Stark reports:
[Oswalt] ranks among the league leaders in quality starts (15 — as many as Ubaldo Jimenez), WHIP (1.11 — better than Chris Carpenter), opponent OPS (.652 — better than Tim Lincecum) and strikeout/walk ratio (3.53 — better than all but a half-dozen pitchers in the league). So that kind of gets your attention.
He’s allowing a lower opponent batting average (.229), on-base percentage (.280) and OPS (.652) than he has in any season in his fabulous career. His strikeout ratio (8.4 per 9 IP) is his best since his rookie year.
And his swing-and-miss percentage (20.7 percent) is almost identical to that of Halladay (20.8), Carpenter (20.6) and Jimenez (21.0), according to our friends at FanGraphs.
The Phillies received Oswalt, a man who since 2001 leads the NL in wins (143, 28 more than the 2nd place guy), strikeouts (1593), is 2nd in innings pitched (1958.2) and 5th in ERA at 3.24, for relatively little. While Happ was 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting last season, after posting a 12-4 record with a 2.93 ERA, his ceiling is just not that high. Happ is already 27 years old, so he isn’t as young as many Phillies fans think, and his peripheral stats indicate that Happ could be in for a fall. His walk rate this season is incredibly high (7.04 BB/9, though to be fair he has only pitched 15.1 innings) and his ground-ball percentage is low (32.7%) for a pitcher that was pitching in a home run friendly park, and his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) was .250 (lower than the .300 average, signifying an increase in ERA, etc. could have been on the way). The numbers point to Happ being at best a middle of the rotation starter. Baseball Prospectus predicts that Happ would be at best a .500 pitcher with a decent ERA (between 3.98 and 4.23 over the next several years). To be the centerpiece of a trade that lands a player like Oswalt, the numbers should be better. Oswalt, whose numbers at Citizens Bank Park are excellent (4-0, 2.60 ERA, 1 HR allowed in 27 2/3 innings), is clearly an upgrade.
The two prospects the Phillies traded are both in A ball and while they are showing some promise, are not locks to be productive big league players. It is difficult to project MLB numbers for prospects as young as Villar and Gose, both 19. Gose, an outfielder and #6 prospect in the Phillies system according to Baseball America, was hitting .263 for with 4 home runs, 20 RBIs, and 36 stolen bases at Clearwater; however, he had also been caught stealing 27 times. Villar, a shortstop and #22 prospect, hit .272 with 2 home runs, 36 RBI and 38 stolen bases for Lakewood. Defensively, Villar is still a work in progress, committing 42 errors this season. Both have shown flashes, but are years away from contributing in the bigs. What may be the most important part of the trade is who the Phillies did not trade to get Oswalt. The Phillies were able to keep Jonathan Singleton, one of their best fielding prospects and did not have to give up any minor league pitching talent. Singleton, an 18 year-old first baseman for single-A Lakewood, has played 70 games this season and is hitting .312 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs. The Phillies see him as the heir apparent to Ryan Howard.
As I mentioned above, this move clearly indicates that Amaro realizes the mistake he made in trading Lee. Many fans would rather see Lee pitching in South Philly, but I think this deal actually makes more sense for the Phillies in the long-term. Oswalt is under contract for next season, at a “reasonable” price of $16 million and has an option for 2012 for the same amount. Houston has kicked in $11 million in the trade, which means that the Phillies are only on the hook for $1o million of the $21 million owed to Oswalt for the remainder of this season and next season (Oswalt has a $2 million buyout if the Phillies don’t exercise the 2012 option). Lee, due to hit free agency at the end of the season, will command a lot more than $16 million next season, and will likely want a long-term deal. By not keeping Lee and essentially replacing him with Oswalt, the Phillies gain financial flexibility. The 2011 season is the last year on several current Phillies contracts, including Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez. Several other contracts come off the books following 2012, including Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino. The Phillies clearly made this deal knowing that the core of the team will be intact for at most the next 2 seasons. They did not want to take on any more long-term liabilities (such as a potential 4 or 5 year contract for Lee) that would make it difficult to reshape the roster once the current set of contracts have expired. While I would have liked to see Lee stay here for this season, and see the Phillies deal for a pitcher over the winter to replace him, replacing him with Oswalt isn’t as bad a deal as it initially appears.
The one negative I see with the Oswalt trade is that the Phillies likely will not want to take on more payroll this season, meaning they are unlikely to add reinforcements to a bullpen that doesn’t inspire much confidence. The ‘pen currently ranks 17th in the majors with a 4.04 ERA and has 13 blown saves in 34 opportunities (in 2008, the Phillies only had 15 blown saves in 62 opportunities, and last year they had 22 in 66). Not exactly the type of numbers that inspire confidence, and the worst performance for the Phillies relievers since 2007.
Despite the shaky bullpen, this trade make the Phillies the team to beat in the NL. With a rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Oswalt, a 1-2-3 combination that ranks with the best in the league (for my money it could be the best) and an offense that finally looks like it has remembered how to score, the Phillies will be dangerous. Watch out Braves.