When Raul Ibanez signed a three year $31.5M contact in December 2008, analysts in the SABR community cried shenanigans--and rightly so. The Phillies, coming off of a semi-surprising World Series championship, had just committed a significant amount of money to a player entering his age-35 season. SABR analysts had two primary issues with this signing. The first was that players entering their age-35 season are usually some state of decline. This is especially true of players, like Ibanez, who have below average base running skills, and questionable (and this is being kind) defensive skills at a corner outfield position. The second was that the free agent market clearly shifting away from the old, slow, lumbering power hitting 1B/LF/RF/DH types in favor of younger, athletic, defensive oriented players. Rather than allow the market to play out, the Phillies jumped on Ibanez by offering him a contract at the 2007 going rate. Had the Phillies been patient, they probably could've gotten the discount that teams were able to get on comparable players like Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, and Jason Giambi. Two years later, it's looking the SABR analysts were right. After an All-Star quality showing in 2009 (.379 wOBA, +3.9 UZR, and a 3.9 WAR--all the best showings of his career), Ibanez struggled out of the gate and regressed back to his career norms (.341 wOBA, -6.7 UZR, 1.8 WAR). Obviously, this is bad news for the Phillies considering we can expect similar regression from Ibanez who will be entering his age-37 season in 2011.
This has created an interesting dilemma for the Phillies. Right field Jayson Werth will be a free agent this offseason. Werth is the type of players SABR analysts and new-age front offices love. He's good, but not great, at everything. Werth has a very good batting eye (.367 career OBP and 12.3% career walk rate), above average power (.481 career SLG), plus defensive skills (a career +10.3 UZR/150 in the outfield), and above average base running abilities (87.5% career stolen base rate). Essentially, he's everything that Ibanez isn't. Seems like an easy decision for the Phillies, right? Wrong. The Phillies have one of the top outfield prospects in the game, Dominic Brown. Brown has been described in some circles as a five tool player with once in a lifetime talent. While it's likely that the "once in a lifetime talent" remark is a bit over the top, there's no denying his talent. The Phillies hold him in such high regard that they were willing to empty their farm systems in the Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt trades just to keep from having to give up Brown. In 2011, Brown will be given every opportunity to take hold of a starting corner outfield position. As a result, the Phillies will likely fill Werth's impending vacancy with Brown, unless they can find a way to unload Ibanez's $12M salary. Considering Ibanez's poor showing last season, this is unlikely.
How does Ibanez's contract play into this? Rob Neyer says it best:
"But this all goes back to the Raul Ibanez contract, which we hated. If the Phillies hadn't signed Ibanez for $31.5 million, they'd have a little more cash available for Werth. If the Phillies hadn't signed Ibanez, they would have the perfect spot for Domonic Brown.As usual, Rob is dead on here. I don't advocate holding a position open for a prospect that's a couple of years away from the majors, no matter how good that player projects to be. They're called prospects for a reason. For every "can't miss" prospect that lives up to the hype, there are several who fall below that mark--if they make it to the majors at all. That said, the Phillies would've been well served had they signed Ibanez (or preferably a player with a better set of skills) to a contract that kept Brown's arrival in mind. Had they done so, the Phillies would've had enough money (and a position) to sign a 32 year old multi-skilled player that's averaged 5.0 WAR per season since 2008 (Werth). Instead, they will be stuck with an aging (37 year old), one-dimensional player that's averaged 2.5 WAR per season since 2008 (Ibanez). Every team has choices, and it appears the Phillies choice to go three years with Ibanez could have long term repercussions.
Instead, if they are able to re-sign Werth they'll have to either eat some of Ibanez's salary or make Brown wait another few months for an every-day job.
As usual, the real issue here isn't money. It's flexibility. When the Phillies were foolish enough to commit $31.5 million to Ibanez, they were also committing three years and 1,800 plate appearances to him. Which, even though he's played reasonably well through the first two years and 1,200 plate appearances, just never made much sense."