Phillies

Phillies

I was watching a Braves-Cubs game back on July 17 and Freddie Freeman stood out, though not for the offensive reasons we've come to expect.

In both the fifth and sixth innings, the Cubs loaded the bases with two outs against Julio Teheran. Both times, they failed to score. If not for Freeman, they would have cleared the bases each time.

Freeman made diving stops down the first-base line on hard-hit balls by Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist. He gloved both of them and tossed to first in time for both to result in nothing but groundouts. 

Freeman literally saved his team six runs that night in the span of two innings.

First base may be the easiest of the defensive positions, but it's not the least important.

I've thought about those plays several times over the last few weeks as it pertains to Tommy Joseph, a player the Phillies did not trade by Monday's 4 p.m. deadline.

Perhaps it's a bit unfair to say this, but Joseph wouldn't have made either play — I've seen him enough defensively over the last two seasons to confidently say that. It's no major knock on him because there are a bunch of first basemen who wouldn't have made those plays. Freeman's glove is one of the best in baseball.

But I kept thinking back to those plays by Freeman when people would ask me whether the Phillies would trade Joseph by the deadline to clear a spot for first-base prospect Rhys Hoskins. Joseph's lack of defensive value had to hurt his trade value.

 

According to Fangraphs, Joseph has cost the Phillies seven runs on defense this season and six last season for a total of minus-13 runs. There are 25 first basemen who have played enough innings to qualify this season, and only Oakland's Yonder Alonso has cost his team more runs.

Joseph is a much better thrower than Ryan Howard ever was, but his range is limited and he doesn't make as many plays down the line as an above-average defensive first baseman does. Those are extremely important plays because they always result in extra bases.

The reason the Phillies couldn't find a suitable trade return for Joseph is that there were few contenders out there in need of a first baseman. The Yankees lost Greg Bird early in the season but eventually filled their hole with the acquisition of Todd Frazier. The Rays traded for Lucas Duda. 

The Mariners stuck out to me and continue to stick out as a potential landing spot for Joseph because they have 33-year-old journeyman Danny Valencia on a one-year deal playing first base, and their general manager is Jerry DiPoto, Matt Klentak's friend and the man who hired him back in 2012 as the Angels' assistant GM.

But even a team like the Mariners, which could use another powerful right-handed bat, probably looks at Joseph and wonders what we wonder: Just how valuable is he?

What Joseph has going for him
• He's 26 years old.

• In 736 plate appearances the last two seasons, he has 37 homers, 36 doubles and 100 RBIs.

• He's under club control through the end of the 2022 season and will likely make between $550,000 and $600,000 again next year.

So he's young and cheap with power.

What Joseph has working against him
• In those 736 plate appearances, he has a .311 on-base percentage, has grounded into 29 double plays and struck out 167 times. 

• Only four first basemen have grounded into more double plays than Joseph since the start of 2016, and all four have at least 325 more plate appearances than he does. His rate of GIDPs is by far the highest.

• As for that .311 OBP, it's 28th out of 29 first basemen, better than only Brandon Moss.

The goal here is not to make Joseph seem like a player completely devoid of value. If the Phillies place him on revocable waivers this month, he's sure to be claimed by another team because of his youth, cost and power. 

But because of his flaws from a defensive, baserunning and plate selection standpoint, teams won't be willing to trade a nice prospect or major-league piece to the Phillies for him.

 

Joseph resigned to a trade?
"I haven't thought about it in a while," Joseph said Monday after the trade deadline passed. "When stuff first started to come out, you could always think about it with the idea of what could happen. Now that it's passed, I'm happy that I'm still here.

"When you are playing the game, you stay away from it because I'm not worried about it when I'm here. I'm worried about playing the game and preparing for it. The times you get interested in it is when you are away from the field. In the last week to 10 days, I've done a good job of staying away from that stuff."

Still, Joseph sounds like a man who knows he might be joining another organization this winter and recognizes it's out of his control.

"I mean, this game, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable," he said. "This is a hard game and not everyone plays their whole career with the same team. We're well aware of it, so we continue to move."

Klentak on Monday was asked again about Joseph and downplayed the Phillies' need to make a move, even though Hoskins has done about all he can at Triple A.

"Tommy Joseph had three more hits today," the GM said. "He had a couple of big hits on this homestand. Tommy's having a pretty good year. We're not going to rush anything while we're getting pretty good production out of first base. Rhys is having an outstanding year himself. There will likely come a time where we'll make a decision on that, but for right now we're getting productivity at first base – both in the big leagues and at Triple A — and that's just fine.

Can they keep both 1B?
Klentak is right to not rush things with a Joseph trade. It would have served little purpose to trade Joseph for 20 cents on the dollar at the trade deadline just to carve out a spot for Hoskins. Yes, that roster spot is valuable since Hoskins looks like a legitimate piece of the Phillies' future, but if the options are trading Joseph for a meaningless return or just keeping him as a bench bat or insurance in case Hoskins doesn't pan out, Klentak and the Phillies would be wise to just keep Joseph.

Wrong time to be all power
Unfortunately for the Phils, Joseph's best skill, his power, has never been more common league-wide. Mike Moustakas and Justin Smoak have 30 homers. Logan Morrison has 26. Scott Schebler has 23. There are 46 players in total who have at least 20 home runs and that list will more than double by season's end.

If baseball was in a 2014-like power drought, perhaps a player like Joseph would have more trade value. But MLB is on pace right now for 6,111 home runs, which would be 418 more than any year ever.

"I think we'll enter the offseason with an open mind to see what's out there in terms of acquisitions and what the trade market leads to," Klentak said. "I think a lot of our offseason will be dictated by how we play in the final two months and how our young players will continue to progress."

 

If the Phillies do indeed trade Joseph this winter, the best type of return could be a player in a similar situation in another city — a player who is either blocked at his position or has a prospect breathing down his neck to take his job. But again, that team would also have to have a need for a first baseman or DH, which drastically limits the trade market. 

There isn't an easy solution to the Phillies' first-base conundrum. If there was, it would have already been made.