The Phillies signed reliever Chad Qualls to a one year deal worth $1.15 million on Tuesday. The move is likely their last of the offseason as the major league roster is close to filled and the team is right up against the luxury tax threshold. While one year deals almost always benefit the team, and while $1.15 million isn’t exactly a king’s ransom, the deal doesn’t make much sense for the Phillies, who have a number of relief pitching prospects knocking on the door.
For a team that reportedly does not want to pay any luxury tax, signing Qualls for three times what one of Michael Schwimer, Justin De Fratus or Phillippe Aumont would make is an odd course of action.
Every half-a-million dollars is of material significance to the Phillies at this juncture, and the potential trade-offs here are the stunted development of prospects and reduced payroll flexibility down the road to bolster the roster if the need arises.
This is the perfect example of a deal that looks great until context is introduced. It won’t kill the Phillies at all, and there are certainly positives to having a durable groundballing reliever on the roster: Qualls has a career 57.5 percent groundball rate and has made more appearances since 2005 than any other pitcher.
However, if the Phillies never pursued him, it’s not as if fans would have aggressively clamored for him, as many were content to see what some of the youngsters can offer. Under that guise, he is the very definition of an unnecessary addition, one that might work out, but wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and shouldn’t have a material effect on the team’s success in the coming season. But given the fact that the Phillies guaranteed his salary at the major league level, he is going to play a more prominent role on the team, especially given Charlie Manuel’s proclivity to use experience as a crutch to put veterans in spots they no longer belong.
Speaking of Contreras, it’s entirely possible that this move signals that the Phillies lack confidence in his ability to stay healthy this year. If Contreras can stay on the mound, there is even less of a need for another reliever. Without knowing the details of his rehab and progress it’s tough to tell what he’ll provide this season. In that case, Qualls is like a setup man insurance policy. If Contreras can’t pitch much, Qualls can step right in. If Jonathan Papelbon gets hurt, one of Contreras or Qualls could fill in, as the Phillies are a team that typically values experience in the closer role. But if everyone remains healthy the Phillies bullpen doesn’t make much sense.
Papelbon closes after Contreras sets him up. Kyle Kendrick — who was recently guaranteed $3+ million in an arbitration-avoiding contract — serves as the long-man and spot starter. In between those three are Antonio Bastardo, Dontrelle Willis, Chad Qualls, Michael Stutes, and an open spot for David Herndon or one of the aforementioned relief prospects. The Phillies could also choose to lump Stutes in with that group and allot two roster to Stutes, Herndon, Aumont, De Fratus and Schwimer. It would represent a novel approach to their roster construction that would give the prospects a better chance to stick in the major leagues. The more likely scenario is that Stutes and Herndon fill out the final two spots while the prospects fill in when injuries arise.
What makes the situation more confusing is that the Phillies witnessed, via Michael Stutes last season, how an unheralded relief pitching prospect can perform well over a small sample of innings. They may value experience, but Stutes was immediately thrust into higher leverage situations and thrived. His peripheral numbers invited much-merited skepticism, but that doesn’t invalidate his success last year. It’s less understandable that a team wouldn’t give ample opportunity to their reliever prospects when they just experienced the benefits of decent production at the league minimum salary.
As for Qualls, a declining strikeout rate is a concern, but he limits free passes and keeps the ball on the ground. If he can get back to the 7+ K/9 area and sustain his groundball rate, he can pitch very effectively and potentially provide surplus value on top of the deal. Sans context, it’s a good deal for the Phillies, as $1.15 million for one season hardly seems prohibitive.
But the Phillies have had to make moves at the trade deadline in each of the last three seasons, and the difference between Qualls’ salary and the league minimum may end up being more significant than the difference in production between him and, say, De Fratus. In the end, this isn’t a crippling move by any means but one that doesn’t really move the needle or bolster the roster.