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January 15, 2020

Paul Hagen: Phillies made all the right moves with Odubel Herrera... so far

It was announced as a simple Phillies roster move. Outfielder Nick Martini claimed on waivers from the Reds. Outfielder Odubel Herrera designated for assignment.

It was anything but routine, of course. It was old-fashioned hardball and it was a concession to reality and it was a recognition that baseball, in the oft-repeated words of former commissioner Bud Selig, is a social institution with all the responsibilities that implies.

The endgame Tuesday became inevitable back in May when Herrera was given an 85-game suspension for allegedly physically abusing in his girlfriend during an off day in Atlantic City. Charges were later dropped. Still, under the provisions of Major League Baseball’s Domestic Violence Policy, the Phillies were prohibited from voiding what remained of his contract – $19.5 million over the next two years – once he discharged the penalty assessed by Commissioner Rob Manfred.

It seemed for months as though the Phillies had no idea – none! – how this would all play out. As recently as November, at the general managers meetings, Matt Klentak said:

“I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t. I think the best thing I could say is. . .he’s going to have to earn whatever he gets. He doesn’t walk back (into spring training) as the Opening Day center fielder. Right now he’s on the 40-man roster, so if camp started tomorrow, he would be there. What happens between now and February 1? I don’t know.”

Klentak knew. Club president Andy Mac Phail, who made similar statements, knew. Owner John Middleton, who as far as I’m aware didn’t publicly express an opinion, knew. Everybody had to know.

They said what they had to say, because that’s that the rules of engagement required. But they were never going to allow Herrera to ever wear a Phillies uniform at the Carpenter Complex of Spectrum Field again.

They did what they had to do. Nothing personal. Just business.

Point 1

The phrase “designated for assignment” here is a little misleading. It cleared a roster spot for Martini. It gives the Phillies some breathing room during which they must waive, trade or release him. Here’s the thing, though. If there was a team out there willing to give up two scuffed batting practice baseballs for Herrera, it would have been done. If there had been a team willing to take him (and his contract) on waivers, it would have been done.

Herrera was fired. Period.

Point 2

There is at least one chess move left. If Herrera clears waivers, the Phillies can invite him to spring training as a non-roster invitee. He has the right to decline. If he does, he’ll forfeit the money still owed him. Spoiler alert: That ain’t happening.

The Phillies have played this by the book so far. They haven’t gotten ahead of themselves, have carefully colored between the lines. They haven’t done anything that should raise the hackles of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Which doesn’t guarantee that a grievance from the union isn’t in their future even though Klentak was careful to define this as “a baseball decision.”

In a way, it was. In a way, it was anything but.

In every way, it was the correct move.

Imagine the scene if Herrera reports to Clearwater at some point. Imagine the potential backlash from advocacy groups. Imagine the distraction and the disruption. Yeah, $19.5 million is a lot of money. But is that really a serious consideration to Middleton, who heads up a franchise worth more than $2 billion?

Baseball decision is an ambiguous term. If forced to defend this move, the Phillies could, and rightly would, point to the contributions Jay Bruce made after being acquired in the post-Herrera era. To the fact that 2017 No, 1 draft choice Adam Haseley was summoned from the farm system, showed promise and has even been penciled in as the 2020 starter in center field. That Roman Quinn remains an option. And, of course, that Andrew McCutchen will be in left and Bryce Harper in right.

Hoo, boy, so many outfielders, so few at bats to go around. Just a numbers game and Herrera, who batted .204 in his last 84 games, was just an unfortunate victim of that crunch. Who could argue with that?

Well, um. . .

From a different perspective, Herrera remains a 2016 All-Star. After that season the Phillies identified him as a building block with a 5-year contract that included options for 2022 and 2023. He finished third in the National League in doubles in 2017, a season that also included a 21-game hitting streak. In 2018 he reached base safely in 45 consecutive games and ranked second in homers and third in RBI among all NL centerfielders and had been the team’s regular at that crucial position for the last four years. He’s still just 28 years old.

So here’s the question: The Phillies are a team that is supposed to contend in 2020. Under any other circumstances would they have, essentially swapped out Herrera for Martini on their roster?

Martini is 29. He’s played a total of 87 games in the big leagues. He’s been DFAed by the A’s, Padres and Reds within the last two years. Moves in the margin can be crucial. But, really?

Haseley bats lefty. So does Martini. So does Herrera. There have been recent reports that the Phillies are looking for a righthanded bat to potentially platoon with Haseley. This move doesn’t address that. So, again, if Herrera hadn’t been arrested, would he have been designated for assignment Tuesday?

Maybe not.

Probably not.

Hell, no.

It doesn’t matter. The Phillies did what they had to do. They did the right thing. They did what they were inevitably going to do all along. Beyond that jarring incident, Herrera had earned a reputation around the team as a bit of a flake. Even in an analytic era, there’s more to winning games than bloodless numbers.

We all like to think of Major League Baseball as a sport. It’s a business. And any rational cost-benefit analysis must conclude that it’s time for the Phillies to give Odubel Herrera a hearty handshake and best wishes for wherever his career takes him.

They’ve played it perfectly so far. They shouldn’t screw it up now.