It’s been another tough year on the field for the Phillies, and though the team looks to have added some very notable building blocks in their rebuild, there are still plenty of holes to fill. The Phils won’t be making a push to contend until 2019 at the earliest, so this winter will likely look much the same as last — adding veterans on short-term deals with an eye towards flipping those players at the trade deadline. Here are a few needs that will be at the top of the Phillies’ list this offseason…
1. Add starting pitching. Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff are penciled into next year’s rotation, and Vince Velasquez will get first dibs on a spot if healthy. A variety of young arms (Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin) could be in the mix for the fifth starter’s job or as rotation depth, particularly given Velasquez’s multiple injury issues.
That leaves room for at least one or possibly two veteran starters to join the starting staff. The Phillies obviously won’t be shopping at the top of the free agent market, instead targeting mid-range starters that could be had on a one-year deal. Such pitchers could also be pursued in trades, akin to how the Phillies acquired Clay Buchholz from the Red Sox last offseason in the hopes that he would stay healthy and add rotation stability. Citizens Bank Park isn’t the most pitcher-friendly environment for a hurler looking to perhaps rebuild his value for a more lucrative contract in the 2018-19 offseason, though the Phillies can certainly offer innings and opportunity.
2. Use short-term payroll space on both young and old talent. The Phillies have less than $7MM on the books for 2018, so there’s plenty of room for creativity with so much payroll space to work with. Some of that money will be spent on veterans added in signings or trades, though for the latter, the Phillies have the flexibility to take on quite a bit of money.
For instance, GM Matt Klentak could approach a team burdened by a pricey contract and offer to take that deal off the rival club’s hands, as long as a promising young player was also included in the trade. This “buy a prospect” strategy would likely only be deployed in order to take on a starter or reliever’s bad contract since the Phillies are pretty set around the diamond in terms of players who have either earned everyday jobs or players the team wants to see more of — it would make little sense to block Nick Williams from regular duty by acquiring a pricey outfielder, for instance.
The exception to this would be if the Phils were to acquire a bigger-name talent who offered enough years of control that he could be part of the next contending Philadelphia team. Last summer, the Phillies expressed interest in the Marlins’ Christian Yelich (who is under contract through 2021 with a club option for 2022) and were also reportedly open to eating some of the Marlins’ other bad contracts in order to make a Yelich deal happen. If the Phillies were to make such a deal for Yelich or a similar player, you could see someone like Williams moved as part of the trade package.
The argument could be made that the Phillies could go after a big-ticket free agent this winter as sort of a harbinger of larger spending, akin to how the Nationals’ signing of Jayson Werth in the 2010-11 offseason served as an announcement that the team was looking ahead to being a contender in the near future. Since it has been largely rumored that the Phils will be players in the star-studded 2018-19 free agent class, I’d argue that any “coming attractions” signing Philadelphia might make will come next offseason rather than this winter, since there are still too many question marks for the team (or a free agent looking to win) to assume that a guaranteed contender in 2019.
3. Identify and extend some cornerstone players. Odubel Herrera was signed to a five-year extension last winter that will keep him in Philly until at least 2021, making him the first player clearly marked as a key part of the team’s future plans. Herrera was signed when he was a season away from becoming eligible for salary arbitration, which is the same situation that Nola and Aaron Altherr are in this winter.
The situations aren’t identical, of course, though there’s reason that signing an extension would make sense for Nola and Altherr at this junction. Altherr, who turns 27 in January and only rose to prominence as a prospect within the last couple of years, would likely to be open to his first big payday. Nola already made his first fortune in the sport when he collected a $3.3MM bonus as the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft, though since he already went through a UCL/flexor scare last year, Nola might also be eager to lock down some guaranteed money early in his career.
Cesar Hernandez is arb-eligible for the first time last winter, and he has three more trips through the arbitration process coming due to his Super Two status. He’s due for a nice raise on his $2.55MM salary in 2017, and the Phillies could gain cost certainty on the second baseman via an extension. On the flip side, Hernandez could also be a potential trade chip, with the Phillies using Freddy Galvis and, eventually, prospect Scott Kingery at second. With Maikel Franco coming off a brutal year and top prospect J.P. Crawford coming off a pair of underwhelming minor league seasons, however, the Phillies might not want to lose Hernandez with that much uncertainty on the left side of the infield. The team isn’t in any rush to make a decision either way, and the best course could be to just give Hernandez his arb raise and then see how things develop with their other infielders.