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A very busy winter is on the horizon for the Phillies, as they are poised to explore all options on the free agent and trade fronts in order to firmly return to contention in 2019.
- Jake Arrieta, SP: $45MM through 2020 (Arrieta can opt out after 2019 season, but Phillies can void the opt-out by exercising a two-year/$40MM club option for 2021-22)
- Carlos Santana, 1B: $35MM through 2020 (includes $500K buyout of $17.5MM club option for 2021)
- Odubel Herrera, CF: $24.5MM through 2021 (includes $2.5MM buyout of $11.5MM club option for 2022; Phillies also have a $12.5MM club option for 2023 with a $1MM buyout)
- Scott Kingery, IF/OF: $21.75MM through 2023 (includes $1MM buyout of $13MM club option for 2024; Phillies also have club options for 2025-26)
- Tommy Hunter, RP: $9MM through 2019
- Pat Neshek, RP: $6.5MM through 2019 (includes $750K buyout of $7MM club option for 2020)
Arbitration Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Cesar Hernandez (4.154) – $8.9MM
- Aaron Nola (3.076) – $6.6MM
- Maikel Franco (3.170) – $5.1MM
- Luis Avilan (5.146) – $3.1MM
- Vince Velasquez (3.086) – $2.6MM
- Hector Neris (3.068) – $2.0MM
- Luis Garcia (4.006) – $1.7MM
- Jerad Eickhoff (3.045) – $1.7MM
- Aaron Altherr (3.028) – $1.6MM
- Adam Morgan (3.017) – $1.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Avilan, Garcia, Altherr
The 2018-19 offseason has long been seen as a natural endpoint for the Phillies’ rebuilding process. The team’s plan was to have a young core of talent in place by 2018, so the Phils could then spend freely within what was expected to be the most star-studded free agent class in history. As it turned out, this winter’s free agent crop isn’t quite as historically great as it appeared even a year ago, and the Phillies haven’t quite established their foundation. The Phils seemed to be taking that step forward when they occupied first place in the NL East as late as August 12, before a late-season collapse (going 12-28 over their last 40 games) doomed the team to an 80-82 record and its seventh straight non-winning season.
With this in mind, a couple of big acquisitions wouldn’t necessarily be the finishing touches on an up-and-coming team. GM Matt Klentak could be considering a much more substantial overhaul of his roster, especially since Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins reportedly might be the only two truly untouchable players on the roster. (I’d expect the team to discuss contract extensions with both Nola and Hoskins come Spring Training.) With this in mind, it’s difficult to specifically predict what the Phillies might have in store this offseason since just about anything is on the table, and the team is already casting a wide net in exploring free agent and trade possibilities.
Sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado as the new face of the franchise? Many pundits think it could happen (as do MLBTR’s readers). Sign Craig Kimbrel to anchor the ninth inning and turn promising youngster Seranthony Dominguez into a multi-inning weapon? Wouldn’t be surprising. Sign one of Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, J.A. Happ, or Yusei Kikuchi to join Nola and Jake Arrieta atop the rotation? Also plausible, as Philadelphia has been linked to all four of those free agent arms on the rumor mill. Turning to trade candidates, the Phils have reportedly already checked in with the Mariners about shortstop Jean Segura and closer Edwin Diaz, and it’s fair to assume that Klentak will make calls about just about every big name that could be available.
Whatever direction Klentak decides to pursue, he certainly doesn’t have to worry about financial limitations. Team owner John Middleton has openly promised that the Phillies will be big spenders this winter, and they could “maybe even be a little bit stupid about” how much they hand out in future commitments. MLBTR’s Rob Huff projected that Philadelphia might have as much as $62.25MM in payroll capacity this winter, and even that estimate might be low if the team decides to truly explode into luxury tax territory ($206MM is the new tax threshold) or if the Phils can open up more payroll space by unloading some of their current players.
The most prominent name in this regard is Carlos Santana, owed $35MM over the next two seasons. Santana was signed just last winter by the Phillies, and while he provided above-average (109 wRC+) production in 2018, he is already being shopped since Hoskins’ left field defense was so dismal that the team wants to re-install the young slugger at first base. In a recent examination of Santana’s trade market, MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes observed that the presence of other available first basemen (i.e. Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Smoak) or DH types (namely Nelson Cruz) in free agency or the trade market could make it hard for the Phillies to find a suitor for Santana.
If Santana’s contract can’t be moved entirely, perhaps the Phillies could try to deal the first baseman for another high-salaried player who is an imperfect fit on his current roster. Speculatively speaking, a player like Ian Desmond could be a match, since the Rockies need stability at first base and Desmond can be installed into Philadelphia’s outfield (plus, Desmond gives manager Gabe Kapler a multi-positional option). Desmond has been a negative-fWAR player over his two years in Colorado, so I’d expect any such scenario to involve multiple players to make things palatable for both sides. And that, of course, is but one of myriad scenarios the Philadelphia front office could entertain.
The Phillies have pieces to offer in just about any trade scenario one can imagine, and if everyone but Hoskins and Nola is available at the right price, it’s anyone’s guess as to who on the current MLB roster will make it to Opening Day. At this time last year, Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Altherr, and Nick Williams were all coming off strong 2017 performances and looked like possible long-term assets, yet all four took steps backwards last season and may no longer be part of Philadelphia’s future plans.
Of that quartet, Hernandez at least still produced solid OBP numbers, and likely still has the most trade value given how much interest he drew last offseason. Hernandez is projected for an $8.9MM arbitration salary in 2019 and is controlled through 2020, so the Phillies have to determine if they still like Hernandez at that value or feel they can do better. Trading Hernandez now would be something of a sell-low case, though he might still be more attractive than other second base options for teams needing there. The Phillies themselves would be in the market for a new second baseman if they dealt Hernandez, as while the position could eventually have Scott Kingery’s name on it, he didn’t do enough in his rookie season to prove himself worthy of an everyday job. A short-term veteran in the mold of a Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera could be pursued if the Phillies still see Kingery as the long-term answer at second base.
While many of the Phillies’ youngsters disappointed last year, it’s a little ironic that Maikel Franco is reportedly one of the likelier pieces to be traded when he’s the one who actually hit well (.270/.314/.467 in 465 PA, 22 homers, 106 OPS+, 105 wRC+) in 2018, rebounding after a couple of lackluster seasons. Assuming a Franco deal takes place, Kingery could also be an option at third base, though it seems likely that Phillies have a bigger target in mind for the left field of their infield.
Machado has been linked to Philadelphia for months, as the team is one of the few that can reasonably afford the record contract he is likely to receive in free agency, and the Phillies have such clear needs at both third base and shortstop. No team received less from its shortstops (-1.8 bWAR) than the Phillies in 2018, and with Kingery an imperfect defensive fit and top prospect J.P. Crawford yet to break out in limited MLB action, signing Machado would immediately turn the shortstop position from a minus to a big plus. Machado’s defensive prowess as a shortstop improved considerably after going from the Orioles to the Dodgers, so signing with another analytically-inclined team like the Phillies could allay concerns about his glovework.
If Machado prefers to remain at shortstop, the Phillies could retain Franco for third base, give Kingery a longer look, or perhaps acquire another third baseman (e.g. Josh Donaldson, Mike Moustakas). If Machado is indeed open to moving back to the hot corner, the Phils could address shortstop in the form of another proven star like Segura, or a multi-position player like Marwin Gonzalez would provide even more roster flexibility for Kapler.
Let’s move from Machado to Harper, who is also an easy fit for the Phillies, given their shaky outfield. Harper would immediately solidify right field, leaving the team to juggle Williams, Altherr (if is tendered a contract), and Roman Quinn in left field — that is, if the Phillies didn’t turn those players into bench depth by acquiring an established everyday left fielder. Harper will likely command an even larger contract than Machado, whose infamous “Johnny Hustle” comments and the accusations of dirty play directed towards him during the postseason did little to help his free-agent stock. Harper has also had his share of controversy in his young career, though his injury history is surely the bigger factor for any team considering giving him the largest contract of all time.
Signing more than one of the free agents who rejected a qualifying offer (Harper, Corbin, Kimbrel, Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, A.J. Pollock) would cost the Phillies multiple draft picks and significant chunks of their international signing bonus pool funds. It isn’t yet known if the Phillies would take such a player development hit for a second consecutive offseason, or if the team would prefer to spend its dollars on players who aren’t tied to compensation.
If Harper signs elsewhere, Michael Brantley, Andrew McCutchen, Marwin Gonzalez, David Peralta, or Wil Myers stand out as some of the higher-profile corner outfield options that could be signed or acquired in trades. The Tigers’ Nick Castellanos is an unlikelier choice for a Phillies team looking to upgrade its defense. The Phils ranked last among all teams in both Defensive Runs Saved (-146) and UZR/150 (-8.0) last season, and while moving Hoskins out of left field will by itself represent an improvement, the Phillies will be prioritizing better defense in 2019. To that end, Harper’s own defensive ratings were poor in 2018, though agent Scott Boras is aiming to chalk that up to residual effects from Harper’s leg injury late in the 2017 season.
Center field could also be a target area for this reason, as Herrera’s glove dropped off considerably (as per Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, as well as UZR/150 and DRS) and his offense declined for the third straight year. Kapler hinted that conditioning could have been an issue for Herrera, and the outfielder also saw more time in right field than in center over the latter weeks of the season.
While the Phillies acquired Wilson Ramos for the pennant race, another big splash at catcher is dependent on their long-term view of Jorge Alfaro. The 25-year-old’s contact skills and pitch-blocking are still a work in progress, making some kind of addition seem likely. The Phils could sign a veteran backstop to a one-year deal to split time with Alfaro and act as a mentor, but the catching market has a few alternatives if they prefer a higher-profile add.
As much as the Phillies have already looked into Corbin and other top free agent hurlers, the club is likely to limit itself to just one starting pitching addition, since it already has a pretty solid core group of Nola, Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin. As one might expect given the Phillies’ poor defense, the gap between the rotation’s collective ERA (4.12) and FIP (3.76) was the third-largest of any team in baseball, meaning the starters pitched better than their already-decent numbers indicated. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pivetta, Velasquez, or Eflin shifted into a long relief or swingman role to make room for another starter, particularly given Kapler’s penchant for going to his bullpen.
Trade possibilities also can’t be ruled out if the Phillies believe they fetch a good price for their younger arms, or if Arrieta ends up being the big salary moved to create more payroll space. Arrieta posted his lowest swinging-strike and K/9 totals in five years, his overall numbers dropped over the last two months of the season, and he generally continued to look more like the solid veteran workhorse he was in 2017 than his old ace form for the 2015 Cubs. I’d find it unlikely that Arrieta is dealt just because the Phils could use some stability and experience within what is still a pretty young rotation, and because even the 2018 version of Arrieta going forward still provides value, if maybe not quite at the $45MM remaining cost of his contract.
Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter have also had their names mentioned in trade rumblings less than a year after signing with the Phillies, as both have significant price tag owed to them in 2019. Keeping both in the fold wouldn’t be a bad result given that Neshek and Hunter both pitched well last season, and the Phillies could decide to mostly stand pat with their bullpen unless they believe an established closer is needed. Kimbrel, David Robertson (who could favor teams in the Northeast), and Zach Britton could meet this need in free agency, and it’s worth mentioning that Philadelphia had interest in Britton prior to the trade deadline.
After all of these words about the big moves the Phillies could make, let’s also issue some words of caution. Since Middleton has gone on record about the team’s planned expenditures, I don’t dare suggest that the Phillies won’t be major players this offseason. However, Middleton also added this note in his remarks to USA Today: “as Andy [MacPhail, Phillies president] likes to tell me, ’John, we are playing baseball after 2019, so, you can’t spend every last dime after this year.’ You got to have something in the tank for future years.” The Phils will certainly make at least a couple of big and expensive acquisitions, though they don’t need to go overboard to be a better team next season. A lot of improvement could come from within, if Alfaro and/or Kingery break out, or if Herrera or Hernandez bounce back, or (perhaps chiefly) if the Phillies simply improve their defense from league-worst status.
A big part of the team’s winter business will be centered around Klentak deciding what he exactly has in his current roster pieces, and beginning the process of shipping out players the organiation doesn’t view as contributors to the next winning Phillies team. As last offseason’s surprising Santana contract indicates, Klentak isn’t afraid of going outside the box to make a move he feels will improve his roster. The Phillies could be the most fascinating team of any to watch this winter, as their moves are likely to be a league-wide influence on the entire offseason’s direction.