As you’d expect, it appears the deep-pocketed, starter-needy Phillies will be among the teams in pursuit of Astros superstar right-hander Gerrit Cole when free agency begins. Phillies brass is set to map out offseason scenarios in which the team does and does not reel in Cole, Matt Gelb of The Athletic reports (subscription required).
If the Phillies do get Cole, this may go down as the second straight offseason in which they secured the game’s most expensive free agent. The club signed outfielder Bryce Harper for 13 years and $330MM last offseason. Both the term and money Harper received are all-time records for a free agent. While Cole won’t do that well this winter, the 29-year-old at least seems like a strong bet to surpass David Price for the richest contract a pitcher has ever landed. Boston inked Price to a seven-year, $217MM pact entering 2016.
Signing Cole would surely mean another significant payroll hike for the Phillies, who saw their opening-day outlay climb from $95MM-plus in 2018 to upward of $140.6MM this season. But the Phillies did put $170MM-plus rosters on the field earlier this decade (albeit before owner John Middleton took control in 2015), and as Gelb notes, throwing cash at their rotation may be their best hope of improving it to a noticeable extent. Philadelphia isn’t willing to trade any of its top prospects to upgrade its iffy rotation, per Gelb, which seems to make it all the more likely the club will sign at least one of free agency’s best starters.
Cole’s in a league of his own as far as the upcoming free-agent class is concerned, but Nationals righty and playoff hero Stephen Strasburg may be a Phillies target in his own right if he opts out of the remaining four years and $100MM left on his contract. Either Cole or Strasburg would give the Phillies a much-needed front-of-the-rotation presence to join Aaron Nola.
After Cole and Strasburg, the rest of the game’s soon-to-be free-agent starters don’t look nearly as promising, though Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jake Odorizzi all seem likely to rake in guarantees worth $50MM or more. Philly could conceivably sign any of them if it doesn’t end up with Cole or Strasburg. However, as Gelb points out, a Cole pursuit might complicate matters for the team if his stay on the open market drags out. Cole’s represented by Scott Boras, whose high-profile clients (including Harper last year and Phillies righty Jake Arrieta two offseasons ago) have sometimes taken several months to ink contracts. Considering Cole’s in line for an enormous payday, a team such as Philly may be less likely to toss a substantial amount of cash to one of the aforementioned second-tier starters if it’s waiting for an answer from the Houston ace.
Whether the Phillies pick up Cole or someone else, it’s clear their rotation is in dire need of help. Nola was their only starter who offered above-average production in 2019, a season that went down as the club’s eighth in a row without a playoff berth. Now, with new manager Joe Girardi in the fold, the Phillies are feeling even greater urgency to turn around their fortunes.
“Now that our team is where it is and we’ve added through free agency and through players coming through our system, we’ve reached a place where it is time to win,” general manager Matt Klentak said this week. “No questions asked: It is time to win right now.”
It’s arguable nothing would help the Phillies “win right now” more than signing Cole. But they’re sure to face plenty of competition if they make a serious run at the potential AL Cy Young winner.