Few teams around the league have as acute a need in center field as the Phillies. Last season, Philadelphia got just a .230/.298/.363 showing at the position. That production was 24 points below the league average by measure of wRC+, the fourth-worst offense around the league.
The bulk of the at-bats were taken by Odúbel Herrera and Travis Jankowski, both of whom were outrighted off the 40-man roster after the season. Among the remaining options, Matt Vierling, Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley look to be the favorites for playing time.
That’s a suboptimal group for a win-now club, and they’re likely to pursue upgrades coming out of the lockout. In a reader mailbag, Matt Gelb of the Athletic wrote this week that the Phils do “not view any of the internal options in center field as viable everyday players in 2022.” It seems president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, general manager Sam Fuld and the rest of the front office are planning to look for a new regular.
Both Moniak and Haseley are former top ten picks, with Moniak going first overall back in 2016. There’s no question both players’ stocks have fallen over the years since, though. Moniak is coming off a .238/.299/.447 showing with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He’s still just 23 years old, but Baseball America wrote midseason that many evaluators now project the left-handed hitter “as a fourth or fifth outfielder” without any standout physical tools.
Haseley has a generally solid minor league track record, but he’s been a below-average hitter over his big league tenure. Across 355 plate appearances, he owns a .264/.322/.373 line with five home runs. The left-handed hitter has quality bat-to-ball skills, but he’s not walked a whole lot and has hit for virtually no power. He opened the 2021 season as the Phils’ center fielder but took a leave of absence after nine games. Assigned to Lehigh Valley upon returning to the team, he hit some uncharacteristic minor league struggles (.224/.282/.295 over 170 trips to the plate).
Each of Moniak or Haseley could remain on hand as depth, but Gelb suggests the Phils could be willing to trade either player coming out of the transactions freeze. As he notes, both players were selected under previous GM Matt Klentak, and the new regime may be more willing to part with the one-time top prospects. Their respective trade values have surely fallen from their peaks, but it’s likely there’d still be moderate interest around the league in each player were the Phils to make them available.
Regardless of whether Moniak and/or Haseley begin the year in Philadelphia, it seems evident the club will look outside the organization for help. Yet that desire is complicated by the barren free agent outlook at the position. Starling Marte was the only slam-dunk regular center fielder available in free agency this offseason. He’s already signed with the division-rival Mets; utilityman Chris Taylor re-upped with the Dodgers.
Kris Bryant has some center field experience, but it’d be a stretch to rely on him to man the position everyday. He’s better suited for third base and/or the corner outfield. Other than Bryant, the center field candidates still available are limited. Herrera’s probably not coming back. At age 38, Brett Gardner’s not an ideal fit for a regular centerfield role. Kevin Pillar, Danny Santana and Jarrod Dyson are all fourth/fifth outfield types themselves.
For the Phils to find a definitive upgrade, that probably requires turning to the trade market. Byron Buxton would have been a prime target, but he and the Twins agreed to a nine-figure extension. Who else might the Phils look into?
Controllable Stars With Questionable Trade Availability
There are a few big names who rival clubs have inquired about in recent months, but it’s not clear any of them will wind up on the move. The Diamondbacks won’t entirely rule out the possibility of trading Ketel Marte, but they’ve shown little inclination to do so. That’d take a massive haul, and Marte’s probably a better fit defensively at second base than he is in center.
The Orioles are willing to listen to offers on breakout star Cedric Mullins. Being amenable to offers is far different than actively trying to trade the player, though, and the O’s are under no pressure to make a deal. Mullins is controllable for another four seasons (barring changes to the service time structure). He’s not yet making much more than the league minimum salary, and the Orioles can’t rebuild forever. As with Marte, he may not be truly “untouchable,” but a serious offer for Mullins would require parting with plenty of young talent. That’s no easy move for any club, but it’d be especially difficult for the Phillies, whose farm system Baseball America slotted among the league’s bottom five in August.
The Pirates have gotten calls on Bryan Reynolds, another All-Star controllable through 2026. Reports in advance of the trade deadline suggested Pittsburgh was more apt to build around Reynolds than trade him, though. They rebuffed inquiries from multiple clubs this summer, and there’s little indication they’ve changed their tune about moving him over the intervening months.
Most Straightforward Trade Candidates
If those stars aren’t attainable, where could the Phillies look? The most obvious answer is to Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who’s due $14.5MM this year (including the buyout on a 2023 club option). Philadelphia has already been linked to the three-time Gold Glove winner this offseason. There’s no question he’d be an upgrade defensively, as he’s perhaps the game’s top gloveman in the outfield. Kiermaier’s bat tends to hover around league average, but that’d still be a marked improvement over the production Philly got in 2021. The concern with Kiermaier is one of durability; he’s only once exceeded 500 plate appearances in a season, with his all-out playing style taking a significant toll on his body over the years.
Kiermaier’s teammate, Manuel Margot, might also be available. He’s projected for a $5MM arbitration salary in his final year of club control. He’s a bit worse than Kiemaier on both sides of the ball, but he’s also more affordable and is a strong defensive option in his own right.
The A’s are generally expected to retool this winter. Oakland hasn’t traditionally been willing to undergo a complete teardown and rebuild, and the motivation for their anticipated roster shakeup this winter would be financial. At a projected $2.8MM salary, Ramón Laureano is less likely to wind up on the move than some of his higher-priced teammates. Teams figure to at least check in with the A’s about Laureano’s availability coming out of the lockout, but his status is complicated by a performance-enhancing drug suspension that’ll linger into the first month of next season.
There are a couple talented but underperforming options who might be worth a change-of-scenery attempt. Víctor Robles has been surpassed by Lane Thomas on the Nationals’ center field depth chart. It’s possible Washington makes him available, although pulling off a deal is made more difficult by the intra-divisional factor. The Rockies could trade Raimel Tapia. In the cases of both Robles and Tapia, though, there’s a chance neither player proves to be all that definitive an upgrade over the Phils’ in-house options.
If Philadelphia’s amenable to taking on money, a few additional possibilities arise. The Blue Jays’ Randal Grichuk is due a bit more than $20MM combined over the next two seasons. The Yankees’ Aaron Hicks, meanwhile, is signed through 2025 at around $10MM per year. Neither player would land that kind of contract were they free agents now, so Toronto or New York would have to offset salary in some fashion to incentivize Philadelphia to make that kind of move.
There’s also some chance the Dodgers are open to moving Cody Bellinger, who’s in line for a $17MM salary after avoiding arbitration. Los Angeles isn’t just going to give Bellinger away — they’d have non-tendered him were that the case — but it’s not out of the question they make him available on the heels of a dismal 2021 season. As with Robles and Tapia, each member of this group comes with their own performance and/or injury question marks though.
The Astros have reportedly poked around the market for an impact center fielder of late. They’ll face similar challenges pulling off a deal as the Phils or anyone else. But if Houston managed to acquire someone like Mullins or Reynolds? Then their incumbent group of promising yet not quite established center fielders (Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers and José Siri) might be available. Houston did trade Myles Straw at the deadline when he hadn’t been a traditional trade candidate, although they may not want to make a similar move unless they first pull in a controllable star from somewhere else.
The Angels saw top prospect Brandon Marsh make his big league debut in 2021. He struggled offensively, but he’s a highly-regarded defender who’s probably best suited in center. If Los Angeles brings Mike Trout back to play center, maybe they’d consider moving Marsh for the right offer, but it’s tough to see a swap that lines up between the two hopeful contenders.
The Twins aren’t trading Buxton, but could they be swayed on Max Kepler? He’s primarily a right fielder but he’s capable of holding his own in center. Kepler has taken a step back over the past two seasons after seeming to break out in 2019, but even his 2021 form would be a marked upgrade over what the Phils got last year. With young corner outfielders Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach also at the big league level, a Kepler trade can’t be completely ruled out. Yet it’d be a tough sell for a Twins’ front office that’s still hoping to contend in 2022.
There are different avenues for Dombrowski, Fuld and the front office to explore. But almost all of them come with some form of caveat or potential hold-up, making the need for center field help a complicated one for the Phillies (or other clubs in a similar position, for that matter) to address.