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Should the Phillies go big now in free agency?

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The team is still a year or two away from contending for the playoffs, but given the plethora of big stars on the free agent market, is this the off-season to go big in free agency?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Even the wildest of optimists would agree that the Phillies are not going to compete for a playoff spot in 2016. Under the rosiest of scenarios, if all things go right, and if the baseball angels spread their pixie dust on the fields of Clearwater, Florida, it's likely next year's Phils team can only top out at 80 wins or something like that.

They ain't hosting a parade next year.

No, 2017 is seen as the very earliest the team might be ready to contend for a playoff spot, and even that may be overly optimistic. But for planning purposes, that's the goal.

While the minor league system has gotten a lot better and there are some potential stars in the minors now, most of them are position players. The team doesn't have a starter that could be a potential ace in the pipeline, ready to make their big league debuts in 2016 or 2017.

And in the outfield, the Phils have intriguing young talents in Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams, but are they star players?

Which brings us to the free agent class of 2016, which is loaded with talent, both in the outfield and at starting pitching. Among the top-tier starters who will be available this off-season are Johnny Cueto (30 years old), Zack Greinke (32), David Price (30), and Jordan Zimmermann (30). Some second-tier guys include Jeff Samardzija (31), Mike Leake (28), John Lackey (37), Scott Kazmir (32), Hisashi Iwakuma (35), Jaime Garcia (29), and Doug Fister (32).

Only Cueto, Greinke, Price and Zimmermann would be counted as true "aces," and all of them are going to cost a lot of money.

Now look, when I say a lot of money, I'm not talking Cliff Lee money. I'm not talking Cole Hamels money. I'm talking 7-8 years and more than $200 million. That's a hefty commitment to starters with perhaps three to four good years left in their 30+ arms.

Among free agent outfielders, there are two options which could be particularly interesting to the Phillies, specifically because of their age. Jason Heyward, just 26 years old, and Justin Upton, 28, are very unusual in that they are on the good side of 30 when they hit free agency. Yoenis Cespedes is 30 and has likely out-priced what the Phils would be willing to pay, and 32-year-old Alex Gordon and 30-year-old Dexter Fowler are both on the other side of 30 as well. However, all should still have at least three good years left in them, if not more.

Would any of them make any sense? Would Heyward provide enough power to warrant his price tag? Is Upton too streaky? Is Cespedes capable of replicating his insane run with the Mets? Is Gordon getting too old and can Fowler carry over his excellent second half into next year and beyond?

At the press conference that introduced Andy MacPhail as the team's next president a couple months ago, Phils owner John Middleton indicated that now might not be the right time for the team to go all-in on the free agent market. However, is that just a smoke screen?

OK, so yes, signing a big free agent this off-season may not make much logical sense, given that the Phillies are far more likely to lose more games than they're going to win next year, even with a true ace at the top of the rotation. But if the goal is to compete in 2017, that would be the second year of any free agent's contract. Would it behoove the Phils to go all-in this off-season and bring in a big-name starter, or a Heyward or Upton, seeing as how that talent is available now?

Because here's the thing. There won't be this kind of talent after the 2016 season, heading into 2017. The best starting pitcher on the market in '17 is Stephen Strasburg, who will be just 28 years old. And barring a complete and total collapse over the next year by him, he could get more than Max Scherzer got last year, and more than any of the free agents who will sign this off-season will get.

In addition to Strasburg, there is Andrew Cashner (30), Edinson Volquez (33) and a slew of back-of-the-rotation starters who would clearly not be decision-makers.

In other words, the market is flooded this off-season and it's a barren wasteland next off-season. And if the goal is to compete in 2017, then this is the off-season in which the team needs to spend some money.

And they have the financial resources to do it. According to Cot's Contracts, the Phils have a payroll of $63.8 million for 2016 right now. After that, Howard's $35 million comes off the books ($25 million salary and $10 million buyout), Carlos Ruiz' $8.5 million is gone, and the Phils will shed themselves of Cliff Lee's final $12.5 million as well.

Not only that, the Comcast deal kicks in this winter, meaning the team should have no problem spending what they need to in order for the team to compete. And Middleton noted at the MacPhail introductory press conference that the team will not be hemmed in by an artificial payroll ceiling in order to put a team together.

Of course, the Phils should not sign players just for the sake of signing them. But if the team believes one of the premier starting pitching free agents available can lead their young rotation, and/or one of the young outfielders available is an upgrade for the next few years, then they shouldn't hesitate simply because of the perception they'd be buying a year early.

Sometimes, opportunity drives the decision. And if the Phillies are going to have to add some pieces to the team via free agency, there may be no better off-season than the one coming up in just a couple months.

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