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Why adding a veteran bat makes a lot of sense

Indications are the Phillies could look to add a bat in free agency this year. That’s probably a good idea.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The focus of the Phillies rebuild has been on looking at as many young players as possible. The idea is to see as many of them as they can now, while the pressure isn’t on them to win. The Phillies also don’t have anyone with high price tags that must see playing time, and with just a couple weeks left in the season, we’ve already seen a lot from the young guys.

And what we’ve seen is that they need some help.

Maikel Franco took a step back this year. He’s hitting just .247/.299/.423 with 22 homers and an fWAR of only 1.0. Odubel Herrera’s All Star season has cratered, hitting .240/.308/.355 in the 2nd half, with a season-long fWAR of 2.6 that won’t come close to matching last year’s 4.0.

Cameron Rupp has 15 homers but has hit .213/.286/.378 in the 2nd half. Tommy Joseph is batting .244/.289/.484 with an impressive 18 HRs, but not much else. And Aaron Altherr has been downright lousy, hitting .201/.299/.313 in 164 PAs this season, worth 0.0 fWAR.

Clearly, the Phillies need better hitting if they want to win some more ballgames next year. And while no one should expect them to be playoff contenders in 2017, it would be smart for the Phils to focus on making the product on the field better next year and improving their win total.

The quest for .500 should be a reasonable goal. But it’s probably not going to happen if this current group comes back and is only supplemented by inexperienced youngsters Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and/or J.P. Crawford.

So that means the Phillies either have to be creative in a trade or hit the free agent market and target a middle-of-the-order bat. That is what manager Pete Mackanin said he wants this off-season, too (per The Philly Voice’s Ryan Lawrence).

"We just need some professional hitters in the middle (of the lineup)," Mackanin said Sunday in Washington, when the Phillies lost for the 10th time in the last 13 games. "We need at least a guy in the middle who is a go-to guy."

If the Phillies are going to go the free agency route, there are some intriguing names out there. As I mentioned last week, Jon Heyman reported Texas OF/SS Ian Desmond and/or Miami IF/OF Martin Prado could both be targets.

If the Phils decide they want to upgrade at first base, they could try to sign Edwin Encarnacion of the Toronto Blue Jays. He is 34 and is having a typically terrific power season. He has 39 HRs, 115 RBIs and a .269/.358/.549 slash line, with a wRC+ of 138 and an fWAR of 3.6. But my guess is the Phillies like Joseph enough to go into the 2017 season with him penciled in as the starter, and Encarnacion would be extraordinarily pricey.

Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes could opt out of his contract at the end of this season. He is an outstanding offensive player, batting .293/.363/.568 with 30 HRs and a wRC+ of 147. However, he said recently he planned to honor the length of his deal, which has another two years and $47.5 million on it.

Mark Trumbo, 31, plays both outfield and first base, although neither all that well. But he leads the American League with 41 dingers and has a .251/.314/.524 slash line. He’s a less-than-ideal option.

As Lawrence mentioned in his piece, I also believe Toronto’s Jose Bautista could be the most intriguing option. He also plays either outfield or first base. He is 36 and has had a down year by his standards, hitting .228/.351/.435 with only 17 homers and a wRC+ of 111. He also has a tendency to get hurt.

However, that all could play into the Phillies’ favor. Bautista did not sign with the Blue Jays earlier in the season, saying he wanted a five-year deal. At 36, he’s unlikely to get it. But if the Phils offered him a four-year deal, front-loaded, he could play the first couple years in the middle of the Phillies’ order, and then the team could trade him on the cheap or use him as a bench bat in the last couple years.

Encarnacion and Cespedes are more dynamic options, but Bautista may be more realistic.

Of course, if the Phillies sign a veteran free agent, no matter who it is, it will be taking a spot away from a young player. But at a certain point, you have to actually improve the product on the field, and even if you add one veteran, there will still be ways to get young guys on the field.

Herrera presumably will enter the season as the starting center fielder, but Altherr has hardly done enough to nail down the left or right field job. Quinn is an exciting young player, but he has yet to play a single inning of AAA ball. I do think Quinn is a candidate to skip AAA, but nothing is set in stone.

Nick Williams certainly needs more time in the minors. Dylan Cozens needs to be better against left-handers and prove he can rake away from Reading. And Tyler Goeddel appears destined for AAA next year, too.

Adding a veteran bat also helps take some of the pressure off the young hitters the Phillies currently have. Perhaps bringing Bautista aboard allows Franco to relax and be the hitter everyone thought he was going to be last year and in the spring. Perhaps that allows Rupp and Joseph to take a breath and not feel as if the world is on their shoulders.

And frankly, adding Bautista will probably help the Phils win some more games, which is also important in the rebuilding process.

Finally, don’t worry about the money. The Phils have the Comcast deal at their disposal and only $25 million on the books for next year right now. Even if Bautista is signed to a four-year deal and becomes quite bad by the end of the contract, the Phillies can easily eat any money by the time the outstanding free agent class of 2018 rolls around.

At some point, the Phils have to look past their young players and bring aboard players who can really play. Adding a veteran in free agency or through trades seems like the smart thing to do for 2017.

Yes, they’re rebuilding. But they can do that and improve a little bit at the same time.