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Why Adding a Veteran Bat Makes Little Sense for the Phillies

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Indications are the Phillies could look to add a bat in free agency. That's probably a bad idea.

He'll be a free agent after the 2018 season. Just saying.
He'll be a free agent after the 2018 season. Just saying.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

I write today to correct a mistake that appeared on this here site recently. Four days ago my esteemed colleague John Stolins took to these very electrons (well, not these, but some others that act nearly identically) and argued the Phillies should look to sign a hitter of the veteran free agent variety in this upcoming offseason. I can see the appeal. This team his bad at hitting baseballs, and with most of the team set to return, the likelihood that they  will substantially improve their hitting seems relatively small. Ergo, sign players who have a proven track record of being able to hit baseballs, or so goes the argument. There are a few reasons why this is probably not the best course of action.

This upcoming crop of free agents, unfortunately, is rather mediocre. There's some talent there, sure, but a lot of it is on the wrong end of the aging curve and all of it is going to come at a substantial cost. Restricting the list to offensive players who are putting up 3+ fWAR  this season leaves  Jonathan Lucroy, Edwin Encarnacion, Neil Walker, Justin Turner, Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Desmond, Martin Prado, and Dexter Fowler. Jose Bautista was also mentioned in John's post, though he misses the fWAR cut here as he's having a decidedly not good year in his age 36 season. Let's deal with them individually. Cespedes has indicated that he's not likely to opt out of his contract which pays him nearly $24 million each of the next two seasons, so it seems unlikely he'd be available. Everyone else on the list is probably going to be fielding offers this offseason.

Those are the available targets. Now you have to answer the strategic questions of whether bringing in one of those players makes sense for the Phillies at this particular moment in time. While each and every one of those players mentioned above is an upgrade from the player the Phillies are using in that position, that is necessarily true today and today only. The Phillies, however, don't care about upgrading today. They're in the midst of a season in which they'll be lucky to win 75 games. If they want to make the playoffs in 2017 they're going to have to improve by something like 15-20 games. Adding any of those names mentioned above doesn't do that today, and it doesn't do that next year. Worse, adding any of those names

Rebuilds take time, and they take patience. Ideally, from a efficient-use-of-resources standpoint, the team puts in place players they feel will be the core of their next successful team, waits until that core is just about ready to produce tangible results and then aggressively supplements those players with complementary ones that will push the team into the playoffs, if necessary and able. The Phillies certainly are able. They've got next to nothing committed to payroll, and they've got a deep, if middle-heavy, stable of minor league talent from which to deal. The problem here, however, is that this isn't the off-season to make these kinds of moves. The Phillies just don't look to be constructed to be competitive next season, and as wins 75-80 are meaningless, and worse, actually cost the team in terms of draft status and bonus money, there's no real reason to sign an expensive bat on the downside of his career for a team that doesn't look like it's going to be in the playoff race for another couple years. That's wasteful and counterproductive.

There are two teams the Phillies are most closely emulating in this rebuild, the Astros and the Cubs. In 2014 the Astros lost 90 games. In 2015 the Astros won 86 games snuck into the playoffs and ended up losing to the eventual World Champion Royals in the AL Division series. They did this because the team they cultivated improved, not because of any huge free agent signings. Their biggest moves in the winter of 2014-15 were signing Colby Rasmus to a 1-year $8 million dollar contract and Chad Qualls to a 3-year $18.5 million deal. That's it. Rasmus and Qualls weren't responsible for a 16 game turnaround, it was the young core of the team—Springer, Correa, Altuve, and Arretia—that came together to produce success.

The Cubs are a similar story. In 2014 the Cubs won 73 games. In 2015 they won 97. The lone big-name free agent acquisition in the winter of '14-15 was the signing of Jon Lester for 6/$155. The funny thing about that signing is, well, Lester had relatively little to do with that improvement. Lester performed fairly well in 2015, as he was worth 3.1 rWAR, but because of timing and run support and the viscissitudes of baseball he finished the season with a 11-12 record, but more importantly, the Cubs were barely over .500 on days he started (17-15). Again, like the Astros, the Cubs improved substantially because the talent that was already in the organization started to produce. Schwarber and Bryant were called up and hit immediately. Addison Russell replaced Darwin Barney. Jorge Soler became an everyday player.

The Cubs, like the Astros, were successful because they rebuilt by stocking their farm system and waited for those players to produce, not because they signed baseball mercenaries at market prices. That is the blueprint for rebuilding, and neither involved expensive half-measures, meant to help creep the team toward a middling record in the short term. This is primarily why the Phillies ought not make it a priority to sign "a bat" for the sake of placating a restless fan base. One more year of statistical immiseration won't kill the franchise; better to keep their powder dry for when the true gems of free agency become available.

I will add a clarifying caveat; I am not necessarily advocating a quiescent winter. Klentac & Co may well make some trades, sign a player or two, or do whatever they feel is necessary to improve the team and get the franchise to the point where the Cubs and Astros were. Those teams made trades for guys like Evan Gattis, Miguel Montero, and Dexter Fowler all in the run-up to their success, and the Astros signed marginal pieces around the edges. If the Phillies trade from depth to get a foundational piece, so be it. If that also means a hole is opened up which could be best filled by one of the aforementioned free agents, sure, bring them into the fold.

The argument I'm making is simply this: It makes little sense to sign one of the better free agents in the hopes that they'll make this team appreciably better in the near term. Doing so would not only cost unnecessary money and likely a draft pick, but it would also come at the expense of playing time that would otherwise be given to players who might well be part of the future core of this team. If a signing is required due to vacancies opened by other moves, sure that makes sense, but setting out to some veteran hitter simply because one was disappointed with the inept offense this season is not prudent. Patience is virtuous here; stick to the plan.