The Phillies still have options. Somehow, in mid-January, there remain at least three high-quality starting pitcher free agents unsigned, and additional trade candidates yet to find a new home. It isn’t as if the Phils have run out of time.
And yet, in the wake of the Houston Astros (finally) trading for Pirates starter Gerrit Cole - surrendering a package of four players that included starting pitcher Joe Musgrove and infielder Colin Moran - the ticking of the second hand has gotten louder. It does seem as if, finally, we could be on the cusp of a transaction waterfall. After two-and-a-half months of stagnation and molasses-slow movement, Cole’s movement could finally be the indicator that players will be finding new homes en masse.
Long rumored to be on the block, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft took a half step back in 2016 and 2017 after finishing fourth in Cy Young Award voting in 2015. Although he was a personal favorite of mine based on his pure, capital-s Stuff, the Phillies never really seemed to be involved in his pursuit, despite their need for another reliable arm in the rotation.
And that demand persists as the supply now begins to dwindle. Teams around the league, finally, may end their self-imposed stalemate with the free agent pool, and the likes of Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish and Lance Lynn may find teams to pitch for. The Cole trade, for its part, may give a clearer picture of the Chris Archer market. The Blue Jays, probably not good enough to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox this season, may part with Josh Donaldson and/or Marcus Stroman. There are a number of things yet to be determined.
All of which is to say: There are now enough parameters in place for the Phillies to make the move they need to make and acquire a starting pitcher. The exact move is a matter of organizational preference at this point.
Those of you who’ve played fantasy sports and drafted a team understand the concept of a “run.” The draft reaches a certain point in the middle rounds, and someone makes a foray into the closer pool, triggering a succession of similar picks as the following owners make sure to get theirs before the well dries up. The closer the calendar gets to mid-February (and, by extension, late March), the greater the probability we see a run on the starting pitcher stocks. It’s kind of a matter of temporal mechanics at this point.
The Phillies aren’t alone in needing a starter, either, and it isn’t as if you can write off teams that are already better off from making an upgrade; the Astros are proof positive after adding to a rotation that already featured Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers.
But the Phillies do still hold an advantage in one significant area: Payroll. With more than $100M between them and the luxury tax threshold, the Phils have room for days to fit a new purchase anywhere on the order from something as affordable as Archer’s remaining money all the way up to a free agent contract in the $20M AAV neighborhood. And they can do all of that without jeopardizing their status as a player for the big ticket items next offseason, to boot.
That’s multiplied by the Phillies’ current power over the Yankees - yes, those Yankees - as the Bombers seem dependent upon moving Jacoby Ellsbury’s money before making another significant play.
“...with teams throughout baseball determined to limit the length of long-term contracts, and the righthander coming off that poor World Series performance, the Yankees seem to think it’s possible they could get him for five years, $80-90 million.
At that price it would be hard to argue with the move, as Darvish, at age 31, has such elite stuff that he ought to be able to pitch at a high level into his mid-30s.
But even at $16-18 million a year, the cost would put the Yankees over the luxury-tax threshold, and as Cashman said on the radio, barring a change of mind by ownership, they’re not going there.”
Now, it’s unlikely Darvish can be had at the price John Harper mentions above. At $16M AAV, bad World Series or not, every team in baseball would be in on Darvish, especially in light of his lack of QO attaché. But while the Yankees remain hamstrung by the tax cap, the Phillies have no such confinements. They can offer more than the Yankees currently can, in theory, and that’s an advantage that won’t last forever.
Darvish is just one example, of course. The various other free agents and trade targets - including those we haven’t even considered yet, because those are out there - all have varying asterisks and concerns and draft pick considerations and on and on. The overarching theme connecting it all is that the Phillies could use each of these pitchers, they know roughly what each would cost, and they have a half-step lead on some of their most formidable competition in the space.
The clubs and players alike have proven their patience. No move, at this point, could be construed as hasty after so much time spent playing the waiting game. The time for the Phillies to take their next step toward improvement has arrived, and I eagerly await the fall of Matt Klentak’s hammer.