On Episode 221 of “Hittin’ Season,” host John Stolnis runs down the three moves he would make if he were general manager of the Phillies this winter (there’s a plan A and plan B, kids). Also, Phillies beat writer Scott Lauber joins the show to talk about the Phils’ payroll situation, whether the Phillies prefer Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, and more on the struggles of Scott Kingery this season. And John’s five favorite and least favorite things about the 2018 Phillies season.
Adding players during the free agency period is not easy. It is not as simple as going into the “Really Good Player” section at your local Target and taking a Bryce Harper or Manny Machado off the shelf.
Free agency is a two-way street. The team has to pony up the dough and the player has to want to actually play there. Trades require even more negotiation, and most trades require both sides to give up something of value in order to get something of value.
Knowing that, we’ve entered prime speculation time. What should the Phillies do? Who should they get? Who should they trade for?
The team doesn’t have an unending stream of cash, and team officials have said in recent weeks that they are not pulling money out of a bottomless wallet.
With that in mind, here are the three things I would do if I were Matt Klentak (assuming the team signs one of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado). And because I’m assuming one of them gets signed, I have a Plan B (Bryce Plan) and a Plan M (Manny Plan).
Step One (Plan B): Sign Bryce Harper & Marwin Gonzalez
The Phils have two positions of offensive need, the left side of the infield and corner outfield. Signing Harper to a mega contract would be Step 1A of this plan, solidifying right field while allowing the Phils to move Nick Williams to left field and figure out whether to keep Odubel Herrera in center, with Roman Quinn as the back-up, or to trade Herrera and give the job to Quinn (a risky proposition given Quinn’s inability to stay on the field).
If the Phils sign Harper, they need to find someone for third base/shortstop, and the best option in free agency is Houston’s do-everything Gonzalez.
After a .907 OPS, 23 homer, 34 double season for the Astros in 2017, those numbers dropped to a .733 OPS, 16 HRs, and 23 doubles, seeing his fWAR fall from 4.3 to 2.5. However, he plays all over the field, a skill manager Gabe Kapler covets. He’s played 167 career games at first base, 94 at second, 78 at third, 269 at shortstop (the most of any spot), 147 in left field, and a handful at center and right.
Signing Gonzalez would give the Phils the flexibility to pursue Nolan Arenado or Anthony Rendon for third base if and when they become free agents after the 2019 season, as they could simply put Gonzalez someplace else if they chose to. And Gonzalez can be an impact player with the bat.
Step One (Plan M): Sign Manny Machado & Michael Brantley
This could prove to be the slightly more expensive of the two options, as Brantley has a market value (according to Spotrac) of about $19 million whereas Gonzlez’ is around $17.9 million. But it’s not that huge a difference.
Brantley is the type of hitter that would slot in perfectly as the team’s No. 3 man in the lineup. He hit .309/.364/.468 last season with 17 homers and 12 steals and posted a 3.5 fWAR in 631 plate appearances. He’s not a great defender in left field, but he’s far better than Rhys Hoskins was out there.
It is fair to note Brantley has been oft-injured the last few years. He played in just 11 games in 2016 for Cleveland and 90 last year before suiting up for 143 games this year, his most since 2014. He just turned 31.
Under this scenario, the Phils lock up shortstop with Machado and left field with Brantley, once again allowing them to use some combination of Williams, Herrera and Quinn in the other two outfield spots.
Step Two: Trade For Madison Bumgarner
Are the San Francisco Giants going to enter rebuild mode this off-season? It’s unknown, especially as the team searches for a new general manager. But perhaps a change at the top will trigger a change in philosophy, because they certainly should be rebuilding. The Giants went 73-89 last season and finished with a -96 run differential that was 4th-worst in the NL. They are miles behind Colorado and Los Angeles in the West, and should be looking to get rid of some of their veterans for young talent this off-season.
Outside of moving Buster Posey (which is highly unlikely to happen), Madison Bumgarner would bring back the biggest return for the Giants. He made 21 starts last year with a 3.26 ERA and a 3.99 FIP. His strikeout rate fell to 19.8% last year, down from his career 23.9% mark, and he also saw his walk rate increase from a career mark of 5.8% to 7.8% last season.
But it’s fair to wonder whether he would be motivated by playing for a potential postseason contender once again. Bumgarner would bring a ton of playoff experience to the Phils and, by having him join forces with Jake Arrieta, would give the Phillies the most explosive duo of hitting pitchers in the league, too (I’m half-kidding with this last part, but not really)!
Yes, he had a down year, but he just turned 29 years old, and his injuries over the past couple seasons have not been due to breakdowns, but to foolishness (getting hurt on an ATV is not smart, bro, and his broken hand last year occurred when he was hit by a line drive). He also doesn’t cost much in terms of dollars, slated to earn $12 million next season, and trading for him after a down season could lessen the return, although it might cost a prospect like Adonis Medina to get it done.
If the Phillies plan to really compete for the NL East next year, is this a sacrifice worth making? I think it is.
Step Three: Sign Bud Norris
If the Phillies make the moves I mentioned above, they likely wouldn’t have the cash to sign a true closer like Zach Britton or Craig Kimbrel. And it’s clear this team needs a relief pitcher who can truly get left-handers out.
Last season, Phils relievers allowed a .259/.338/.441 slash line against left-handed hitters, with a .335 wOBA allowed that was 3rd-worst in baseball. Tommy Hunter and his cutter was not the answer the team had hoped, and Adam Morgan and Austin Davis were not terribly effective either. Midseason acquisitions Aaron Loup and Luis Avilan were invisible.
The best mid-range option for the Phils on the free agent market is right-hander Bud Norris, who was miscast as the Cardinals closer last season. In 32.2 innings against left-handers, opponents hit just .180/.269/.289 against him, whereas right-handers hit .294/.372/.475 in 25.0 innings. Those are some crazy reverse-splits, and they carry over from 2017, when lefties hit .188/.322/.219 against him while right-handers batted .270/.322/.475.
If Norris is used correctly, as a right-handed specialist to get lefties, he would be a solid option for Klentak to pursue this winter. One other potential option would be left-hander Tony Sipp, who posted a 1.86 ERA in 38.2 innings, but in 2017 he had an ERA of 5.79 and in ‘16 it was 4.95. In 2015, his ERA was 1.99. He’s been all over the place.
Look, I get that it isn’t this easy, but the moves described above are the kind of off-season deals many people are expecting — sign either Machado or Harper, sign a second bat, get another starting pitcher and get an effective left-handed reliever.
These are just some helpful ideas. I like helping.