It’s been rumored the Diamondbacks are looking to rebuild.
Let’s begin by stating who the Phillies should not be trying to acquire from Arizona. That’ll help make things a little easier.
Bringing in Paul Goldschmidt?
Judging by the picture, you might think that the Phillies should be looking closely at getting Paul Goldschmidt. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. While Goldschmidt is a wonderfully consistent offensive player, something the 2018 version of the Phillies did not have, he is not the right fit for this team for a few reasons. First, the package to acquire him just isn’t as palatable as it should be. While Arizona, rumored to be staring down the barrel of a rebuild, are said to be at least “listening” to offers on their All-Star first baseman, the likely cost of getting him will probably not be as tasteful to Matt Klentak as it should be. Players entering their contract year, such as Goldschmidt, tend to be valued a little differently than players with team control remaining. They don’t command as high a return in prospects/players as those who can still help a team into the future. Goldschmidt is different though. He is going into his contract year, yes, but he is also a franchise icon whose departure might rankle a fanbase. When that’s taken into consideration, the team fielding offers might want a little extra in order to justify the move to those fans. Put all that with the fact that he is still producing at a high level and the package of players the Phillies would have to build might be too high.
There is also the fact that they’d be compounding the problem they had last year: bringing in an outside piece that pushes pieces already here into unfamiliar positions. While Rhys Hoskins has been saying all the right things about wanting to improve as an outfielder, there is little doubt he wants to return to first base. Bringing someone like Goldschmidt, as good as he is, blocks that spot for Hoskins, pushing him back to the outfield and not addressing the issue of the team’s poor defense at all.
We haven’t even mentioned Carlos Santana and what bringing in Goldschmidt would to him.
It’s a great idea, acquiring an All-Star and building an offense around him, but for right now, it’s not something this team should be very interested in. It might look good, but it still doesn’t address this team’s needs in a productive way.
So, who is that the Phillies should be looking at?
Look to the mound, friends. Look to the mound...
There are two pitchers of interest to the Phillies. One is pretty obvious - Robbie Ray. The other might cause you to furrow your brow in disagreement. Zack Greinke. Before we get to him, let’s look at Ray.
John Stolnis, on his wonderful podcast, mentioned both of these guys as potential targets for the Phillies this offseason as a way to upgrade the rotation. They are pretty different in their profiles, but bring something this team values. Ray is the hard throwing lefty with control issues coming off a pretty down year after being a high upside #2 in 2017. He also comes with a much lower price tag than Greinke (projected $6.1M in his second year of arbitration) and less team control (free agent in 2021). Greinke has become more of a pitcher lately, relying more on precision command within the zone than on pure velocity. He’s also incredibly expensive - $34+ million in 2019, $35+ million in 2020 and 2021. That’s a huge amount of money for any team to pay a pitcher, even Philadelphia. Are either of these guys worth it?
Here are two charts for these pitchers. First, we have Ray:
R. Ray 2016-18
Now look at Grienke:
Z. Grienke 2016-18
What can they tell us? Well, I see a few disturbing trends from Ray that would give me pause before I looked into acquiring him. His strikeouts are great, but the last three years he has been a starter for the Diamondbacks, his walk rate has gotten progressively worse. And not just by a little bit. We can look at the fact that he was probably never completely healthy all of this past season, but even accounting for that, a ~3% increase from 2017 to 2018 in walk rate gives pause. You could also look a bit deeper and see that his hard hit percentage has climbed each year as well, as well as balls that are pulled by batters.
What Ray represents is inconsistency. The last thing the Phillies need is to get a pitcher where they aren’t quite sure what they are getting from night to night. They have enough of them already.
Greinke, on the other hand, hasn’t really changed much in his time with Arizona. Most everything he has done has stayed the same for the past three seasons (he was injured for a bit in 2016). The two major differences seem to be that he’s somehow lowered his good walk rate to an elite one and he vacillates from being a contact oriented pitcher to a strikeout pitcher, then back again. If nothing else, you know what you are getting. Having that kind of consistency is something this team could use in spades.
However, there are two major obstacles here: age and contract.
He’s 35 years old
Usually when a pitcher begins to creep into his late 30’s, the decline in performance isn’t far behind. Especially when it comes to someone who has demonstrated the ability to throw 190-210 innings each year, the concern about when the wear and tear might catch up to him is very real. However, perhaps some pitchers might be better off at delaying the decline than others?
It’s something I thought about, so I ran a Play Index search where I looked for pitchers 35 and older who had posted seasons with an ERA+ of 100 or greater and made at least 25 starts since 2000. Granted, it is a crude test, something that doesn’t have any data analysis behind other than the question “Which pitchers fit this mold?”, but I came up with 92 names (you can look here, but you’ll need a subscription). One thing in common with many of the pitchers: control. Of the 92 names listed, only 18 pitcher seasons had a walk rate (BB%) higher than 8%. Greinke’s command and his mastery of the strike zone would seem to allay any fears that he’ll suddenly become an albatross contract for the Phillies. While $34 million isn’t exactly chump change, his ability and the precedent for pitchers like him make it seem that the likelihood of an age-related decline has longer odds than one might think. THAT BEING SAID...
He’s very expensive
Let’s not kid ourselves. Even with all the good ju-ju Greinke’s performace might inspire, spending roughly $34 million a year for the next three years on a pitcher that is 35 years old isn’t often something teams are scrambling to do. Spending $34 million on a 25 year old pitcher makes some general managers sweat. Even with the Phillies’ coffers bursting at the seams, they probably aren’t keen on using the money in this manner, especially when it comes to pitchers. Sure they have shown with the Jake Arrieta signing they will spend if it’s a smart deal, adding any kind of pitcher that is pitching at this level will cost any team a ton of money, adding $34 million to the payroll for one player, especially one that only plays every fifth day, is a tough pill to swallow.
Why it still makes sense to go get him
Perhaps the single biggest reason to go get Greinke is that they would be acquiring someone pitching at a near elite level and the cost to obtain his services shouldn’t be too expensive. Previously, I spoke about how acquiring Goldschmidt would probably cost the Phillies too much in terms of prospects due to his relatively cheap salary and his role as a franchise icon. Greinke, though, doesn’t fit either of those molds. Were the Phillies to look to acquire him, the cost in terms of players should be minimal. It certainly should not cost anywhere near what it cost to get Manny Machado last season, when the team reportedly dangled their second best pitching prospect in Adonis Medina. In fact, were the Phillies to offer to pay all of Greinke’s salary, Arizona should not be expecting a large prospect return due to the fact the Phillies are taking back someone projected to take a quarter of Arizona’s 2019 payroll. There would probably be some haggling over what the Phillies would actually want to pay, but again, as we have seen in plenty of deals before, the prospect cost would rise as the Phillies’ financial commitment goes down.
It is completely understandable why the team would not want to get Greinke. The reasons I stated before are justified. However, this is an opportunity for the team to flex their financial muscle a little bit. Using the payroll space they have, they can get someone as talented as Greinke to help the rotation on a shorter term commitment than what many of the free agents this offseason will be seeking. If they can find the right balance of money and prospects outlay, they can strike a deal that would improve this team immensely. It’s something to think about.