Kevin Creagh of The Point of Pittsburgh was kind enough to give us the perspective of the Phillies from Pittsburgh. Our own Ethan Witte returned the favor with a take on the Pirates, which can be viewed on Kevin’s site here.
I wanted Philadelphia to do well this past season.
That may sound weird coming from someone that is a Pittsburgh sports fan. Pittsburgh is inherently taught to loathe everything Philly. It’s an inferiority complex that we have as a region. Even though during my 42 revolutions around the sun, Pittsburgh has won 11 championships across the four major sports (and we don’t even have an NBA team) compared to Philadelphia’s 4 championships.
But I respected what the Phillies had done since the scourge of analytics, Ruben Amaro, Jr., was mercifully put out to pasture. By hiring a young, analytically-inclined GM in Matt Klentak, it showed that a new day was rising. Klentak continued the rebuild that was started during the final days of Amaro’s tenure and was accruing assets.
I didn’t expect 2018 to be the season that the Phillies made a run at a wild card, let alone contend for the division title for large swathes of the season. For me, it seemed like 2019 was the more realistic timeline. But the previous offseason splurges of Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana signaled that the time was now. Or at least, getting ready to be now.
History doesn’t remember those that aren’t winners. If an MLB team doesn’t win the World Series, everyone else is just lumped in the same dustbin of history. So it may surprise you as a Phillies fan that the Pirates finished the 2018 season with a better record (82-79 versus 80-82). Again, in the grand scheme it doesn’t matter, but one team had a winning record while the other did not.
I’ve always posited that it’s ‘how’ a team got to its record that affects the perception of the team. If the Phillies weren’t 63-48 on August 5th after beating Miami, it would have been perhaps viewed as a good stepping stone that the team finished so close to .500. Rather, the 2018 season will be remembered in Philly as a monumental collapse.
So now what?
As a non-Phillie fan, I’ve long been envious of how well-positioned Philly is for this offseason, in particular, and the the future moving forward. Back in 2016, I looked at the Phillies amazing lack of payroll commitments and positional need to forecast that Bryce Harper would join Philadelphia as a free agent. If Philadelphia is willing to spend up to its World Series run payroll levels of $160-175M, the Phillies could conceivably afford both Harper and Manny Machado. Or Patrick Corbin in place of one of those two.
Consider that of the $114M that Cot’s Contracts shows for committed salary, arbitration estimates, and minimum scale players in 2019, nearly $17M comes off the books next year if the Phillies choose not to pick up Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek’s 2020 options. So the Phillies could do a slight back load to a Harper/Machado/Corbin deal and be no worse the wear in 2019.
The signing of Carlos Santana this past offseason was always a head scratcher, considering that his best defensive position is DH, but he was adequate for the Phillies. It did create a positional logjam by shunting Rhys Hoskins to LF, where he was pretty terrible defensively. If the Phillies could free up that $20M commitment, even if it means taking on a semi-bad contract in return, it will greatly help the defensive alignment.
The outfield defense was a special brand of terrible. Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, and Nick Williams were all well below the line, as per Ultimate Zone Rating. For outfielders with 400 or more plate appearances, Hoskins was 3rd worst (-18.1), Williams was 8th worst (-13.7) and Herrera 19th worst (-9.0).
Bryce Harper (-18.1, 2nd worst among OF’s) won’t help the defense, but the allure of adding another 30 HR-capable bat to the lineup at an age that fits in perfectly with the rest of your core may be too tempting to pass up. Philly could just completely stop worrying about defense and go with an all-offense/beer league softball lineup of:
That would be three 30-HR hitters (Hoskins, Machado, Harper) and two 20-HR hitters (Santana, Herrera), plus three other double digit guys (Alfaro, Hernandez, Williams). A lot of bobbles in the field would get papered over.
This would leave the fates of two young players twisting in the wind, though. Maikel Franco has somehow hung around Philly for a good period of time, without ever really being that great. Regardless of other potential moves, I’d non-tender Franco and his potential $5.75M salary to be re-allocated elsewhere. J.P. Crawford is the more interesting case. Crawford’s bat hasn’t translated to the Majors and his glove isn’t Andrelton Simmons-esque enough to overcome that. He’s still young, so the Phillies can stash him in AAA in 2019, but then need to figure out a course of action. His trade value is pretty minimal at this point, but if paired with another decent asset, he could return something usable.
On the starting pitching side of things, it’s pretty much Aaron Nola and a bunch of No. 4-level dudes. Jake Arrieta is rapidly decomposing, Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin are not difference makers, and Vince Velasquez at this point has probably shown that his future lies in the bullpen due to his inability to hold up to a starter’s workload. This is where Patrick Corbin comes in.
If the Phillies don’t go the beer league softball route with both Harper and Machado, substituting Corbin in for one of them would probably be the smarter play. It provides a legitimate 1-2 punch with Nola-Corbin, deepens the rest of the rotation, allows Jerad Eickhoff to be slowly worked back in, and puts Velasquez into a late-inning role in which he should thrive.
In addition to the loads of payroll space available, your farm still has a few shiny assets at its disposal. At The Point of Pittsburgh, we’ve made our bones with prospect valuation. Prospects, overwhelmingly, either fail completely or fail to meet expectations. To that end, if the right deal came along to add a win-now asset to this current Phillies window, I’d consider moving Sixto Sanchez and/or Adonis Medina in a deal. Pitchers are especially prone to breaking hearts. I know that Sanchez is a shiny bauble in the farm system, but he has yet to pitch more than 100 innings in a single season. Using our Stat Scout Line estimator, I put Sanchez as a 60. That’s a No. 3-level asset. I’d recommend selling high on the hype of a top-20 prospect if something appealing came along this offseason.
This offseason can potentially set the path for the next four seasons of a Phillies playoff team. Free agency is prone to overpaying for past performance, but with the types of players front-lining the crop this year, the allure is too great. The Phillies are lined up perfectly to make two giant splashes in the pool and help erase the bad vibes of 2018.
Kevin Creagh is the co-owner of The Point of Pittsburgh. The Point of Pittsburgh’s work has been utilized by The Washington Post, Fangraphs, and many SB Nation affiliate websites.