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Did the Phillies misread the starting pitching market?

On Episode 176 of The Felske Files, host John Stolnis wonders if the Phils were planning on making a trade that never materialized.

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New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies are planning on Nick Pivetta being a big part of the 2017 rotation.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Over the first few days of spring training in Clearwater, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler both have spoken glowingly about the 2018 Phillies, indicating a playoff run this season is no longer “a pipe dream.”

They’re not wrong. The recent PECOTA projections puts the Phillies at 78 wins this season, about 6 or 7 wins behind the teams they project to win the NL wild card spots. As Klentak and Kapler have noted in recent days, if a few players take a “step forward” this year, postseason baseball could be in the cards for the ‘18 Phils.

You’ve got to love that spirit, and it makes complete sense for both men to pump up this team publicly. It’s what you do at the beginning of spring training. And yes, there is a lot of talent on this roster, especially in the lineup and bullpen.

But as has been discussed ad naseum in this space and on the Felske Files podcast in recent weeks, the team needs another decent starting pitcher for them to realistically be contenders for a postseason birth. Aaron Nola is the only dependable starter at the moment, and while Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez have flashed the ability to be rotation solutions, both are huge question marks. Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter, Jr., Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and Thomas Eshelman all have the potential to be back-of-the-rotation starters, but are enigmas themselves.

So while Klentak told reporters on Thursday that he would be “open” to adding another starting pitcher, he stressed that they are going to “remain patient” and not do anything to damage the hard work of the rebuild.

“I wouldn’t say I expect to [sign a starter],” Klentak told reporters. “We’re very open to it and I’ve been on the phone a lot. If there’s something that makes sense, I know the owners will support it economically. It’s up to us to bring that to them if we see fit. And if we don’t, as I’ve said earlier, we’re very not only comfortable, but we’re excited about the group we have here.”

It’s plain to see they don’t want to give Jake Arrieta what he’s asking for in free agency (whatever that is). They’d almost certainly be willing to do a high annual average salary deal for three years, but they are desperate not to have a contract on the books that will be dead weight in 2021, 2022, 2023 and beyond. Klentak has said numerous times he wants this team to be playing October baseball for the next 10 years, not just one year.

And that makes sense. That’s a great vision to have. But please don’t punt on 2018 while you’re at it.

The Phillies signed Carlos Santana this off-season, an indication to me that they felt their window of opportunity had opened now. I believe they made that move thinking they could trade from their surplus of outfielders, possibly add Cesar Hernandez in a deal and move some of their B-level prospects and obtain a young, controllable starting pitcher.

In this way, they may have misread the market.

Teams don’t appear to be interested in Aaron Altherr or Nick Williams as one of the lead pieces to a deal. Hernandez, as good as he is, is not generating enough interest for the Phillies to get a pitcher for him. And teams seem to only want to talk to the Phillies about the untouchable Sixto Sanchez and Scott Kingery in exchange for a starter.

The Phils never wanted to be players in free agency because free agency, by its very nature, generally requires a team to sign players to deals that will ultimately be a drag on the club’s bottom line three or four years down the road.

No one wants to have a contract on the books that is dead weight, but in this way, the Phillies have an advantage that other teams do not. According to Cot’s Contracts, the team is projected to have the second-lowest payroll in baseball this season, at $84 million. That would leave them around $112 million under the $197 million luxury tax threshold.

It’s hard to see how any contract could really hurt them in any meaningful way given their future payroll obligations. Heck, even if they do sign Manny Machado and Bryce Harper to mega deals next year, it still shouldn’t be that big of a concern.

And while signing a player to a deal that he isn’t worth is largely bad for business, there is a bit of fear involved here. The team does not want to repeat the Ryan Howard contract, where for five years the team was sitting on virtually dead money. But here’s the deal. The Howard contract isn’t what killed the Phillies after 2011.

The team did not develop enough young talent to replace the aging stars as they faded. Howard’s contract did not prevent the team from signing free agents or trading for players with high salaries. And given their payroll flexibility, it really shouldn’t keep them from doing whatever they want three or four years from now, regardless of how bad the free agent contract might be.

Remember, Carlos Santana is only here for three years. Do we really not want to put the best team on the field we can in 2018, a season that is likely to be Santana’s best season with the team? At 32 years old, he’s probably not going to get better as he ages.

The Phillies understandably want to be patient, and no one wants the team to do something stupid. They’ve worked long and hard with this rebuild to blow things up now, and admittedly, a five-year deal for Arrieta doesn’t make sense for anyone. And despite public affirmations of the starters already in camp, numerous reports indicate the team is still keeping tabs on the starting pitching market.

It’s clear they never really wanted to be a part of the free agency mix here, and I don’t blame them. But there is also an opportunity here to be real players in the National League and, even though they didn’t plan on acquiring a starter in free agency, that appears to be their only way of improving a rotation that needs another arm.

The smart money says they will add someone else, and I think they can do it without upsetting the apple cart too much in future seasons.

On Episode 176 of The Felske Files, I spoke with the managing editor of The Good Phight Liz Roscher, who also writes for Yahoo! Sports and The Athletic about the Phils’ pursuit of pitching, and previewed some of the top storylines for the Phillies in Clearwater this spring.