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There are just two weeks left until Opening Day and, now with Jake Arrieta in the fold, the Phillies off-season finally feels finished.
Barring the extremely unlikely event the team adds starting pitcher Alex Cobb or relief pitcher Greg Holland (neither of which they should do, by the way), the team’s off-season free agent signings both filled needs and improved the overall talent level of the club, all without sacrificing payroll and roster flexibility over the next few seasons.
For the first time since before the 2012 season, the Phils didn’t trade for players or add free agents on one-year, place-holder deals. There was no Jeremy Hellickson or Charlie Morton trade. The team did not go after Chad Billingsley. They could very easily have gone that route, signing Chris Tillman or, heck, even bringing back Hellickson for a third season, but instead, the team decided that they needed to do something more, something better.
This off-season, the team spent $169.2 million on free agents, second only to the Chicago Cubs. That was more than the other four teams in the NL East ($116.245 million) combined!
But spending money for the sake of spending money doesn’t mean you’ve had a good off-season. So, how do we grade Matt Klentak’s winter? Clearly, it was good, but how good? Let’s take a look at the four signings and what they mean to the 2018 Phillies and beyond.
The addition of Arrieta to the roster was a huge move, both on the field and symbolically. (It means even more upon learning of the injury to Jerad Eickhoff, out 6-8 weeks with a lat strain.) As Arrieta’s agent Scott Boras noted at Arrieta’s welcome news conference, “I don’t think there’s a wait here. There’s talent in here that needs experiential refinement, attitude and confidence. When you bring in players like Jake, you probably put the cream in the coffee when it’s ready to drink.’’
That means the league knows the Phils are serious about returning to contention, and sets them up nicely for next winter’s free agent class. But Arrieta’s arrival to the Phillies also makes this team significantly better on the field, right now. It takes some of the pressure off ace Aaron Nola, and hopefully will help him be even better in 2018 as well.
That Klentak and Co. waited Arrieta out, knowing they were essentially bidding against themselves, makes the three-year, $75 million contract he signed an outstanding deal. It was creative, paying him $30 million in his first season, $25 million for the second and $20 million for the third. It also gives the Phils flexibility, allowing them to void Arrieta’s opt-out after the second year if they choose to extend him another two seasons, which could push the deal to five years.
As Jayson Stark noted in this week’s “Hittin’ Season,” that contingency was part of the compromise reached by both sides, a nod to Arrieta’s desire for a long-term deal. It’s unlikely the Phillies exercise that option, but if they do, Arrieta’s long-term destination is set. And if he is traded moving forward, he receives an extra $1 million.
Baseball’s financial system is broken, there’s no doubt, but the Phils can only act in the world in which they live, and this contract, in this environment, gave the team exactly what it wanted. They got a stud pitcher on a short-term deal for a lot of money. The front office deserves all the kudos in the world for this deal, and their persistence in bringing home an elite talent that was desperately needed.
Santana’s three-year, $60 million deal surprised everyone a couple months ago. After all, it was assumed the Phils would go into 2018 with Rhys Hoskins at first, but instead, when Santana’s asking price fell to three years earlier in the winter, Klentak jumped at the chance to add the high-on-base bat as a mentor and lineup stabilizer.
The switch-hitting Santana has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, and provides an upgrade at first base defensively. Because the signing pushed Hoskins to left field, it was assumed the team would use one of their surplus of outfielders to acquire a starter via trade. That deal never materialized.
However, the addition of Santana was one of the first signs that the team wanted to get significantly better in 2018, and was an acknowledgement that they believed they had “turned a corner.” Santana’s career .365 on-base percentage and ability to hit from both sides of the plate with pop while landing him on a three-year deal at $20 million a season was outstanding.
Pat Neshek & Tommy Hunter
When Klentak signed Hunter to a two-year, $18 million deal and Neshek to a two-year, $16 million contract, he shored up an area of the team that needed a couple quality veteran arms.
In today’s baseball world, building stable bullpens is key, and it was especially important given that, at the time, the Phils’ rotation consisted of Jerad Eickhoff starting the season as their No. 2 starter and Vince Velasquez as the No. 3, with a combination of rookies and second-year players vying for spots No. 4 & 5.
With Hunter and Neshek, the team added two established bullpen pieces to help with the late innings, which also takes some of the pressure off Hector Neris, Luis Garcia, Edubray Ramos and Adam Morgan.
So many of the moves this winter appear to be aimed at making sure the young players have models to follow and remove some of the burden of carrying the team off their shoulders.
I don’t want this to be a fanboy grade, because my job and the job of this website is to objectively look at what the team does and analyze it. I don’t do rosy scenarios and I don’t blindly praise the organization for every move they make.
But if you’re going to give Matt Klentak and the team a grade for this off-season, how do you give it anything other than an “A?” I mean, did the team spend a bit too much on the relievers? Maybe, but when you’ve got all this cash to burn and you know these are the guys you want, why not?
Even if Arrieta falls apart this season or next (which is highly unlikely), the team hasn’t hurt themselves for the future. These are all no-risk deals that the Phils can get out of anytime they want, which was important to the front office.
I’m not a homer, but there’s just no way you can say this team didn’t have an “A” off-season. There’s certainly a chance some, many or all of these moves don’t work out, but you can’t criticize the front office if they don’t. They did everything they can to put an improving product on the field in 2018, and they deserve kudos for a fantastic off-season.
On Episode 182 of “Hittin’ Season,” I talked with Jayson Stark, soon to be of The Athletic about the addition of Arrieta and what it means to this team moving forward.
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