On Monday, the Phillies officially welcomed free agent starting pitcher Zack Wheeler into the fold as the team’s No. 2 starter, likely the biggest free agent the Phils will sign this off-season.
No doubt the rotation is better with Wheeler in it, and it’s clear the Phillies were never going to give Stephen Strasburg the seven-year, $245 million contract he received from the Washington Nationals, and Gerrit Cole is going to be a Yankee or an Angel and could eclipse eight years and $300 million. Unless John Middleton was prepared to go into heavy tax penalty territory, deals for those guys were never going to happen, either.
So here we are, with the third-best starting pitcher on the market locked up, but GM Matt Klentak’s work is far from over. He said this week the team is now focused on fixing the infield, although the team should probably add another lower-tier starting pitcher and another reliever or two, as well. With the departure of Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco, the Phils need at least one more impact player to round out an infield of Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery and Jean Segura, and the Winter Meetings are the perfect time to lay the groundwork and/or get it done.
However, there are some headwinds. The future of Alec Bohm, the team’s best position player prospect complicates things a bit. He only has 63 games played at AA in his young career, although he did excel in the Arizona Fall League back in October and should be ready for the big leagues at some point in 2020, assuming all goes well. There’s also the luxury tax, and with about $20 million left to play with, according to Klentak, there doesn’t seem to be enough money to get everything done without going over.
So what do they do? How do they fix the hole in the infield and, in so doing, stay under the luxury tax? Or do they just go over it? Here are a few possible scenarios for fixing the infield.
SIGN RENDON/DONALDSON & TRADE BOHM/HOSKINS
If the Phillies sign Rendon or Donaldson to play third base, it’s not going to be until late in the off-season, because doing so would certainly push them over the tax, and owner John Middleton has said he would be willing to go over that tax only for a player that would put them “over the top.” Well, at this stage of the off-season, neither Rendon nor Donaldson would put the Phils “over the top,” so signing one of them now seems like a longshot.
But, if they were to sign one of them this off-season, it would likely take at least a three year deal (for Donaldson) and potentially an eight-year deal (for Rendon). Locking up third base for that amount of time would essentially force the Phillies to trade Bohm for a starting pitcher, or move Bohm to first base and trade Rhys Hoskins. Perhaps they could use one of these players in a deal for a pitcher like Corey Kluber or Robbie Ray and strengthen two areas of need.
Despite what you may hear from some of the national writers, this is the unlikeliest scenario.
The Phillies are in on Didi Gregorius, but they appear to have some competition from the Cincinnati Reds. Gregorius would fit in nicely as a lefty-hitting shortstop who hits for power and plays very good defense. Adding an All-Star shortstop and outstanding team leader would provide production and off-the-field intangibles this team desperately needs, and would allow the Phils to put Kingery and Segura at 3B or 2B. It would also buy some time for Bohm, allowing the team to kick that can down the road a bit. Adding him at midseason would give Girardi a chance to let Kingery go back to his super utility role if/when Bohm is called up, or allow Klentak to explore trade options for Segura to make room.
However, adding him would cost the Phils about $14-16 million a season, probably over two or three seasons. If the Phils are about $20 million under the tax, that would only leave them $4-6 million with which to play for the rest of the off-season. Would that be enough to add another cheap starter and some bullpen help? It’s hard to see how, without a larger contract getting moved off the books.
Still, this seems like the most likely scenario.
TRADE FOR KRIS BRYANT
The Phillies, Nationals and Braves are all said to be in the hunt for Bryant, although whether the Phils have gone to the trouble of putting on the camouflage and breaking out the duck calls is unknown. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reports the Cubs will likely wait until Rendon and Donaldson sign, hoping that a team desperate for a third baseman who also missed out on one of the two sluggers will come calling.
Bryant bounced back from a subpar 2018 with an excellent ‘19 in which he hit .282/.383/.521 with 31 dingers, the second-highest total of his career. If the Phillies were to swing a deal for him, Chicago would likely want at least one of Bohm or starting pitcher Spencer Howard in return. It’s highly unlikely the team would deal Howard, but in a swap for Bryant, Bohm’s inclusion would make sense. If the Cubs want a young, controllable starter, there likely isn’t a match unless Howard is in the deal. Bohm would seem to be expendable if they got Bryant, as the Phils would likely try to sign him to an extension once his deal was up.
Complicating matters is Bryant’s pending free agency. An arbitrator is expected to rule at some point as to whether Chicago improperly manipulated Bryant’s service time, but until teams know whether they’ll get one or two years from the soon-to-be 28-year-old, it’s impossible to make a trade happen.
SIGN MULTIPLE STOPGAPS
If the Phils fail to do any of the things listed above, they could choose to get a bunch of lower-tier free agents or make trades for players to platoon at certain spots. One advantage to this is that it would also improve the bench, which was among the worst in baseball last year (.603 OPS from pinch-hitters was 4th-worst in MLB in 2019).
NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury noted the team could go after second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who hit .256/.304/.473, with 23 doubles and 23 homers in just 433 at-bats last year, worth 1.6 WAR. They could sign Eric Sogard, one of five players I identified as a good low-cost option. He was worth 2.6 WAR last season, hit .290/.353/.457 in just 396 at-bats and played all over the diamond and would give the Phils another super utility player in addition to Kingery. Names like Brock Holt, Starlin Castro and Travis Shaw have been floated.
This would be attacking the problem through quantity which, if the Phillies believe they’re going to get bounceback seasons from a number of their returning players, might be good enough to fill the void. It’s essentially Lee Thomas’ 1993 Phils plan.
Whatever the Phillies do, it’s clear there will be new faces in the infield in 2020.
On the latest episode of Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh, Liz Roscher and I talked about the Phillies’ infield plans, and also addressed some Hall of Fame announcements and looked back at the best pitchers of the decade through another four-round snake draft.
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