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Rick Porcello, not Gerrit Cole, epitomizes the high cost of starting pitching this year

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The Phillies aren’t going to be able to get another starter.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Texas Rangers Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If the previous two off-seasons were like the tortoise slowly inching his way to the finish line, with free agents like Jake Arrieta, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel creeping along the racetrack longer than anyone expected, this off-season has been the hare, sprinting at light speed before everyone is down with their Christmas shopping.

Sure, the tortoise won, but that’s not really the point here.

Five of MLB.com’s 10 top free agents are already off the board, including the top four — Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Zack Wheeler — and the prices paid to those players were astronomical.

MLB Trade Rumors predicted Cole would get 8 years and $256 million. He got 9 years and $324 million. They predicted Strasburg would get 6 years and $180 million. He got 7 and $245 million. They predicted Wheeler would get 5 years and $100 million. He got an extra $18 million.

In other words, teams are opening up the wallet like they haven’t in years, and pitchers are raking it in. Wheeler’s $118 million seemed like a huge price tag when the deal was first announced, but in the wake of the Cole/Strasburg contracts, it almost seems quaint. All of these contracts indicate the price for starting pitching is sky high this off-season, and pitchers like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel are likely to do better than expectations as well.

But it is not the contracts to those pitchers that are truly eye-opening. The deal signed this off-season that was most surprising was the one-year, $10 million deal the Mets agreed to with Rick Porcello.

MLB Trade Rumors actually predicted an $11 million deal for Porcello, so in actuality, the New York deal actually came in a bit under their expectations. But regardless, it’s still a ton of money for a pitcher who hasn’t been very good the last three years.

Since Porcello won his controversial Cy Young Award in 2016, he has had ERAs of 4.65, 4.28 and 5.52, respectively. Sure he’s been durable, making 33, 33 and 32 starts each of the last three seasons, but among qualified pitchers in 2019, Porcello’s 5.52 ERA was the worst in baseball. His K/9 went down from 8.9 in 2018 to 7.4 last year, his H/9 went up from 8.3 to 10.2, without a correspondent jump in homers. Somehow, despite those numbers, the Mets paid $10 million for him, a No. 5 starter who is just as likely to get shelled on a given outing than turn in a quality start.

With Wheeler in the fold, the Phils’ current 2020 rotation looks like this: Aaron Nola, Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin, and then likely one of either Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta. Spencer Howard is close to big league ready, but he has yet to pitch with the same ball that Major Leaguers used last year, with no AAA time under his belt, so he’s certainly going to start the season in Lehigh Valley. Not only that, his season may be delayed in order to limit his innings after missing much of last season due to injury.

If the Phils are going to go with that rotation, they’re depending heavily on the change in pitching coaches to help Velasquez and/or Pivetta discover something Rick Kranitz and Chris Young couldn’t. Perhaps having Bryan Price in place, someone who can properly teach pitchers and utilize analytics with a manager who then doesn’t give conflicting information, will help too.

Here’s the good news: If the prospect of Velasquez/Pivetta in the rotation makes you nervous, there are still good options available on the free agent market. Ryu, Keuchel or Bumgarner would undoubtedly be an upgrade. Julio Teheran, Alex Wood or Wade Miley are among the lower tier of pitchers who would provide an upgrade as well.

Here’s the bad news: The Phillies appear determined to stay under the luxury tax, meaning they not only cannot afford Ryu, Keuchel or Bumgarner, they also likely can’t afford Teheran, Wood or Miley.

If Porcello just got $10 million, how much are Teheran, Wood or Miley going to get? It’s hard to imagine any of them making less than Porcello, and if they do, it certainly would be more than the $6 million the Phils have left to spend before hitting the tax.

That likely leaves general manager Matt Klentak looking at minor league deals for starters like Drew Smyly, Jason Vargas, or Gio Gonzalez. Maybe they roll the dice on a cheap contract to a pitcher like Danny Salazar, an All-Star in 2016 who has battled injuries the last few years and saw a drop in his velocity but is still just 29. They could see if Chad Bettis performs better out of Colorado, although his 6.08 ERA in 39 appearances last season was rough.

Obviously, none of those names are all that enticing. The Phillies would be much better with Ryu in the middle of the rotation than Velasquez, Pivetta or one of the other names above. All it would take is to go over the luxury tax in order to make it happen.

On Episode 344 of Hittin’ Season, I talked more about the price of pitching and where it leaves the Phillies, and recapped a crazy week at the Winter Meetings. Check it out!