MLB free agency has been the talk of the entire sports world lately. It hasn’t been because of Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300 million deal or even Bryce Harper’s 13-year, $330 million deal, though. Instead, all anyone wants to talk about is The Great Collusion Scandal of 2021.
But before we get to Mike Trout’s impending mega-deal, there’s still two seasons of baseball to be played. And in between those two seasons is an entire free agency class that could impact the Phillies tremendously.
In order to accurately analyze the 2020 free agents, it’s important to consider what positions the Phillies will be looking to fill.
With Rhys Hoskins and Jean Segura, there will be no need for a first baseman or a short stop. The bullpen, barring any tragedies, likely won’t need too much attention. And assuming the Phillies are interested in signing Trout in 2021, it’s unlikely they’ll be looking to add another star outfielder in 2020.
With JT Realmuto signed for at least the next two seasons, the starting catching role isn’t in question. But the backup role will definitely need to be upgraded, as Andrew Knapp simply isn’t going to cut it. Long-time Oriole and former National Matt Wieters could fill that role, like he did for Washington in 2018. Wieters is currently in spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals on a minor league deal, and is looking to make their team as Yadier Molina’s backup for the season. After ten seasons in the big leagues, the former Gold Glover isn’t the player he used to be. But that’s okay, because the Phillies wouldn’t be asking him to do anything more than give Realmuto a day off every once in a while. Wieters is also a Scott Boras client, which could give the Phillies an advantage since Boras also represents Rhys Hoskins and Wieters’ former teammate Bryce Harper.
Other potential backup catcher options include: Russell Martin (over my dead body), Travis d’Arnaud (potentially, depending on how he recovers from Tommy John surgery), Brian McCann (probably not, he’s getting old), and Alex Avila (possibly, though he’s comparable to Knapp).
Second base is a toss-up since the Phillies currently possess two capable second basemen, though neither stand out when compared to their peers. Cesar Hernandez played the majority of the 2018 season on a broken foot and is currently sidelined with a strained hip flexor, but has proven he can be a valuable addition to the roster when healthy. Scott Kingery was a highly-touted prospect throughout his minor league career, but hasn’t been given much playing time at his natural position and struggled a lot during his rookie season. If either can prove reliability and durability, second base is theirs to lose. But if they both repeat their 2018 campaigns in 2019, the Phillies will want to look elsewhere to fill the role.
Unfortunately, the second baseman market isn’t very deep in 2020. Scooter Gennett is certainly in the picture for the Phillies, though he will probably be looking for more money than they will be willing to offer. Manny Machado’s former double-play partner, Jonathan Schoop, could also be the answer to the question at second base. He’ll come at a lower cost than Gennett, but may still be out of the desired price range if the Phillies choose to spend big in other areas. The dark horse in this race is Brock Holt. Holt bounced back admirably in 2018 after an underwhelming 2017 campaign and played over 100 games to help the Red Sox to their World Series title.
Third base is similar to second in that the Phillies could possibly already have their long-term solution. Twice. Maikel Franco has been hyped up for a very long time within the Phillies organization, and has silently but steadily proven himself as a capable option at the hot corner. He isn’t spectacular, though, and hasn’t been living up to all the hype that has surrounded him for so long. Waiting in the wings, however, is 2018 first round draft pick Alec Bohm. Bohm did not have a great 2018 with short-season affiliate Williamsport, but the 6’5, 255 lb. tank has all the right stuff to develop into a Major League stud in the future. It’s just going to take a few years for him to get there. If Franco isn’t the answer in the short-term for the Phillies, they’ll have to find someone else to bridge the gap to Bohm.
What’s interesting is that all four of the top-paid free agents at third base for the 2020 season (not including Jedd Gyorko, who has a team option) are members of the National League East. With Bohm hopefully on the horizon and the biggest chunk of the budget being focused elsewhere, the Phillies probably won’t be looking to spend the money necessary to poach a third baseman from any of their division rivals. Yangervis Solarte, Jung Ho Kang and Eduardo Nunez would all be better options for the Phillies, especially on a two- or three-year deal.
The most important part of the roster that will need the biggest upgrade and the most attention in 2020 will be the starting rotation. Aaron Nola is locked in through the 2023 season and Jake Arrieta has a player option in 2020 that he will likely take. But after them, the Phillies don’t have a clear number three starter or reliable four and five guys. The Bermuda Triangle of Inconsistency that includes Zach Eflin, Vince Velazquez and Nick Pivetta could break out in 2019 and help lead the Phillies to the post season for the first time since 2011. But it also could crumble into pieces and be the reason why the Phillies miss the playoffs once again, despite having the most productive offseason of any team in the league. There’s still time to sign a star starter like Dallas Keuchel right now, but even if the Phillies choose to spend more this offseason, they’ll need to do even more to upgrade going into 2020. Fortunately for them, the starting pitching pool will be extremely deep and they’ll have plenty to choose from.
Gerrit Cole, Matt Harvey, Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Zack Wheeler, Adam Wainwright… the list of available starting pitchers in 2020 is endless. Even if the Phillies don’t want to spend a lot of money on the big-name guys, they still have many options to choose from that would be an upgrade to the current back end of the rotation.
Stephen Strasburg and Yu Darvish both have options for 2020 but it’s unlikely either will choose to test the free agency market, especially as saturated as it already is with starting pitching.
Gerrit Cole and Chris Sale are the two starters who, depending on their 2019 campaigns, would be the best fit for the Phillies. Madison Bumgarner and Matt Harvey could also be huge additions, if they’re able to bounce back from ugly 2018 seasons.
The most interesting starting pitcher in the 2020 free agent class, and the one most Phillies fans will be paying close attention to, is Cole Hamels. The 2008 World Series MVP will be playing in his fourteenth season in the majors and Phillies fans know just how good he can be in Citizens Bank Park, especially in the post season. However, he isn’t the dominant star he once was, so a reunion with the organization that raised him wouldn’t put him in the same position he once filled. Rather than being the ace, Hamels would be the number three or four starter in the rotation. Depending on who else the Phillies sign, he could even drop to the number five spot.
When asked about his expiring contract, Hamels has already said he wants to continue to play after the 2019 season. He also said at last year’s trade deadline that he would love a reunion with the Phillies. As the only remaining member of the 2008 World Series team still in Major League Baseball, no other active player knows what it takes and how it feels to succeed at the highest level in the city of Philadelphia. And really, who better to mentor Aaron Nola than the last guy who was in his shoes? If Hamels can prove he still has what it takes to compete and succeed at the highest level, this could be a huge addition in the clubhouse as well as on the field.
While it’s fun to dream of what might be in 2020 and 2021, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot of baseball to be played between then and now, and more moves to be made.