This week, team president Dave Dombrowski is at the annual GM Meetings in Carlsbad, CA where, even though he isn’t technically a “general manager” anymore (where art thou, Sam Fuld?), he’ll quarterback the Phillies’ plans to get better ahead of a “Playoffs-or-Bust” 2022 season.
There is no shortage of items on the Phillies’ to-do list this winter.
- Leadoff hitter
- Center fielder
- Left fielder
- Middle-of-the-order bat
- Late-inning reliever(s)
- Back-up catcher
- Starting pitching depth
- Shortstop/Third base?
It’s difficult to see how Dombrowski fixes all those problems in one off-season, especially from outside the organization. Nevertheless, he is endeavoring to do just that and, in answering questions from beat reporters yesterday, indicated how he plans to end MLB’s second-longest playoff drought.
Here are five big takeaways from Dombrowski’s comments to reporters.
The Luxury Tax is a Cap Until it Isn’t
No matter what happens in the Collective Bargaining Agreement discussions (and they don’t sound good at the moment), it’s doubtful the luxury tax is going anywhere. Of course, the penalties for going over the tax may change, but there will likely still be a tax moving forward.
As all Phillies fans know, John Middleton has never gone over the tax, despite claims by front office officials that they have never been told the tax is a hard cap. Dombrowski was asked about his off-season budget and, without giving a number, said “I don’t find it restrictive.” (quote via NBC Sports’ Jim Salisbury)
That’s not the first time we’ve heard a Phils executive talk about payroll in those terms and, in a well-run organization with a solid farm system, a payroll over $200 million shouldn’t be restrictive. However, the Phillies finished 82-80 last season with a payroll of $205 million and yet gigantic holes remain. Based on Spotrac’s numbers, the Phils are about $43 million under the tax as the off-season begins, and it doesn’t sound like Middleton has given the green light to go over the number.
No one should believe it will happen until it actually does.
The Phillies are Getting a Closer
One thing that seemed clear is Dombrowski wants someone for the 9th inning.
“If I had to say one thing [I’d want], I’d probably say I’d like to have somebody that can close a game for us, and count on it,” Dombrowski said. (quote via Salisbury)
One of the biggest names available in trade is Craig Kimbrel, whose $16 million salary was picked up by the White Sox this week in an effort to trade him. Kimbrel was outstanding in the closer’s role for the Cubs this year (0.49 ERA) but he struggled as a set-up man after being traded to the Sox (5.09). Kimbrel will be 34 in 2022 and the Phils will have to rumble with other teams if they want to land him in a trade.
In terms of free agents, Raisel Iglesias is the best closer available, with MLB Trade Rumors predicting a four year, $56 million ($14 million AAV) contract for him. He turns 32 in January. Long-time Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, 34, is the second-best free agent option, with an expected MLBTR deal of two years at $26 million ($13 million AAV), although his peripherals suggest a continuing decline. After that, the next best free agents are set-up relievers Corey Knebel, Mark Melancon and Hector Neris, all of whom have closing experience but are in no way sure things in that role.
It sounds like Dombrowski wants a sure thing, and it’ll come at a cost of around $13-16 million a season.
Bryson Stott, Opening Day Shortstop?
The possibility always existed that the Phillies’ No. 1 position player prospect would be on the big league roster at some point in 2022. Now, it sounds like Dombrowski is open to and, dare I say, pushing the idea that Bryson Stott could be the team’s Opening Day shortstop next year.
Dave Dombrowski told Bryson Stott to come to spring training "with the mindset of trying to win a spot with the big-league club."— Matt Breen (@matt_breen) November 10, 2021
Phillies will give Stott a chance to start '22 in MLB & that could impact how they approach the free-agent shortstop market. https://t.co/cALgM7enOj
Stott had an outstanding ‘21 season across three levels. In 22 games at High-A Jersey Shore he put up an OPS of 1.001, followed by 80 games at AA Reading with an OPS of .848 and a late-season callup to AAA Lehigh Valley where he had an .833 OPS in 10 games there. That’s a season slash line of .299/.390/.486 (.876 OPS) with 26 doubles and 16 HRs in 112 games and a 108/65 K/BB ratio.
He’s followed that up with a stellar performance in the Arizona Fall League where, in 19 games, it hitting .299/.446/.403 with five doubles and a triple and was named to the AFL’s All-Star team this week.
The 14th overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft is clearly a player on the rise and the Phillies desperately need to supplement a very good core of veteran stars with homegrown talent. Stott has also been getting work as a second baseman and third baseman this fall, so his emergence doesn’t necessarily preclude the Phillies from pursuing one of the mega-bucks free agent shortstops (Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story or Javier Baez).
But given the team’s other needs, are they really going to spend $30-35 million on a single player this off-season?
There’s also the matter of Didi Gregorius. He’s owed $15.25 million this season and was one of the worst players in baseball last year (-0.9 bWAR, .639 OPS in 103 games). If Stott isn’t quite ready by Opening Day, it’s possible the Phils light a candle and hope Gregorius rounds into form while Stott finishes his development.
At the end of the day, the Phils have only so much money to spend and having an in-house option like Stott to play shortstop would give Dombrowski the financial flexibility to fix their other lineup issues in other ways.
The Big Bat Is Probably a Left Fielder
Dombrowski has said they know they need another bat in the lineup and it appears they’ll look at the free agent outfield market to do that. When asked about his priorities for the off-season, he began with...
“We have to have somebody to play left field...” (quote via Salisbury)
As expected, the Phillies declined their team option on Andrew McCutchen last week and will most likely dive into free agency for their next left fielder. Kris Bryant, 30, would be my first choice, given his ability to play multiple positions (55 games at third base, 48 in left field, 39 in right field, 19 in center field, and 12 at first base in ‘21) and the fact the Giants could not give him a qualifying offer because he was traded mid-season. MLBTR predicts a six-year, $160 million deal for Bryce Harper’s best friend ($26.7 million AAV), taking him through his age-35 season. That’s a lot of years, to be sure.
There are other potentials. Nick Castellanos posted the 3rd-highest wRC+ (140) among all free agents but has played mostly right field in his career and is a pretty bad one at that. Likewise, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler are both great power hitters and defensive liabilities, while the multi-talented Chris Taylor can play lots of different spots, including left field, but isn’t quite the impact offensive player Bryant is (114 wRC+ the last three seasons). Also, Taylor was given a qualifying offer, so the Phillies would have to give up a second round pick if they sign him. Japanese import Seiya Suzuki is intriguing, but Japanese players never sign with the Phillies, and Suzuki is primarily a right fielder, too.
In the end, Bryant makes the most sense, although a $26-27 million price tag, coupled with a top-flight reliever, will eat up most of the $46 million under the luxury tax. Schwarber, who could be reunited with his former Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long, would be the better option fiscally-speaking.
The Next Center Fielder Likely Isn’t an Internal Candidate
When Dombrowski was asked what the Phillies need, he did say “left fielder” first but the next item out of his mouth was...
“We have to have somebody to play center field. Those [left and center field] are complete necessities.” (quote via Salisbury)
If the Phillies want to kill two birds with one stone and grab a center fielder who can also bat leadoff, Bryant could be that guy. He can hack it in center fielde and his career .376 OBP would more than do the job. However, the best option is Starling Marte.
Like Bryant, Marte was traded mid-season and not eligible to receive a qualifying offer, meaning there will be no draft pick compensation tied to signing him. In 120 games this year he batted .310/.383/.458 with 27 doubles, 12 home runs and a league-best 47 stolen bases. He was only caught stealing five times. Marte, who just turned 33, is a couple years older than Bryant but would be a bit cheaper. MLBTR has his contract pegged at four years and $80 million ($20 million AAV).
That $6-7 million difference between Marte and Bryant could allow Dombrowski to sign a couple decent big league relief pitchers, starting pitching depth, and/or important bench pieces to fill out the roster.
What seems clear is that Dombrowski does not appear ready to turn center field in an in-house platoon with some combination of Matt Vierling, Roman Quinn, Scott Kingery, Adam Haseley and Mickey Moniak. Consider that a worst-case scenario for the ‘22 season.
It’s going to be a busy off-season, and it all starts now.