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What if...the Phillies signed all the right free agents last offseason?

Hindsight is 2021, as the old saying goes.

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No one who watched the last season of Phillies baseball needs to be told that the 2020-21 offseason wasn’t exactly a smashing success.

The Phillies succesfully re-signed J.T. Realmuto, but Dave Dombrowski failed to make any moves that meaningfully improved the team. He filled all the holes — catcher, shortstop, starting rotation, bullpen — but other than Realmuto, none of the free agents he signed panned out as he hoped.

So what could Dombrowski have done differently?

Could he have spent more money? Phillies ownership has made it pretty clear that they will not go over the luxury tax threshold unless they are “one player away from winning a championship.

Could he have allocated his resources differently? He used a big chunk of his budget on one of the best players available (Realmuto) and then he had to use what was left to fill out the rest of the roster. Given his budgetary restrictions, the roster he had to work with, and the free agents available, that strategy made perfect sense.

Could he have signed better players? Yes. Yes he could have. And with 20/20 hindsight, we can say exactly who those players should have been:

Marcus Semien, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, Mark Melancon, Aaron Loup, and C.J. Cron.

Let me explain.


The goal

My goal is to estimate how good the Phillies could have been if they had signed all the “right” players last offseason. By the “right” players, I’m referring to players that the Phillies realistically might have signed and who ended up having excellent seasons.

I’m not going to get too deep into statistics or salaries, since we can’t say for sure what kind of numbers these players would have put up in Philadelphia or how much it would have cost for the Phillies to sign them.

All that really matters is that the six new free agents I chose signed for a combined $34.25 MM and put up a combined 17.1 fWAR. The seven players I dropped signed for a combined $35.5 MM and put up a combined -0.7 fWAR.

Before I go any further, I want to express that this is just a fun exercise — it’s not meant to be taken as serious analysis. With no free agent news to talk about and no updates on the horizon either, it felt like the perfect time to write about a completely made-up, hypothetical offseason instead.

The Phillies’ actual 2020-21 offseason signings

This list includes Vince Velasquez, who was not a free agent signing, but who earned $4 MM in 2021 that could have been better spent elsewhere. It does not include Ronald Torreyes and Travis Jankowski, who signed minor league deals for insignificant amounts of money.

  • J.T. Realmuto - 5 yr, $115.5 MM ($23.1 MM AAV)
  • Didi Gregorius - 2 yr, $28 MM ($14 MM AAV)
  • Archie Bradley - 1 yr, $6 MM
  • Brad Miller - 1 yr, $3.5 MM
  • Matt Moore - 1 yr, $3 MM
  • Vince Velasquez - 1 yr, $4 MM (not technically a free agent signing
  • Chase Anderson - 1 yr, $4 MM
  • Brandon Kintzler - 1 yr, $3 MM
  • Matt Joyce - 1 yr, $1.5 MM

In terms of luxury tax calculations, these players earned $62 MM in 2021. That means I have that much to spend to sign a catcher, a shortstop, at least two starting pitchers, two relievers, and two bench bats. Let’s get started.

Catcher

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The first one is easy. J.T. Realmuto had a 4.4 fWAR season and was well worth the $23 MM he earned in 2021. He stays.

Shortstop

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Shortstop is almost as easy a decision as catcher, albeit with the opposite outcome. If the Phillies could have a do-over, they surely would not have signed Didi Gregorius to a two-year, $28 MM deal.

The obvious choice would have been to sign Marcus Semien instead. In 2021, Gregorius was one of the worst players in the majors on both sides of the ball, while Semien finished third in AL MVP voting and earned himself a nine-figure deal with the Rangers.

We can’t presume Semien would have been as good had he signed with the Phillies. Perhaps the Blue Jays coaching staff helped him make certain adjustments that were instrumental to his success. He also would have had to play shortstop instead of second base, where his defense wouldn’t have been as strong. Nevertheless, the 2021 Phillies certainly would have been a much better team with Marcus Semien on the roster.

Starting pitching

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The Phillies spent a combined $11 MM on Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, and Vince Velasquez. How could they have better spent that money?

My first impulse was to say the Phillies should have signed Robbie Ray. He had a similar 2020 season to Chase Anderson, but unlike Anderson, he turned things around in 2021 and won the Cy Young.

However, Robbie Ray signed on November 7, well before the Phillies hired Dave Dombrowski as their new president of baseball operations. Therefore, I don’t think the Phillies ever had a chance to sign Ray.

The point of this exercise is not just to name all the free agents from last offseason who put up the most WAR in 2021, but rather to try to find the best team that the Phillies realistically could have put together.

For that reason, Robbie Ray is off the table. Similarly, I’m not going to suggest signing Adam Wainwright. Wainwright ended up being a steal on a one-year, $8 MM contract, but he was never not going to sign with the Cardinals.

With that in mind, I came up with a shortlist of starters the Phillies could have signed instead of Anderson/Moore/Velasquez. These pitchers all signed cheap, one-year deals and ended up having strong 2021 seasons.

  • Anthony DeSclafani
  • Alex Wood
  • Rich Hill
  • Tyler Anderson
  • Chris Flexen
  • Carlos Rodón

There’s a wide range of talent on this list. Rodón pitched like an ace last season and would have been a serious Cy Young contender had injuries not limited him to 24 starts. DeSclafani and Wood were both very solid no. 2/3 pitchers. Hill and Anderson were reliable back-end options. Flexen was a bit more of an enigma.

Ultimately, after a long process of elimination, I decided that the Phillies could have and should have signed Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani.

Rich Hill would have been a good signing, but at his age, I presume he wanted to sign with a guaranteed contender (he chose the Rays).

Tyler Anderson was a reliable innings eater in 2021 and he would have really helped the Phillies had that mid-season trade gone through. His 2021 season was exactly what the Phillies wanted out of Matt Moore or Chase Anderson: 31 starts, 167 innings, and a 4.53 ERA. He is perhaps the most realistic “what if” option, but this exercise is about dreaming, and while Anderson would have been nice, we can dream a little higher.

Chris Flexen fits a similar profile to Matt Moore, because he pitched overseas in 2020 and therefore was able to throw 116.2 innings, more than any MLB pitcher did that year. Unlike Moore, however, Flexen went on to have very successful 2021 season, pitching to a 3.61 ERA in 179.2 innings. However, while his 3.61 ERA and 3.89 FIP look good, some of his other advanced metrics aren’t so rosy – his DRA was 5.22 and his xFIP was 4.70. In a hitter-friendly park like CBP and with the Phillies defense behind him, his numbers might not have looked so good.

Carlos Rodón was a revelation in 2021 until a shoulder injury slowed him down. Despite his time on the IL, he was still able to put up 4.9 fWAR in 132.2 IP. Unfortunately, I don’t think Rodón was ever a possibility for the Phillies. Dave Dombrowski was looking for bounce back candidates when he signed Moore and Anderson, but I think Rodón was just too much of a risk heading into 2021. He missed almost all of 2019 and 2020 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Thus, that leaves us with Wood and DeSclafani.

Back in the winter of 2021, there were several similarities between Alex Wood and Chase Anderson. They signed within a few weeks of each other and for similar dollar amounts. Both had, at one point in their careers, been solid mid-rotation options, but both had struggled for the past couple of seasons. They weren’t perfect comparisons for one another (Wood came with much more upside, but also more injury risk), but they’re close enough that it’s fair to say the Phillies could have signed Wood instead of Anderson. Wood signed for $3 MM and ended up earning an extra $1.25 MM in incentives. He pitched to a 3.83 ERA in 26 starts and was worth 2.5 fWAR.

Anthony DeSclafani also fits the description that Dave Dombrowski was looking for last offseason: a proven back-end starter who was a candidate for a bounce back in 2021. He signed for $6 MM and put up a 3.17 ERA in 31 starts. He was worth 3 fWAR.

The Bullpen

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The Phillies spent $9 MM on two free agent relievers last offseason: Archie Bradley and Brandon Kintzler. Kintzler was undeniably a bad signing, and while Bradley wasn’t awful, the Phillies would have been better off had they spent his $6 MM elsewhere.

One of the biggest blunders the Phillies made last offseason was when they let Tony Watson walk away instead of picking up his $3 MM major-league option. Watson ended up with a 3.92 ERA in 57.1 IP. However, there was another left-handed veteran reliever who would’ve been an even better signing than Watson – Aaron Loup. Loup was one of the best relievers in baseball last season (0.95 ERA in 56.2 IP), and he was paid just $3.25 MM for his services.

With Archie Bradley, the Phillies were looking for a reliever who would count as a notable acquisition without breaking the bank. Not a closer, necessarily, but a reliable back-end reliever whose name carried some weight. In hindsight, the best choice to fill that role would have been Mark Melancon (2.23 ERA in 64.2 IP), who signed for $3 MM — half of what Archie Bradley was paid.

Bench Bats

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Brad Miller and Matt Joyce were signed for a combined $5 MM to be the two main offensive options off the bench.

Matt Joyce was pretty dreadful all year. He dealt with some bad injury issues and played poorly even when he did manage to take the field. The much smarter signing would have been C.J. Cron. Like Joyce, Cron signed a minor league deal. He ended up earning $1 MM in 2021, while Joyce earned $1.5 MM. Cron ended up hitting .281/.375/.530 with 28 home runs, while Joyce hit .091/.261/.218 with 2 home runs.

Brad Miller was certainly worth the $3.5 MM contract the Phillies gave him. I looked into similar free agents from last offseason who signed similar deals, and I’m happy to stick with Miller. Perhaps the Phillies would have been slightly better off with Hunter Renfroe, who signed with the Red Sox for a similar amount of money, but it hardly would have made a difference. Renfroe was worth 1.8 fWAR in 572 PA, while Miller was worth 1 fWAR in 377 PA.

The end result

There is a realistic alternate 2020-21 offseason in which the Phillies signed Marcus Semien, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, Mark Melancon, Aaron Loup, and C.J. Cron.

Those players were worth a combined 17.1 fWAR in 2021. Their salaries added up to $34.25 MM against the luxury tax.

Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Vince Velasquez, Didi Gregorius, Matt Joyce, Brandon Kintzler, and Archie Bradley were worth a combined -0.7 fWAR for the Phillies. Their salaries added up to $35.5 M against the luxury tax.

Thus, it’s possible that Dave Dombrowski could have constructed a 90+ win Phillies team with the exact same budget and the exact same strategy — just by picking better players. It doesn’t have to stop there, either.

If the Phillies were playing at a 90+ win pace by the trade deadline, who knows how aggressive they might have been? Perhaps Dombrowski gets the green light to go over the luxury tax threshold and the Phillies go after Max Scherzer instead of Kyle Gibson. All of a sudden we’re looking at a serious World Series contender.

And now that I’ve uttered those words, I think it’s time to stop dreaming.

The 2021 Phillies weren’t World Series contenders. They finished 82-80 and missed the postseason for the tenth straight year. What can they do this offseason to change that?

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