The Phillies, as currently constructed, are the third-best team in the National League, and there’s a fair amount of separation between them and whoever would be No. 4. They are one of the top six or seven teams in all of baseball, complete with a starting rotation consisting of five legitimate pitchers, a bullpen that is mostly complete, and a lineup that is one of the best in baseball.
And yet, the natives are restless.
We’ve all gotten used to the Phillies signing big-name sluggers to multi-year contracts with hundreds of millions of dollars, and the fact they did that again this off-season is lost on most of the fanbase, mostly because it was simply re-signing one of their own, Aaron Nola, back when most of the leaves on the trees were still green.
The man in charge of player personnel decisions, team president Dave Dombrowski, spent about 20 minutes on the WIP Morning Show Wednesday and admitted, yeah, it’s been a quiet off-season.
“I think overall that assessment is accurate. Quiet doesn’t mean inactive...But yeah, it’s been quiet. Our first real big goal was to get a starting pitcher with Aaron [Nola] becoming a free-agent.”
But that doesn’t mean Dombrowski has been holed up in a bunker with his phone turned off. The Phils have been active, if ultimately unsuccessful, in landing some of the players they’ve pursued this off-season.
Here are my five biggest takeaways from Dombrowski’s radio appearance.
The Phillies Were Aggressive in Acquiring Yamamoto
One of the players Dombrowski aggressively pursued was 25-year-old Japanese right-handed starting pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, admitting the team made a big push to sign him.
"I think people would be shocked if they found out how much money we put on the table for him...but he wanted to go to the Dodgers. That was just the way it was."— WIP Morning Show (@WIPMorningShow) February 7, 2024
— Dombrowski on Yoshinobu Yamamoto pic.twitter.com/bD8S8ImtRh
It seems pretty clear the Phils did all they could to convince him to eschew his boyhood Dodgers crush and the lure of playing with a fellow Japanese superstar in Shohei Ohtani. If you were him, wouldn’t you choose the Dodgers, too?
Dombrowski also noted the team pursued a couple of relievers and depth starters who took jobs where they were more likely to start (Jacob Junis or Jordan Hicks?) or were closer to home (Robert Stephenson?).
Johan Rojas Likely Starting
When the Phillies’ ouster of the NLCS was still fresh in everyone’s minds, the front office didn’t appear ready to hand a starting outfield job to Johan Rojas, who struggled mightily at the plate in October. However, over the intervening months it appears Rojas’ hold on the starting center field spot is growing more secure, as confirmed by Dombrowski.
Will Johan Rojas be a starter?— SPORTSRADIO 94WIP (@SportsRadioWIP) February 7, 2024
"Likely, yes. Definitively, no.
"I think he can do enough offensively...and when you add his speed in there and his defense, he becomes a real plus."
— Dave Dombrowski on the @WIPMorningShow pic.twitter.com/3LXp1a8Uus
Dombrowski discussed the decision to say goodbye to Rhys Hoskins, rather than move him to DH and play Schwarber in left field, noting Schwarber’s knees really prevent him from playing the outfield on a regular basis, and that the added value of Rojas’ defense in center with Marsh moving to left made them a better overall team.
It’s hard to argue with that strategy. Still, going with Rojas is a gamble. Adam Duvall or Tommy Pham likely make them a bit better in the moment, but one could argue the upside of Rojas is higher.
Prioritizing Young Players’ Playing Time
Dombrowski also made it clear that, in terms of the culture of the team, the Phillies want to give young players a chance to contribute at the big league level. That includes Rojas as well as reliever Orion Kerkering and No. 5 starter Cristopher Sanchez.
“In the outfield, what ends up happening is there’s some people if you try to sign them say, “We want to be your left fielder, we want to be your center fielder,’ Well right now, giving Rojas the opportunity, those are things we just can’t do. But yet, we look every single day and you just can’t tell what will end up happening.”
“I can’t tell you,” Dombrowski said, “that somebody doesn’t fall in your lap at some point and you say, ‘Gee that’s an opportunity you can’t turn down,’”
We’ve long called for the Phils to get better at developing home grown players to sustain the team and keep the window of contention open longer. They’ve done that successfully with Bryson Stott and Alec Bohm, and hope to continue in that direction with the talented Rojas, Kerkering and Sanchez at least at the start of the ‘24 season.
Andrew Painter Out For 2024
Dombrowski was also asked about the progress of the Phils’ No. 1 prospect and one of the best young right-handed pitching prospects in the sport as he recovers from last season’s Tommy John surgery.
“Painter’s rehab is going fine...He’s just tossing at this point, which is where he should be. I don’t really look for Andrew to pitch this year. I’m looking towards 2025. I guess you can always be surprised, but I don’t want to put that pressure on him.”
For some reason, this angered a number of fans who, for reasons passing understanding, expected Painter to be able to pitch this season.
Yes, the Phillies and Painter decided to wait three months to see if rest and rehab would fix an elbow that began hurting after his first spring training appearance. Had he gotten the surgery right away, it’s possible he could have appeared in minor league games at some point in 2024. However, the doctor, the player, the agent and the team thought it best not to rush the then-19-year-old into surgery, which is a totally defensible decision.
Rest and rehab didn’t work, delaying the surgery until late July, but once he got hurt, there was never a possibility Painter was going to pitch for the Phillies this season. It’s also important to remember this would have been Painter’s age-21 season, and he will just about be ready to turn 22 when spring training 2025 is set to begin.
This was not handled incompetently, and there’s no reason to be upset about the Painter timeline. They do not need him in the starting rotation this season. Exercising care and caution is the best approach.
No Word On Extensions
On an extension for Zack Wheeler, their ace right-hander who will be a free agent after the season if the two sides are not able to get something done before then.
"Well, we would love to sign Zack today if we could. I think it's important we re-sign him. I think he's one of the best pitchers in baseball...I know Wheels loves it in Philadelphia."— SPORTSRADIO 94WIP (@SportsRadioWIP) February 7, 2024
— Dombrowski on re-signing Zack Wheeler
Signing Wheeler to an extension is obviously a high priority, and as Matt Gelb noted in an article last month, the team actually needs to wait until the spring in order for the extension not to count against their 2024 luxury tax numbers.
The Phillies are still expected to engage Zack Wheeler on a potential contract extension this spring. (By waiting until the spring, a potential new contract would not have luxury tax ramifications in 2024.)
And what about reporter Bryce Harper would like another five years tacked onto the eight remaining years of his initial 13-year contract?
"He's in a situation where you can always desire or want—anybody can—anything that they like.— SPORTSRADIO 94WIP (@SportsRadioWIP) February 7, 2024
"One way I would just say it...we're thrilled that he's on board. We know that he's a Phillie for eight more years."
— Dombrowski on Harper reportedly wanting an extension pic.twitter.com/50jNJjsdzy
In other words, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Dave Dombrowski believes this team is already really good. He believes he has five really good starting pitchers. He believes he has six really good relief pitchers, and he believes his lineup is one of the best in baseball.
He is right in all counts.
And although he sounds open to the idea of locking someone in should the opportunity cost become too irresistible to pass up, he’s comfortable with breaking camp with the 2024 Phillies looking almost exactly like the squad that finished up 2023.