By Sam Bush
The Phillies, like the rest of MLB and virtually every other organized sports team in the world, are on hold because of the coronavirus.
And there’s no telling when they will play again, although June seems to be the consensus.
The Phillies spent more than $100 million for a third consecutive winter — including a second straight offseason with a nine-figure contract — as they look to end a playoff drought that now spans close to a decade.
- Zack Wheeler, RHP: Five years, $118M (above)
- Didi Gregorius, SS: One year, $14M
- Tommy Hunter, RHP: One year, $850K
- Total spend: $132.85M
- Declined $8MM club option over LHP Jason Vargas (paid $2M buyout)
- Declined $7MM club option over RHP Pat Neshek (paid $750K buyout)
- Declined $3MM club option over RHP Jared Hughes (paid $250K buyout)
Trades and Claims
- Acquired OF Kyle Garlick from Dodgers in exchange for minor league LHP Tyler Gilbert
- Acquired minor league LHP Cristopher Sanchez from Rays in exchange for minor league INF Curtis Mead
- Claimed OF Nick Martini from the Reds (later cleared outright waivers)
- Claimed RHP Trevor Kelley from the Red Sox (later cleared outright waivers)
- Claimed RHP Deolis Guerra from the Brewers
- Claimed RHP Reggie McClain from the Mariners
Notable Minor League Signings
- Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Francisco Liriano, Logan Forsythe, Anthony Swarzak, Bud Norris, Blake Parker, Ronald Torreyes, T.J. Rivera, Mikie Mahtook, Matt Szczur, Phil Gosselin, Christian Bethancourt
- Cesar Hernandez (non-tendered), Maikel Franco (non-tendered), Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison, Drew Smyly, Juan Nicasio, Jason Vargas, Pat Neshek, Jared Hughes, Mike Morin
They kicked off the off-season by firing manager Gabe Kapler and replacing him with Joe Girardi, who was hired just two weeks after Kapler’s ousting was announced.
The 2019 Phillies were a middle-of-the-pack club in terms of runs scored and a decidedly below-average club in terms of their overall rate stats at the plate (91 wRC+ as a team). Phillies starting pitchers were middle-of-the-road in terms of total innings (13th) and ERA (17th). Fielding-independent metrics painted similarly underwhelming pictures. The bullpen looked like a strength heading into the year — until virtually every reliever on the Phillies’ roster went down with an injury. The patchwork collection of bullpen arms that Klentak and his staff put together on the fly was — you guessed it — right in the middle of the pack (16th in ERA, 14th in xFIP).
To the credit of Klentak and the Phillies, one of the goals last winter was to upgrade the defense — and they did, by leaps and bounds. No team improved more defensively in 2019, although that’s in large part because their ’18 glovework was astonishingly bad. The Phillies posted a stunning -118 Defensive Runs Saved in 2018 but remarkably ranked eighth in the Majors at +51 in 2019. Unfortunately, injuries, regression elsewhere and a lack of progress from some younger players counteracted much of that improvement. The 2019 Phillies finished out the year as an average team with the bat and on the mound, so the resulting 81-81 record probably shouldn’t have been a surprise.
With so much room for improvement with regard to the offense and the pitching staff, Klentak and company had a wide variety of avenues to pursue, but the GM made clear early in the winter that augmenting the rotation was his priority. Looking at pitching ahead of the offense indeed seemed prudent; a full season of Andrew McCutchen, a rebound from Rhys Hoskins after a second-half slump, and the addition a smaller-scale upgrade over Maikel Franco could reasonably be viewed as a path to an improved offense. The pitching side was far less clear.
Aaron Nola, of course, has cemented himself as a high-quality rotation cog, but the rest of the Phillies’ staff was less appealing. Jake Arrieta no longer looks the part of a $25MM arm and had surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow late in the year. Zach Eflin is a solid back-of-the-rotation option but lacks a lofty ceiling. Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta both took significant steps back in 2019. And the farm system lacks much in the way of quality, MLB-ready pitching (excepting, perhaps, top prospect Spencer Howard).
The question was just how aggressive the team should be in pursuing its preferred options. The Phillies spent $330MM on Bryce Harper a winter ago, showing they can spend as highly as anyone in the game, but they were never strongly connected to Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Rather, it was the market’s No. 3 arm, Zack Wheeler, who quickly emerged as a top entrant on the Phillies’ wishlist.
“One of the things we’ve got to try to do, if we can, is to not forfeit draft picks, and that’s hard when you’re fishing in the deep end of the free-agent pond,” Klentak said in an early November interview with the 94WIP Midday Show. That seemed to cast some doubt on whether the Phils would seriously pursue Wheeler or whether they’d instead look to Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel, or another veteran arm who hadn’t rejected a qualifying offer. However, less than a month later, the Phillies agreed to a five-year, $118MM deal with Wheeler.
The price shocked some onlookers, although the Phillies weren’t even the highest bidder. Multiple reports indicated that the White Sox offered more than $120MM over a five-year term, but Wheeler had a preference to remain on the east coast, spurning Chicago’s advances and perhaps dissuading the also-interested Twins from upping their initial five-year, $100MM offer. Wheeler is already a quality arm, but his blend of relative youth, velocity, strikeout prowess and elite spin rate give him the feel of a breakout candidate. The Phillies are surely hoping that there’s another gear for Wheeler; going from a team with -86 Defensive Runs Saved to one who posted +51 DRS also shouldn’t hurt his cause.
There’s an argument to be made that the Phillies should’ve pursued a second starting pitcher. The combination of Nola, Wheeler, Arrieta and Eflin has the makings of a solid top four, but both Pivetta and Velasquez have struggled in multiple rotation auditions. Ranger Suarez, Enyel De Los Santos, Cole Irvin and others loom as depth options, and the aforementioned Howard should open the season in Double-A (with an eventual MLB promotion in 2020 not out of the question entirely). But the Phillies are a team in dire “win-now” mode, having missed the postseason each year since 2011. Despite Klentak’s three-year extension from last winter, the GM had to field questions about his own job security this offseason, and the fact that he was overruled on Kapler’s future only puts further pressure on him to put a winner on the field.
Relying on internal options to round out the fifth spot again, then, is a particularly dicey proposition. The market featured plenty of solid veterans who took an annual value of $10MM or less — Michael Pineda, Kyle Gibson, Wade Miley, Rick Porcello among them — and several bounceback candidates with some degree of ceiling signed for under $10MM (e.g. Alex Wood, Drew Smyly, Kevin Gausman, Michael Wacha, Taijuan Walker). The Wheeler addition, however, proved to be Philadelphia’s only rotation pickup of the winter on either the Major League or minor league side.
From there, the front office set its sights on improving a lineup that has a number of solid pieces but still plenty of uncertainty. Odubel Herrera’s domestic violence suspension and poor performance at the plate led to him being outrighted off the 40-man roster, but he lacks the service time to reject the assignment while retaining the remainder of his contract. That leaves Herrera stuck in the organization, and leaves the Phillies with a fairly notable question mark in center field. Beyond that, Philadelphia’s decision to jettison both Franco and Cesar Hernandez via non-tender — the former due to continued ineffectiveness and the latter more due to his escalating arbitration price — left a pair of potential spots for upgrade in the infield.
The key piece for the Phillies in all of this was versatile youngster Scott Kingery, who has proven himself to be not just a capable defender at multiple positions but a legitimate asset at a number of spots on the diamond. His ability to move around left the Phillies able to explore the market for center fielders, third basemen, second basemen and shortstops alike. In the end, the decision was made to sign Didi Gregorius to a one-year deal, slide Jean Segura from shortstop to second base, and deploy Kingery as the primary third baseman. That sets up former first-round pick Adam Haseley as the primary center fielder, although he could be in a platoon of sorts with fleet-footed Roman Quinn. Alternatively, the Phils could play Kingery in center against lefties and go with a non-roster veteran like Josh Harrison or Neil Walker at third base on those days.
The Gregorius addition is a bet on a rebound for a player who looked to be emerging as a high-end shortstop before 2018 Tommy John surgery interrupted that trajectory. Gregorius was sensational for the ’18 Yankees, hitting .268/.335/.494 with quality glovework. A return to that level of play would be a boon for the Phils, and while defensive metrics show a fairly wide split in evaluating his glove at shortstop, the hope is that Gregorius will represent a further defensive upgrade over Segura.
As was the case with the pitching staff, though, it seems like the Phillies could’ve gone bigger. Gregorius is a perfectly sensible one-year gamble or even a potential bargain at $14MM, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that the plan in center field is to trot out a 24-year-old who hit .266/.324/.396 (88 wRC+) in his debut campaign last year. Haseley appears to be a capable defender, but he played in all of 18 games in Triple-A before his call to the Majors and has yet to prove he can hit big league pitching at an average rate. The free-agent market was pretty thin, but the Phillies could’ve also pursued any number of third-base options and installed Kingery in center field. Trades for veterans like Starling Marte or even Kris Bryant would’ve made sense on paper.
In the bullpen, the club opted not to make much of any additions at all. Tommy Hunter returns on a surprising big league deal but with a meager $850K salary. Some combination of Francisco Liriano, Anthony Swarzak, Bud Norris and Blake Parker could parlay a non-roster invite into a spot on the MLB roster, and waiver pickups like Reggie McClain and Deolis Guerra give the Phils some additional depth. However, the team is relying on a cast of characters that didn’t perform particularly well in 2019, hoping for numerous bounce-backs or returns to health. In the case of the talented Seranthony Dominguez, it appears they may already be out of luck on the injury front.
The Phillies’ lack of supplemental moves and their proximity to the $208MM luxury tax threshold makes it impossible not to wonder whether Klentak and his staff were instructed to keep the payroll south of that line. Owner John Middleton told reporters in February that he never expressly dictated as much to Klentak, but it’s hard to see a win-now club with a few obvious holes sitting narrowly under the line and not connect those dots. It’s quite likely that one or two names from the cavalcade of non-roster veterans will make the Phillies’ roster, perhaps pushing them right up against that barrier.
If there’s one pending piece of business for the Phils, it’s the status of one of their best all-around players: catcher J.T. Realmuto. The two sides have spent much of the spring at the negotiation table in hopes of hammering out a long-term deal that’ll keep the All-Star from the open market next winter, but talks have been put on hold for now. With Realmuto reportedly seeking to top Buster Posey’s $159MM guarantee — perhaps on a six-year pact — it could be tough for the two sides to come to mutually agreeable terms.
The Phillies should be a better team in 2020 than they were in 2019, but it feels like they pulled some punches this winter. Perhaps Haseley will solidify himself as a quality regular in center, and perhaps one of Pivetta or Velasquez will finally break out into the quality starter many have believed them to potentially be. It feels like this team could’ve used another addition or two, though, and that’s a tough spot to be in when considering the level of competition they’ll face.
The Nationals are fresh off a World Series win. The Braves, buoyed by one of MLB’s best young cores, have won consecutive division titles. The Mets have one of the game’s most talented collection of pitchers — even if several key names are seeking a bounceback season. Even the rebuilding Marlins added some veterans this winter and should be a tougher opponent than they were in 2019.
It should be another tight NL East race whenever we do get a season, and while the Phillies won’t be considered a favorite, there’s enough talent on the club to end their increasingly long postseason drought.