Philadelphia Phillies in the MLB 2020 free agent market

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Super agent Scott Boras again finds himself in the middle of much of the big Hot Stove season action

 

Welcome to the latest episode of the ‘Ring the Bell‘ podcast. For those simply reading this piece at the website, it doubles as the script for today’s episode.

As I discussed in yesterday’s episode which evaluated the Phillies current roster and payroll situations, the ball club has a number of important needs. General manager Matt Klentak will find himself increasingly under the glare of the spotlight as this Hot Stove season moves along and he attempts to fill those needs.

First, let’s take a minute to run down the list of what I see as those Phillies needs this off-season, in order of importance:

  1. Starting pitching
  2. Starting pitching
  3. Center field
  4. Bench
  5. Bullpen
  6. Third base (?)

That was not a typo in listing ‘Starting Pitching’ twice. It is simply that important, first of all. And also, the club needs two new proven winning veteran starting pitchers, at least one of whom should be an “ace” level rotation arm. Now, let’s take a look at who is available on the free agent market.

STARTING PITCHING

There are two big names here, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. They should and will be the Phillies top two targets in free agency. Principal owner John Middleton has made the addition of top-level starting pitching a priority for the team, and is prepared to spend top dollar to secure such an arm.

The problem is not going to be one of either money or will power. The problem for the Phillies will be that they are not the only team in search of this level of pitching talent, not by a long shot.

The world champion and division rival Washington Nationals and their World Series opponents, the Houston Astros, are not simply going to let Strasburg and Cole respectively walk away from their ball clubs without a major effort to retain them.

Also, it is publicly known that the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels will be shopping aggressively for this type of arm as well. Speculation is that the San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, and Atlanta Braves are among any number of other teams with the desire and money to land one of these top two starting pitchers.

It’s hard to know what is going through Strasburg’s mind. There has been some speculation that opting out of his contract with the Nationals was purely a strategy to get more money from the only organization he has ever known.

The 31-year-old, 10-year veteran was due to make another $100 million over the next four years in Washington. Some have speculated that he could get another $50 million and another year, at least, on the open market.

While it would not be a surprise to see the Nationals and Strasburg announce a new deal at any point, that is far from a given. The longer he hangs out there on the market, the more clubs are going to his agent, Scott Boras, with interest.

Cole is also represented by the Boras Group. The 29-year-old is the biggest name on the free agent market this winter. I expect to see Boras take him on a tour of interested teams and cities, similar to what we saw happen last year with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Don’t expect to see Cole sign with anyone until February.

While the Phillies will be in the mix for both, their money and genuine interest making them legitimate contenders, they should not be considered the favorites for either pitcher. Cole, a native of Newport Beach, is said to be interested in either a return to SoCal or a spot at the top of the Yankees rotation. Strasburg, a San Diego native, may also go the SoCal route if he doesn’t return to D.C.

It is going to be curious to watch the Phillies pursuit of a top arm, because as I said, what the rotation really needs is two more experienced, proven, veteran starting pitchers.

The longer that Cole remains unsigned, and Strasburg as well for that matter, and the longer the Phillies genuinely believe that they are in the mix for one or the other, then it becomes a somewhat dangerous game.

There is a large group of talented starting pitchers just below the talent levels of Cole and Strasburg. Most if not all of those pitchers are going to sign somewhere earlier than at least Cole will be signing. The Phillies are going to have to commit to one of the next level of pitchers by Christmas, possibly even within the next few weeks.

The most obvious target would appear to be 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels. Turning 36 years of age two days after this coming Christmas, Hamels has already said that he would be open to a return to the club with whom he broke into the big-leagues and first became a star.

Judging by social media, Hamels remains popular with the fan base. And judging by his comments, the feeling is mutual.

MLB Phillies insider Todd Zolecki quoted Hamels earlier this week:

I know Philly is finally trying to make that push. They’re building their roster. If I fit on their roster and their plans, I’d love the opportunity to come back. It’s probably more on their end, though, to reach out and see if I actually do fit in their plans. It would be difficult for me to say, ‘Hey, I want to play there, can you guys make it happen?’ But I’m always willing to play for that team and city and attempt to win a World Series. That’s where I am right now. I just want to have the opportunity to get to the postseason, just so that I can try to win.

Hamels then went on to say, according to Zolecki, that he would even be willing to play on a one-year contract:

I’m not there to handcuff somebody or an organization…I can do one year here and there and just play as long as I can play. I think that’s what will help give me an opportunity to play on teams that are trying to go to the postseason. If you need one guy, I can just kind of bounce around. Obviously, if the Phillies were interested in longer than one, I’d entertain that, too. But I think I want the opportunity to have as many opportunities to get to the postseason and try to win. I’ll go every year. I’ll prove myself. I don’t mind having my back against the wall. I think I perform better like that anyway. It just keeps me more accountable.

This just seems to make too much sense. Hamels is clearly interested in a return to the Phillies. The fans would love to have him back. He has the talent and experience that the club is looking for, and he has something else going for him – Hamels is left-handed. The club has not had a truly effective southpaw in their rotation since, well, since Hamels left in 2015.

No longer in his prime, this could absolutely work on a one-year deal with a club option for another year or two. The Phillies, as long as all the medicals check out, should waste no time with this decision. Klentak should be on the phone with Hamels agent today.

If they just can’t work something out, or don’t want Hamels for some reason, there are other interesting arms.

Available free agent left-handers include 30-year-old, 4x NL All-Star and former World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner…32-year-old, 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel…33-year-old Korean native and 2019 NL All-Star Hyun-Jin Ryu…29-year-old, 2017 NL All-Star Alex Wood.

Available right-handers would include 29-year-old, former first round MLB Draft pick Zack Wheeler…31-year-old, 2016 AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello…30-year-old, 2019 AL All-Star Jake Odorizzi.

There are a few dozen other possibilities as well. But frankly, anyone other than the pitchers mentioned already would be a disappointing addition.

The Phillies would be wise to take Hamels up on this word, and wrap him up to fill the 3-4 slot in their starting rotation for 2020. Then they can concentrate all of their efforts into trying to land one of the really big fish.

CENTER FIELD

There are a lot of Phillies fans who seem to think that the club is okay here with either Scott Kingery or Adam Haseley. Frankly, if you truly want to be a contending team, I think that is just crazy talk.

Kingery has handled himself admirably out there for someone who is not a natural outfielder. Haseley deserves much credit for rising from Double-A to a regular big-league role last season.

But neither is the answer for a contending Phillies ball club.

Kingery needs to be handed his natural second base position and allowed to play it every single day, barring some situational need or emergency. Haseley would be well served getting more everyday plate appearances at Triple-A or serving a fourth outfielder apprenticeship in 2020.

There has been some chatter on social media about the team bringing back free agent outfielder Corey Dickerson, who excelled with the Phillies following his arrival from Pittsburgh at this past season’s trade deadline.

Yes, Dickerson hit .293 with eight homers and 34 RBIs in just 137 plate appearances with the Phillies. Extrapolate those numbers over a full season and you have something like a 35 homer, 120+ RBI campaign.

However, the 30-year-old Dickerson is a free agent for the first time. He is going to parlay that performance into a nice, well-deserved payday. And he is, unfortunately, not a center fielder. Just 27 of his 571 big-league games in the outfield have been played in center.

If you are thinking of putting him in left field and having Andrew McCutchen slide over to become the everyday man in center field for the Phillies, you really need to think again.

McCutchen is now 33-years-old and has not played center field regularly in either of his last two seasons. He is coming off major knee surgery as well.

While he can spot-start or slide over temporarily during a situational or emergency need, as he did for 10 starts and 15 total games this past season with the Phillies, he is no longer the player who won a 2012 Gold Glove Award as a center fielder.

Roman Quinn is also not the answer. I love Quinn’s tool set and have been publicly in his corner for a few years now. But even someone who is as big a fan as I am has limits. Quinn has proven that he simply cannot remain healthy long enough to be a reliable starting option.

No, what the Phillies really need is a new center fielder, someone from outside the organization. Unfortunately, there really are not quality options available this year in free agency.

You have a premier defender such as Juan Lagares. There is pure base stealing speed in Billy Hamilton. There is an aging veteran such as 34-year-old, 5x AL All-Star, 4x AL Gold Glove Award winner Adam Jones.

None of those is a realistic option. Jones played just one game in center last year for the Dbacks, and two years ago with Baltimore he was rated as one of the worst regular center fielders in the game defensively by Fangraphs.

Lagares will turn 31-years-old in spring training and has just a .254/.297/.361 career slash line in 2,119 career big-league plate appearances. With a slash of just .242/.297/.326 over 3,089 plate appearances, Hamilton is even worse with a bat in his hands.

There is no answer available in free agency. If the Phillies want to improve in center field, it is going to have to come via trade.

During this past season, I wrote that a worthy trade target could be found in Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. He turns 30 years of age early in the 2020 season and can become a free agent after next year.

If I’m Klentak, I’m on the phone looking to see if we can find a reasonable match in trade for the 2018 Gold Glove Award winner and ALCS Most Valuable Player.

THIRD BASE

Don’t count me among those who feel that the Phillies need a third baseman. Again, this is assuming the club does what I think it should do – give second base to Scott Kingery, and cut ties to Maikel Franco by not offering him arbitration.

If I’m running things, top offensive prospect Alec Bohm is starting at third base on Opening Day 2020. I let him know that right now.

When Bohm’s season ends following the conclusion of the Premier 12 tournament, at which he is Team USA’s starter at the hot corner, I tell him to go home and enjoy the holidays. Just keep working out and stay in shape. Don’t report to Clearwater until early February. And be mentally ready for your role as the Phillies starting third baseman.

Now, that’s me. The club could actually go in a number of directions. They could offer a contract to and bring back Franco as the starter, at least to begin the season. Then let him try to hold off Bohm for as long as he can.

Or the club could offer a contract to Cesar Hernandez, cut ties with Franco, give the third base job to Kingery, and fill center field some other way. Once Bohm is deemed ready, they could either slide Kingery back to center if no good option has emerged, or work out some king of position-sharing scheme involving the players. That option seems too messy.

Another option would be to cut ties with Franco and sign a free agent. There are a handful of interesting options if the Phillies try to take this route.

In order of talent, those free agent options would be Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, and Mike Moustakas.

Rendon will be expensive and would tie up the position for years, meaning that the Phillies would either be banking on the NL getting a DH as soon as the 2021 season, or they would be considering a trade of either Bohm or Rhys Hoskins. I love Rendon as a player, but with Bohm nearly ready, this just doesn’t seem like the right move.

Donaldson just played on a one-year deal with Atlanta at a $23 million salary. He’ll turn 34-years-old a month from today. Perhaps the Phillies could lure him with a similar one-year offer? That would mean Bohm at least starts the season back at Triple-A.

The 31-year-old Moustakas is a bit trickier. He played with Milwaukee this past season at $7 million and received a $1 million buyout of his contract for next year, rather than the Brewers committing to his $11 million mutual option.

Moustakas is going to be seeking a multi-year offer from some team. He is still young enough that someone is likely to make that kind of offer in order to add a 35-homer bat to their lineup. I am betting it won’t be the Phillies.

Again, my choice here is to give the job to Bohm, spend your free agent money on pitching, and move on from the old, losing Franco-Hernandez infield combination.

BENCH

Putting together a bench group that includes at least a few veteran options for new manager Joe Girardi, preferably options that can hit the ball, will be another Klentak challenge.

The Phillies are already slated to have Jay Bruce return. He should help out as a pinch-hitter, on the outfield corners, and could even turn out to be a lefty-hitting backup first base option, giving Hoskins a blow against a few tougher right-handed pitchers. Girardi should be able to get him plenty of at-bats to keep him sharp and happy.

Assuming the Phillies move on from both Franco and Hernandez, as well as Odubel Herrera, that leaves other outfield depth options as Roman Quinn and Nick Williams. The infield would need help. There are a bunch of interesting options who could fit the bill:

The club could try to re-sign 30-year-old Brad Miller, who appeared in 66 games with the Phillies this past season. Miller played four different positions, mostly at third base and in left field, and produced a dozen homers in just 130 plate appearances.

38-year-old Ben Zobrist can play second base and an outfield corner. He even covered shortstop for one game last season with the Cubs.

Starlin Castro turns 30 at the end of spring training. He played both second and third this past year with the Marlins, and even held down shortstop, where he was a former starter, in three games.

At age 36, Howie Kendrick showed just how valuable he can be in a part-time role while helping the Nationals win their World Series. Kendrick, who played in 39 games with the 2017 Phillies, saw time at first, second, and third this year in Washington.

30-year-old Derek Dietrich ripped 19 homers in 306 plate appearances while covering first, second, and left field this year in Cincinnati. He even appeared in one game at the hot corner, and has played in 146 career games there.

33-year-old Eric Sogard hit .290 while playing five different positions between stops in Toronto and Tampa Bay this past season.

Former popular Phillies outfielder Hunter Pence turns 37 in April, and enjoyed a bounce-back campaign in which he was named to the American League All-Star team. His bat, outfield glove, and infectious enthusiasm could be a perfect mix for this team’s bench group.

The Phillies could use a reliable backup catching option, and yesterday I mentioned one of their former prospects as a possibility. That would be 31-year-old Travis d’Arnaud, who finally stayed healthy this past season and showed off his fine combination of offensive and defensive skills.

More veteran backstop options who could add an alternative to Andrew Knapp include 37-year-old Russell Martin, 34-year-old Matt Wieters, 32-year-old Bryan Holaday, 36-year-old Robinson Chirinos, 34-year-old Jonathan Lucroy and a half-dozen or so others.

These are just a representative sample of the dozens of names who could fill out a veteran bench for the Phillies.

BULLPEN

As I mentioned on yesterday’s podcast, assembling a bullpen is a tricky proposition from year to year. The Phillies pen was decimated by injuries this past season, but most of those arms should be back in 2020.

They could do nothing, and still end up with an effective group. However, adding someone as a strong, veteran back-end option couldn’t hurt. Dellin Betances, Will Smith, Steve Cishek, Will Harris, and Pedro Strop are just a few of the couple dozen veteran relievers available.

And how about this possibility: lefty Jake Diekman? Wouldn’t it be sort of ironic if the Phillies brought back both Hamels and Diekman, who they traded away together in 2015, in the same off-season? Diekman turns 33 in January, and struck out 84 batters over 62 innings this past season as a southpaw out of the pen.

Again, as with third base, I don’t feel this is an area of desperate need. But if the Phillies want another bullpen arm, there are plenty from which to choose.

WRAPPING IT UP

Well, that’s a look at the free agent market. The Hot Stove season is officially underway. Free agents can sign with any team at this point, though signings of the bigger names are likely to take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

And those free agent ranks are only going to swell when the December 2 deadline passes for teams to offer arbitration, which is the decision that the Phillies will need to make on Franco and Hernandez.

As we move through the off-season, this podcast will focus occasionally on rumors regarding the club, and I’ll certainly be talking and writing about any big signings.

I hope you’ll come back tomorrow, when I’ll be talking about the MLB Award winners to this point, as well as the nominees for the major awards to be handed out next week, including the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards in each league.

Remember, you can follow any written pieces or podcast episodes through links at the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds @philliesbell. I hope you’ll stop by and enjoy. Until next time, God bless you and yours.

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