Should Phillies pursue a top bat over a top starting pitcher?

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Keuchel is a legitimate option if the Phillies choose to, or are forced to, settle below the top-level free agent arms

 

With the ‘Hot Stove’ season now open across Major League Baseball, teams have begun the process of trying to upgrade their roster for the 2020 campaign.

The Philadelphia Phillies are coming off what was a disappointing .500 season in 2019. After a ton of high-profile activity last off-season and a fast start, the club sputtered over the final four months to finish at 81-81.

Most evaluators and fans feel that the biggest shortcoming for the team this past season was the pitching staff. The Phillies failed to get quality outings from their starting pitchers and suffered numerous injuries that depleted their bullpen.

The bullpen could bounce back simply with a return to health by a few of the arms and with a modest free agent signing or prescient trade addition.

But the rotation will be more difficult. There are a pair of ace-caliber pitchers available in Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, and a strong second-tier arm in Zack Wheeler. The Phillies have plenty of money and the incentive to sign any of them.

However, would they actually be smarter to ink a couple of lesser-tier arms, pitchers who do not have a qualifying offer attached, instead spending their big money on another impact bat to fill one of their lineup holes? It’s a legitimate strategy to consider.

If so, which arms could actually improve the rotation and might make the most sense for the club to pursue? And then, what bats might the club be able to add that would significantly upgrade the lineup?

MID-LEVEL ARMS

The Phillies gave 72 combined starts in the 2019 season to a group of pitchers that included Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Jerad Eickhoff, Drew Smyly, Jason Vargas, and Cole Irvin.

The lowest ERA among that group was the 4.45 mark of Smyly, a southpaw who was added as a free agent in mid-July who is now an unrestricted free agent. Each of the others was either near or over the 5.00 mark.

There are a handful of solid starting pitching options available in free agency who do not have qualifying offers attached. They are unrestricted free agents who will not cost anywhere near the price of a Cole or Strasburg contract.

Left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is an injury risk and will turn 33 years of age at the end of spring training. But he could be had for something like a three-year, $54-million deal. For this year’s NL Cy Young Award runner-up who has top of the rotation talent, it could prove a major bargain. Would the Phillies roll the dice?

The Phillies passed on Dallas Keuchel this past season and then watched him become a difference-maker in the rival Braves rotation as Atlanta pulled away in the standings. The lefty turns 32 on New Year’s Day and might be looking for a five-year deal. But if the former NL Cy Young Award winner who also has four Gold Gloves on his résumé would settle for three years at $15 million per?

There is also, of course, Cole Hamels. The former Phillies ace and World Series hero will turn 37-years-old two days after Christmas. The lefty has publicly stated that he would go on a one-year deal. How about the Phillies take him up on that offer at $15 million with incentives and a club option for 2021?

Adding a pair of left-handers from among the Ryu, Keuchel, Hamels group, depending on the price in dollars and years, would likely end up much more affordable and hang much less of a risk albatross around the Phillies necks as would a Cole or Strasburg deal alone.

TOP POTENTIAL IMPACT BATS

It’s very difficult to evaluate where the Phillies 2020 holes will be, simply because the club hasn’t made up its own mind regarding a number of holdover players.

Decisions on Scott Kingery, Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez, and Adam Haseley in particular will determine not only the answers to a number of questions – but also will actually determine those questions themselves.

So, I will proceed in the way that I see best for the Phillies future. That means Kingery plays second base every day, both Hernandez and Franco are gone, and Haseley becomes a bench player or starts in center field every day at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

What that means is the Phillies have holes to fill in center field and at third base. The center field hole cannot be filled in free agency, at least not by anyone who would be a marked improvement on Haseley.

If the Phillies wish to add a championship caliber center fielder it will have to be done via trade. In past articles, I have advocated for the club going after Boston Red Sox defensive whiz Jackie Bradley Jr.

Whether it would be Bradley or some other target, filling this position with a more proven veteran is something that general manager Matt Klentak needs to make a priority. Klentak needs to find his Garry Maddox for Willie Montanez trade. Phillies fans should well recall that important May 1975 trade with the San Francisco Giants.

However, filling the third base hole can indeed be done through the free agency route. In fact, there are three different players available, all at different commitment levels of years and dollars

Anthony Rendon is the top available hitter. Turning 30-years-old next June, he would likely come at a price tag of $30-35 million over as many as seven years. Rendon would bring elite, Gold Glove-caliber defense and a clutch middle-of-the-order bat to the lineup, but at a premium price that would tie up the position for years.

Josh Donaldson is a former AL MVP who turns 34 in two weeks. He is a proven middle order hitter who remains a top glove man at the hot corner. Donaldson played on a one-year deal this past season in Atlanta. It will likely cost a three-year, $75 million commitment this time around.

A third option at third base would be 31-year-old Mike Moustakas. He is nowhere near the caliber of defender at the hot corner as the first two, and is not as reliable a hitter or run producer either. However, at a notch below both Rendon and Donaldson he would also come cheaper. He might even go for a one-year deal at $10-12 million, allowing the Phillies to remain committed to Alec Bohm over the longer term.

 

Even if he can successfully fill the holes in center field and at third base, as well as add two more veteran starting pitchers, Klentak still has more work to do this off-season. He needs to add a couple of better veteran bench options, as well as perhaps adding another strong reliever. Get all that accomplished and the Philadelphia Phillies are legitimate 2020 postseason contenders.

 

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3 thoughts on “Should Phillies pursue a top bat over a top starting pitcher?”

  1. I’m not thrilled with the CF options via free agency or the ones possibly available via trade like JBJ who just doesn’t hit well enough for me. Because of that, I think the Phillies need to get creative. Here would be my proposal. I know it would be really nice to have Scott Kingery play 2B, but in 2020, I’d have Kingery at least start the year as the everyday CF. His defensive metrics show that he was average defensively there, but if you let him concentrate on just that one position in spring training and into the season, I think he can improve his glovework there. Then at mid-season, perhaps they can acquire someone via trade if they need an upgrade.

    Next I would move Jean Segura off of shortstop and over to 2B instead. Segura was below average defensively at shortstop, so moving him over to the other side of the bag would help improve the Phillies infield defense, if they can pick up an upgrade at SS. Jose Iglesias is available as a free agent and he’s well above average defensively. I’d also see if Arizona might be interested in trading Nick Ahmed who has won the gold glove at SS the past 2 seasons. Either one of them would help improve the defense at an important position.

    For 3B, there are the options mentioned like Rendon, Donaldson and Moustakas. While I’d love Rendon and would try for him first, I’d be happy to settle for one of the other two if needed.

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    1. I love that you give some genuine thought to answers at trying to improve the lineup, and not just a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the complicated question of whether the Phillies should go after even more everyday lineup upgrades in addition to the obvious need of pitching. Still, I maintain that you have the long-term answer at second base right here in Kingery. IMHO, Segura is fine at shortstop – every bit as good as Kingery is in CF, at least. If they keep trying to dance around the CF hole without answering it once and for all, the Phillies are going to regret it. If we go your way, what happens to Kingery if, as you state is possible, “they need an upgrade” at mid-season? He has unlocked offensive potential that I don’t believe will be fully tapped until he is comfortable at home defensively at second base. In any event, this discussion highlights that the Phillies have a number of questions that need answering beyond starting pitching.

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