Even with Jake Arrieta, Phillies still have enormous flexibility

Even with Jake Arrieta, Phillies still have enormous flexibility

Here's the thing about that vaunted 2018-19 MLB free-agent class you've been hearing about for years: There's no elite pitcher who would have been realistically available for the Phillies to sign.

Clayton Kershaw is a safe bet to opt out of the final two years of his deal, but given the Phillies' disinterest in signing a pitcher to a long-, long-term deal — along with their interest in Manny Machado — Kershaw was never realistic here.

Which is why the Phillies had to add starting pitching help this offseason when seemingly everything played to their favor. It was why, when Jake Arrieta continued to linger in free agency in early March, the Phillies had to step up and get the deal done.

Next year's payroll
Arrieta's contract, according to Jon Heyman, pays $30 million in Year 1, $25 million in Year 2, $20 million in Year 3. It makes sense to frontload the contract because the Phillies have so few dollars committed in 2019.

Even after signing Arrieta for $25 million per year, Carlos Santana for $20 million per year and throwing a combined $35 million to Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter over the next two seasons, the Phillies still have less than $70 million in guaranteed commitments for next year's team.

Now, that doesn't include the raises for keepers like Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Hector Neris, Aaron Altherr, Nick Williams, Luis Garcia, etc. 

Perhaps not every player from that group is still a Phillie 12 months now, but their relative cheapness is what prompted a team that wasn't totally sure what it was going to do this offseason to sign one of the two best starting pitchers on the market. 

Aside from that veteran free-agent quartet, pretty much every Phillies player who matters is making less than $7 million per season. And then you have the super-cheap guys like Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford and Williams, who all have under a year of service time.

It's kind of similar to what the Eagles are doing with Carson Wentz: Filling out the team around him while Wentz is still on his inexpensive rookie deal.

What Arrieta accomplishes
Aside from what Arrieta is able to contribute on the field this season, his presence on the Phillies will make someone like Machado take the Phils more seriously next winter. If nothing goes catastrophically wrong injury-wise this season, free agents will look at the Phils as a young team with some key vets that could be on the brink of taking the next step toward 90 or so wins.

And the beauty of the ways the Phillies have methodically rebuilt to this point is that even after making two free-agent splashes, they could still sign someone like Machado next offseason, and perhaps even sign another high-priced free agent, and they'd still be about $30 million under their 2014 payroll. (That was their last-gasp, A.J. Burnett-Marlon Byrd offseason.)

As Arrieta stayed unsigned, this move just made more and more sense for the Phillies every day. Had Arrieta, at the same age, been a free agent last year or the year before, he'd have gotten that five-year-plus deal. It was only two offseasons ago that Jordan Zimmermann, for example, got $110 million.

The Phils waited, waited, waited, and got a more team-friendly deal than the one Arrieta's old team, the Cubs, signed Yu Darvish to. They may have gotten the better pitcher as well.

Looking at Sixers' top competition for LeBron

Photo: NBCSP

Looking at Sixers' top competition for LeBron

With The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reporting that he keeps hearing the Sixers, Rockets, Lakers and Cavs are the four teams on LeBron James' free-agency wishlist, let's take a look at feasibility and fit of the Sixers' top three competitors for The King's services:

Houston is the favorite in Vegas to land LeBron. The Rockets already have two superstars and an emerging, high-level rim protector in Clint Capela. Houston is a big market and the Rockets may even have a chance to beat the Warriors this season, without LeBron.

From a titles standpoint, the Rockets make the most sense for The King. It's a ready-made championship situation, but it wouldn't be simple building that roster.

To make room for LeBron, the Rockets would have to find a taker for Ryan Anderson's $20 million annual salary. That won't be easy and will almost certainly require Houston to part with a first-round pick or two.

The Rockets will also likely have to find takers for the contracts of P.J. Tucker and Nene, two valuable role players but obviously pieces you're OK with losing for the likes of an all-time great.

From a salary cap perspective, the Rockets could put together a roster including LeBron, James Harden, Chris Paul, Capela and maybe Eric Gordon, but the rest of the team would have to be filled out with minimum types of contracts.

LeBron has two homes in Los Angeles, and the Lakers now have cap space for two huge contracts thanks to the Jordan Clarkson-Larry Nance-Isaiah Thomas trade with Cleveland.

Those are the pros for L.A.

The cons are how it would all fit.

The Lakers' best-case offseason scenario would be signing both LeBron and Paul George. Let's imagine for a second that happens. You'd have a Lakers team featuring LeBron, George, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball. With zero rim protection.

Obviously, in this scenario, a trade would be necessary — involving Ball, Kuzma or maybe both. The Lakers would need more shooting and inside defense, and Ball's best quality (distribution) would be a lot less necessary with LeBron.

Would a team like that win a championship in a loaded West? Probably not. LeBron has to realize that Houston aside, staying in the Eastern Conference gives him the best chance at advancing deep into the playoffs every season. 

If the Cavs have an inkling LeBron is staying, they'd trade that coveted Nets lottery pick for an established star. 

But even with another established star — whoever that may be — this is a fading Cavs team. Kevin Love's trade value isn't nearly as high as it once was. 

The Cavs also have so much money committed to so many guys that they lack roster flexibility. If LeBron, Love and the cast of role players return, along with whoever they trade the Nets pick for, that's still probably a 50-plus win team in the East but not a surefire favorite with the Celtics, Raptors and Sixers all getting better.

These four teams sure look like the only four legit contenders for LeBron, but anyone who claims to know what he will decide at this point is full of it.

Saquon Barkley going 1st could be great for Eagles

Saquon Barkley going 1st could be great for Eagles

There is growing buzz that Penn State running back Saquon Barkley could be drafted first overall by the Browns.

That could end up being great news for the Eagles ... because of who picks second.

Save for the short period of time Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw were effective, the Giants have been in need of a running back since Tiki Barber retired after the 2006 season.

With the second overall pick in a draft that includes a potentially generational running back in Barkley, the G-Men are finally in position to fix their broken ground game.

But with the Browns also owning the fourth pick, they could take Barkley at 1 and get their QB at 4.

If the Browns take Barkley, the Giants would obviously be tempted to take the best QB in the draft — whoever they deem that to be — second overall. Eli Manning is 37 years old and hasn't been in the top half among quarterbacks in at least three seasons.

If the Giants do take a QB second, they'd set themselves up better for the future, but in the present, it would be a boost for the Eagles. The Birds would get one more season against a Manning-led Giants team that didn't improve any other position with its high first-round pick. A Giants team that has a weak offensive line, a non-existent running game and a pass rush that had the third-fewest sacks in the NFL last season.

The Eagles would also get to avoid facing Barkley twice a year for potentially a decade. It's true that running backs have been devalued over the last decade, but the last two taken in the top five — Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette — immediately changed the fortunes of their teams. With a more complete offense, the Cowboys went from 4-12 to 13-3 in Zeke's first year. The Jaguars went from 3-13 to 10-6 in Fournette's rookie season.

Doug Pederson would still have a better, deeper roster than both the Cowboys and Giants, but facing Elliott and Barkley a combined four times per season would be tough.

So if Barkley indeed goes first, it would be the second time in three years the Browns helped the Eagles at the top of the draft.