The Nation’s Capital will become the center of the baseball world over the next week as the winter meetings get underway Sunday in Washington.
The meetings run through Thursday morning, concluding with the Rule 5 draft, and will play out against a backdrop of labor peace as the owners and players agreed on a new five-year labor deal on Wednesday night.
Teams looking to make a big score on the free-agent market will find sluggers in Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, quality producers in Dexter Fowler, Justin Turner and Ian Desmond and proven closers in Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman. The trade market features a big name in former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen.
As for the local nine, don’t look for a week of head-spinning activity. The Phillies got most of their heavy lifting out of the way early in the offseason when they re-signed starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and traded for outfielder Howie Kendrick and reliever Pat Neshek. Hellickson and Kendrick filled two of the team’s stated needs, a veteran innings guy in the rotation and the proverbial professional hitter.
This is not to say the Phils won’t be active at the meetings, or in the days leading up to them or following them, because they likely will be. The team still has some secondary areas that need to be addressed, but as for a big, headline-grabbing move, well, nothing like that appears to be cooking — unless, of course, some team wants to give the Phillies multiples of top talent for one of their young core big-leaguers. As we’ve said before, this team has no untouchables and general manager Matt Klentak is willing talk about any player if the return speeds the team’s rebuild and has long-term impact.
With that, let’s take a look at some of the matters facing the Phils as they get set to head to the meetings:
Backup shortstop/utility infielder
This is an area the team probably needs to address. There are currently five infielders on the 40-man roster: the four projected starters (Tommy Joseph, Cesar Hernandez, Maikel Franco and Freddy Galvis) and recent addition Jesmuel Valentin. Valentin is strictly a second baseman and projects to play at Triple A. If the Phils had a long-term opening at shortstop, they could push J.P. Crawford. In a pinch, Hernandez could move over from second and play the position. Still, adding a utility infielder is probably a must and that player might have to come on a minor-league contract because the 40-man roster is full. The door has not been closed on the return of Andres Blanco. Even someone like versatile Emmanuel Burris could return.
Klentak made improving the bullpen an offseason priority so it’s likely that he’s looking to make additions beyond just Neshek. As it stands now, the Phils have just one lefty reliever, promising but unproven Joely Rodriguez, so it’s important that Klentak add at least one more lefty through a signing or trade.
The Phils have had longstanding interest in bringing back A.J. Ellis and they've maintained contact with his representatives, but they already have three catchers on their 40-man roster in Cameron Rupp, Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp. If the roster pinch gets solved, possibly by dealing from a position of depth and including Knapp in a trade or other transactions, Ellis could return. Other than that, it’s possible Knapp could be the big team’s backup catcher with Alfaro working every day at Triple A.
The Phils were last in the majors in runs scored (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240), on-base percentage (.301) and slugging (.385) in 2016 so they really need to add more than just Kendrick if they’re going to make a noticeable improvement in their offense. However, management has made it clear that it wants to keep pathways open for young players to advance to the majors.
Barring a trade, seven of the eight starting position spots are pretty much set. Right field is the exception and that would be a nice landing spot for one of those young players, speedy Roman Quinn. There’s a strong possibility that Quinn will be the opening day rightfielder. However, given his health history, it might be wise to add reinforcements beyond Aaron Altherr. So it would not be surprising to see the Phillies add another bat, possibly from the left side, to their bench.
They go hand-in-hand with the winter meetings. Even before the start of the meetings, the Phils have been connected to McCutchen and even power-hitting Minnesota second baseman Brian Dozier in rumors. The feel here is that a deal for either player is unlikely, especially McCutchen, whose defense has become a concern. The Phillies are committed to building a lasting contender with their farm system as the foundation. Acquiring a McCutchen or a Dozier would require giving up multiples of young talent and that’s not the way the Phils want to operate at the moment. They're looking to retain as much young talent as possible.
Though the Phillies will be protective of their prospects in trades, the do have money and payroll flexibility. This makes it possible that they could fill a need by taking on salary as long as that salary is attached to a short-term contract. The Phils under Klentak have already done this with Hellickson, Charlie Morton and Neshek. And, as mentioned, if some team wants to send the Phils a big return, players like Hernandez, Odubel Herrera and Hector Neris would be very much in play.
The Rule 5 draft
After landing players like Shane Victorino, David Herndon, Ender Inciarte, Herrera and Tyler Goeddel over the last decade or so, the Phils could end up sitting out this year’s Rule 5 draft. It’s not that they wouldn’t like to add a young player to their stocks and build some spring-training competition, more that they’ve already added so many young players that they’re out of room. The Phils added 11 players in maxing out their 40-man roster two weeks ago, thus protecting them from the Rule 5 draft. No other team added more than eight players.
The Phils pushed their number of protected players to 11 because they were fearful the new Collective Bargaining Agreement could increase roster size from 25 to 26 and an extra spot would make it easier for teams to carry a Rule 5 player. In the end, rosters stayed at 25. Maybe that will help the Phils retain one of the players they chose not to protect. Among that group is left-handed-hitting outfielder Andrew Pullin. There is much rumble around baseball that the Phillies could lose him. Relievers Hoby Milner and Miguel Nunez, outfielder Carlos Tocci and first baseman/outfielder Brock Stassi are also names to watch on Thursday.
Of immediate concern
Teams have until 8 p.m. Friday to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players or let them become free agents. The Phillies have four such players: Galvis, Hernandez, outfielder Cody Asche and reliever Jeanmar Gomez. Galvis and Hernandez will be tendered contracts. Asche and Gomez are on the fence. Gomez had 37 saves before struggling over the final weeks of the 2016 season. It’s possible the Phils could look to sign him before the tender deadline to a deal below his arbitration salary, projected to be $4.6 million by MLBTradeRumors.com. If Asche is non-tendered, the Phils could pick up a roster spot for a winter-meetings acquisition or a Rule 5 pick.