Phillies

Phillies sound more likely to trade for starting pitchers than sign them

The Phillies went 35-35 in their final 70 games on the backs of a group of exciting young position players and an improved bullpen, so there's a growing perception that adding several starting pitchers to a rotation in shambles could inch the 2018 Phils closer to .500.

The Phillies, as of today, have just one starting pitcher they can feel good about heading into next season: Aaron Nola.

Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff had disappointing, injury-plagued seasons. Nick Pivetta showed flashes but also had the highest ERA in baseball at various points in September. Ben Lively had 10 quality starts in 15 tries, but when he was bad, he was really bad. 

There are some intriguing starting pitchers available in free agency this winter — Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb — but based on team president Andy MacPhail's comments Tuesday, it doesn't sound like the Phils will be spending for a starting pitcher in the first or even second tier this offseason.

"I would expect we’re going to have a relatively low payroll (in 2018)," MacPhail said. "I might be surprised. It’s [Matt Klentak's] job to stay open to other opportunities and if something comes up, we should jump on it."

The Phillies have just one player under contract in 2018: Odubel Herrera. After you account for all the arbitration raises and slight raises to players making close to the minimum, you get to a figure of about $30 million for a mostly-completed 25-man roster.

Now, "relatively low payroll" doesn't mean the Phils will stay at $30 million. Even if they increased it to, say, $75 million, that is still low relative to the rest of the league and certainly low compared to the $170 million or so they spent at the height of their contending phase.

But MacPhail doesn't sound like a man who wants the Phillies to pay for past performance.

"My philosophy hasn't changed," he said. "There are times when you're going to have to dive into that pool and just take a risk. But it's not my favorite place to be. 

"We get inundated with stories across the game about how everybody is looking for starting pitching. 'Just get two quality starters, and we'll be all set.' Well, you might as well look for a unicorn at the same time. It's tough. You don't want to be paying for past performance. That's often what you're confronted with — someone who has probably logged over 600 innings in the last three years and been a great pitcher and now we're on the wrong side of 30 and here we go."

There's a lot of merit to that last comment. In 2015, the Padres signed a 32-year-old James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract. He had exceeded 200 innings in each of the prior eight seasons and put up No. 2 starter stats. 

What happened? All of those innings caught up to Shields, who lost velocity and has been a high-priced disaster for most of the contract, posting a 5.60 ERA in his last 54 starts. It's one of many, many, many recent examples.

You never want to be that team. You don't want to be the team that pays Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn — two consistent right-handers who've already had Tommy John surgery — $75 million to be lesser versions of themselves.

The more you read into MacPhail's comments Tuesday, the more likely it sounds that the Phillies trade for starting pitching rather than sign a few guys to deals averaging $15 million per year.

"This is as deep an organization that I’ve ever been associated with," MacPhail said of the Phils' farm system. "We don’t have some of the marquee names that other teams have but in terms of depth, I think we’re as good as there is in the game. ... 

"Is it possible that Matt uses those assets in the minor leagues to augment our major-league club in '18? I think the answer to that question is definitely we’d consider it. The minor leagues are there to populate your major-league club, and it can happen a couple different ways. They can come up and play or you can turn them in for what is more known assets. ...

"Most of you guys have written about how the '18 (free-agent) class is a little on the light side, all the big guns come out in '19. It may well be that teams that want to compete in that '19 arena shed some salary that we won't anticipate right now in '18. So we have to keep our eye out for that, as well."

The caliber of starting pitcher the Phillies can find on the trade market depends on who they're willing to move. Freddy Galvis, as impressive as he is defensively, will not bring back a good, young starting pitcher. Galvis just isn't enough of a difference-maker, and he's a free agent after 2018.

Cesar Hernandez? That should get some talks started. Hernandez has been remarkably consistent the last two seasons, hitting .294 with a .371 OBP in 2016 and .294 with a .373 OBP in 2017. There was trade interest in Hernandez last winter and there will be more this winter, with the Phillies likely listening more intently now that they know more about Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford.

Packaging Hernandez — or Maikel Franco, for that matter — with a prospect like Dylan Cozens could net the Phillies a younger pitcher with comparable skills to Cobb or Lynn but without the hefty price tag.

If the Phils dangle players like Nick Williams or Aaron Altherr, the starting pitching return could be even more impressive. Fans wouldn't like it, but trading an outfielder for a starting pitcher of similar value and then replacing that outfielder in free agency could turn out better than just signing a pitcher.

Take this hypothetical: The Phillies trade a nice prospect package including Williams to Tampa Bay for Chris Archer, then sign J.D. Martinez to play right field. Isn't a Phillies team with Martinez and Archer better than a Phillies team with Williams and Cobb? I'm not saying I think that's the absolute best idea, but the Phillies are admittedly in a position to listen to any possibility that comes their way.

"We need to stay open-minded," MacPhail said. "But, philosophically, it's not where I — you heard me drone on in spring training about pitching, pitching, pitching. Young pitching is at such a premium today. You need such a volume of it. You should always be focused on that."

Notice the word "young" preceding pitching. In this free-agent class, injured Michael Pineda is the only starting pitcher of note younger than 30.