nick williams

Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

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Nick Williams talks up Phillies to a free-agent Cy Young winner

It's not clear whether the Phillies will add a starting pitcher before opening day, but surely they would like to.

General manager Matt Klentak “is busting his ass every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team from every perspective,” manager Gabe Kapler said on Tuesday. “That includes looking at every option possible for the rotation.”

Klentak has kept a close eye on the trade market, but has found the prices (i.e., the young talent that must be surrendered) for top, controllable starters to be prohibitive.

He has kept a close eye on the free-agent market, but the length of contracts that top pitchers are looking for has given him pause.

For months, the Phillies have distanced themselves from speculation that has connected them to elite level free-agent pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta.

But with spring training less than a month away and both pitchers still unsigned, the Phillies would at least have to consider both pitchers if their asking prices experience a January thaw.

Six or seven years? No way.

Three years? Hmmm. Let's talk.

The Phillies are hosting a number of their young players this week. Rhys Hoskins, Jerad Eickhoff, Mark Leiter and Nick Williams were all in town on Tuesday.

Williams has set his sights on making the National League All-Star team in 2018.

“That's what I'm shooting for,” he said at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday. “I think I had a pretty good year last year. I'm shooting for more now. I don't think being an All-Star is shooting too high.”

Williams, 24, hit .288 with 12 homers, 55 RBIs and an .811 OPS in 83 games, mostly in right field, with the big club as a rookie last season.

To give himself the best chance of surpassing those numbers — and achieving his goal of making the All-Star team — Williams has spent the offseason in Austin, Texas, working with personal trainer Jeremy Hills, a former University of Texas football player.

Williams is working hard on agility, which will help him in the outfield and on the base paths.

And guess who one of his daily workout partners is?

Free-agent pitcher Jake Arrieta.

Back in Austin, between reps and protein shakes, Williams has occasionally talked up Philadelphia as a potential landing spot to Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner who will turn 32 in March.

“He loves it here,” Williams said of Arrieta, who, as a free agent and a Scott Boras client, is astute enough not to rule out any team, particularly one as deep-pocketed as the Phillies. “He has told me he likes working with young guys. I'm like, ‘All right, come on up.’ But I'm not writing the check. I don’t know what he wants. I don’t really dig into that because I'm not really in his position.”

Williams smiled.

“I hope to be one day,” he said.

Williams marveled at Arrieta's work ethic in the gym.

And he expressed gratitude for the kindness and generosity Arrieta has showed him.

“He's bought a lot of my protein shakes,” Williams said.

Time will tell if the Phillies add a starting pitcher to the group that already consists of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and other youngsters. The hunch is they will, though it's unclear what the magnitude of that talent will be. Klentak's search for an arm likely won't stop with the addition of one pitcher and it will likely continue through July. And beyond. The quest to build a championship-caliber staff never stops.

“The pursuit is very real,” Kapler said of Klentak's search for pitching. “I have a lot of trust that we'll either go in [to spring training] with a new toy or we will pass on the opportunity because we're better off giving this collection of pitchers a really healthy look because we thought that we could go acquire that piece a little bit later on this season or in the offseason next year.”

How Carlos Santana fits and where he hits

How Carlos Santana fits and where he hits

Carlos Santana's ability to take walks and get on base, coupled with his ability to hit for power, makes him a fit at several places in the batting order.

To wit, last year with the Cleveland Indians, Santana batted leadoff 37 times and cleanup 26 times.

Santana did not hit second in Terry Francona's lineup at all last season.

But that might be where he ends up hitting — at least to start off the 2018 season — for Gabe Kapler.

"I think the two-hole is a really important spot in the lineup — (a guy that) gets on base, comes up with men on base quite frequently," the new Phillies manager said when the new Phillie was unveiled in a news conference on Wednesday. "Carlos can handle the two-hole."

Kapler went on to say that he could envision Santana — who has averaged 24 homers and a .363 on-base percentage the last seven seasons — hitting first or third, as well.

But it's clear that Kapler is considering using the switch-hitting Santana in the two-hole.

Things, obviously, will play out in spring training, and there's a big variable lurking as Cesar Hernandez, and possibly others, remain potential trade chips. But right now, a few days before Christmas 2017, the Phillies' 2018 opening day batting order could look like this:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Carlos Santana, 1B
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Rhys Hoskins, LF
5. Maikel Franco, 3B
6. Nick Williams, RF
7. Jorge Alfaro, C
8. J.P. Crawford, SS

Of course, it's possible that an outfielder other than Hoskins, maybe Williams, could be used in a trade for pitching. That could put Aaron Altherr in the lineup if he's not traded. Crawford could bring some on-base skills to the bottom of the order and he could move up to leadoff if Hernandez is dealt and Scott Kingery is not up yet.

The Phillies' overall on-base percentage is a dreadful .307 since they last made the playoffs in 2011. (Only San Diego, at .303, is worse.) But with the additions of Santana (for three years and $60 million) and Crawford (after the trade of Freddy Galvis) to the lineup in the last week, the Phillies will get on base more in 2018. And Kapler will have a lot of attractive options for constructing his lineup.

• The other day, we wrote about the Santana signing and how it ramped up the Phillies' rebuild. General managers typically will not make dramatic predictions, particularly when talking about expectations for their clubs. (Who needs that pressure?) Nonetheless, Klentak was asked what the Santana signing meant for his expectations for the coming season.

"I expect us to be the best club we can possibly be, given our personnel," he said. "We have a lot of young players, and with that, there's some uncertainty. We know that. Young players don't come with the same track record that a veteran comes with. But we believe that a lot of those players have a chance to take a step forward this year. If some of those players begin to take that step forward, we complement that with Carlos Santana in the middle of the lineup and a new-look bullpen, I don't really want to place limitations on what we may do next year. But I would expect us to be a more exciting team next year, for sure."

• Klentak has addressed the offense with Santana and the bullpen with Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter. There's no use saying he needs to upgrade the starting rotation. He knows that. He has said it a number of times.

Prices for top young starting pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Chris Archer are exorbitant and would put a gaping hole in the Phillies' young core. It's possible that the Phillies will make only a modest addition to the rotation before spring training while gearing up for a July strike on the trade market. If the Texas Rangers fall out of the race, keep an eye on Cole Hamels. Both sides would have interest in a reunion someday.

"We're going to try to add the best pitcher we can," Klentak said. "But the trade market is very expensive for young, controllable starters. The free-agent market for the better starters is expensive in its own way. There's a balancing act here. If you look at our rosters, not only at the big-league level but also at Triple A and Double A, we have a lot of starting pitching prospects and players who are close to big-league ready, and we need to make sure they continue to get those reps and innings that they need to develop to succeed at this level. But at the same time, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to win Week 1 of the regular season next year."

Phillies' ramped-up rebuild demands starting-pitching upgrade

Phillies' ramped-up rebuild demands starting-pitching upgrade

Let the record show that on a snowy Friday afternoon 10 days before Christmas 2017, the Phillies ramped up their rebuild.

Dramatically.

What other conclusion can be drawn after the club went out and signed Carlos Santana, one of the best offensive players on the free-agent market? With the signing, confirmed by multiple baseball sources, general manager Matt Klentak has attached a new level of importance to the 2018 season.

Just a couple of days ago at the winter meetings in Orlando, Klentak spoke of how 2018 was going to be a time to "find out" more about the team's young core of players. Who would continue to take a step forward? Who would fall by the wayside?

But now that Santana is here, 2018 doesn't feel like it's just a find-out season. It feels like a season in which the Phillies can continue to find out about players — separate the studs from the duds — and also start nibbling around that second National League wild-card spot.

Sure, a lot has to go right for that to happen.

And one of the things that has to go right is Klentak has to land a starting pitcher to slot in around Aaron Nola and the rest of the staff, which has the look of a bunch of No. 4 and No. 5 starters — until someone steps forward.

Santana's deal is for three years and $60 million, according to sources. Three years is a nice get — i.e., it's not cripplingly long — for a 32-year-old (in April) who hits for power, produces runs and does what Klentak likes best: controls the strike zone. (You could say that Klentak added two players who control the strike zone to his lineup Friday as the trade of Freddy Galvis to San Diego for strike-throwing pitching prospect Enyel De Los Santos cleared the way for J.P. Crawford to be the regular shortstop.)

The Phillies need to do everything within reason to make sure that the first of Santana's three seasons with the club isn't about simply inching the rebuild forward. The Nationals are the class of the NL East, but the rest of the division ranges from ordinary to awful. The Phils, with an improved offense and bullpen (Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter), can play with the Braves and Mets and clean up on the Marlins, the jewelry store that became a pawnshop, in agent Scott Boras' words.

It's just up to Klentak to get more starting pitching, and he's on the case. He admitted that at the winter meetings. He is particularly fond of young starters with years of control remaining on their contracts. Gerrit Cole, Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer fit this description. It takes talent to get pitchers like that. The Phillies have enough depth of prospects to get one of these guys and their reserves of expendable talent just grew with the Santana signing.

Santana, a switch-hitter who has averaged 25 homers, 85 RBIs and a .810 OPS in eight seasons, is going to be the team's primary first baseman. Rhys Hoskins is going to be the primary leftfielder. That means the Phillies suddenly have a young outfielder that they could deal. Maybe they try to capitalize on Nick Williams' strong half-season in the majors and package him for an arm. Or maybe it's Odubel Herrera or Aaron Altherr.

However it plays out, you can be sure that Klentak will be creative. You can rule nothing out with this guy. The other day, we poo-pooed the Phillies signing Jake Arrieta, who is looking for a long-term deal approaching $200 million. But if Arrieta lingers out there until February and is looking for a two-year landing spot, hey, maybe.

We wouldn't even put it past Klentak to entertain the idea of using Santana at third base a little bit — he did play 26 games there in 2014 — and trading Maikel Franco. The Giants were sniffing around, gathering intel on Franco at the winter meetings. There has to be a reason for that. Also at the meetings, an official from a rival club said the Phillies weren't as aggressive as he expected in trying to move Cesar Hernandez. Could it be that Hernandez would get some time at third if Franco were to be moved? Hernandez is still a trade chip, but he doesn't need to be cashed in until July and by that time Scott Kingery should be here.

There are a lot of ways this thing can go. And with the signing of Carlos Santana — which won't become official until he passes a physical next week — the Phillies have guaranteed that the remainder of this offseason will be a busy one.

It has to be.

The stakes have changed for 2018. The rebuild is still in place, but it has been ramped up. Matt Klentak has improved the bullpen and the offense. Now he has to attack that starting pitching and he has the trade weapons to do it.