The pace of the Phillies' offseason began to quicken last week as the team named a new hitting coach, officially moved on from Ryan Howard and took strides toward improving the bullpen with the acquisition of a veteran reliever.
On Monday, Matt Klentak’s second winter leading the team’s baseball operations will heat up even more when he heads to the annual general managers meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In between discussing policy and receiving updates on a variety of matters from Major League Baseball officials, the 30 general managers find time to have face-to-face discussions with each other about trades and with player representatives about free agents. If December’s winter meetings are the pinnacle of the offseason then the GM meetings are an important time to lay groundwork for the moves that may come in weeks ahead. And even occasionally a big move is made at the GM meetings. The Phillies traded for Brad Lidge at the GM meetings in 2007 and he ended being sort of important to the 2008 team, wouldn’t you say?
Klentak’s goal as he moves into his second year as GM is to continue the improvements the Phillies showed in 2016 — their 71 wins were eight more than they had in 2015 — while remaining unwaveringly committed to the rebuild that ownership ordered after the 2014 season. The Phillies spent over a half-billion on player salaries from 2012 to 2014 (only the Yankees and Dodgers spent more) and missed the playoffs all three seasons. Owner John Middleton and his partners have promised to spend big again, but not until the team has built a foundation of talent that will benefit from one or two big signings.
It’s up to Klentak and his staff to build that foundation and projects like these take time. So, look for Klentak to take a methodical approach to this offseason, to improve around the edges with a veteran or three that might cost some money (the Phillies have plenty of that) but won’t require a long-term commitment and therefore block the trajectory of a young player who has already arrived in the majors or could soon. While a big free-agent splash is extremely unlikely, a big trade should not be ruled out. As much as Klentak wants to hold on to his young talent and give it time to grow, he proved last winter that he would deal a young difference-maker (reliever Ken Giles) for multiples of young talent. If the right deal comes along this offseason, Klentak would surely do that.
Let’s take a look at a few areas and possibilities that Klentak will look to address as the offseason heats up:
The starting rotation
As much as Klentak might like to go all-young in the rotation, he made it clear last year that he values the concept of having a veteran stabilizer or two to support young, growing talents. That’s why he picked up vets Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton in what were essentially salary dumps by their former clubs. Morton went down with a season-ending hamstring injury in his fourth start, but Hellickson was the consummate veteran stabilizer, giving the Phillies 32 starts and 189 innings to build his free-agency resume.
The Phillies liked Hellickson so much that they extended him a $17.2 million free-agent qualifying offer for 2017 and he has the next seven days to accept or decline it (see story). If he accepts, the Phillies have their stabilizer back on a one-year contract. If he rejects, the Phils will get a high draft pick, valuable to a rebuilding team, as compensation.
Like the deals for Hellickson and Morton last year, the Phils took on money and gave up little (a player to be named later or cash) in acquiring veteran reliever Pat Neshek and his $6.5 million salary last week from Houston.
Klentak seems intent on giving manager Pete Mackanin even more bullpen help and that could come in the form of another trade or a free-agent signing.
The Phillies finished last in the majors with 610 runs scored in 2016 and they were second-to-last in batting average (.240), on-base percentage (.301) and slugging (.385). Mackanin is on record as saying he’d like to add a couple of “professional” hitters to the lineup.
Adding one seems more likely.
The Phils seem committed to giving Cameron Rupp more time to develop at the plate and behind it. Ditto for Tommy Joseph, Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis and Maikel Franco in the infield and Odubel Herrera in center field. That leaves just the corner outfield spots to add a hitter and one of those might go to Roman Quinn, a player that management is eager to look at and does not want to block.
Phillies outfielders ranked last in the majors in homers (37) and OPS (.677) last season. They got just 13 homers (26th out of 30 clubs) and a .612 OPS (29th) from their leftfielders and eight homers (tied for last) and a .634 OPS (30th) from their rightfielders.
So it’s imperative that Klentak upgrade the offense in the outfield and he might have to sacrifice some defense to do that. Of course, it will be fascinating to see how Klentak pulls this off because he surely does not want to block the trajectories of players such as Nick Williams and Dylan Cozens with a long-term contract. A free agent like Matt Holliday might make some sense. The Mets could look to unload Jay Bruce’s salary, but the Phillies aren’t of a mind to give up top talent for older, short-term fits.
Regardless of how they do it, the Phillies must upgrade the offense to keep their young core progressing upward.
Potential trade fits
Howard’s $10 million buyout has been paid and a good chunk of Matt Harrison’s $13.2 million salary for 2017 will be covered through insurance. Neshek is on the books for $6.5 million in 2017. Even if Hellickson says yes to $17.2 million in the next week, the Phillies have tremendous payroll flexibility — perhaps the best in the game. This flexibility could potentially make the Phils a good trade fit for teams looking to trim payroll. Keep an eye on Detroit and Kansas City, two teams looking to do that.
The Tigers could look to move a good bat in outfielder J.D. Martinez, who is signed through 2017 at $11.75 million. He would likely cost the Phillies prospects they don’t want to give up. But what if the Phillies, with their financial flexibility, took on some of starter Anibal Sanchez's or reliever Mark Lowe's salary, too? (Sanchez is owed $22 million; Lowe $5.5 million.) Then the talent outlay wouldn’t be as severe. The Royals could look to move veteran lefty starter Jason Vargas, who made it back from Tommy John surgery late in 2016, and his $8 million salary.
A big trade?
You simply can’t rule it out, not after Klentak dealt Giles last year and not after he went into full listen mode on Vince Velasquez this summer. Sources say he wanted two big bats from Texas for Velasquez. What if someone meets that price this winter? Would Klentak pull the trigger and move Velasquez, a young, inexpensive, controllable power arm with value? It’s worth keeping an eye on.
So, too, is another young power arm, reliever Hector Neris. It’s not difficult to imagine Klentak moving Neris for a big score. As good as Neris is, most relievers are mercurial. Now might be a good time to gauge and maybe even cash in on Neris’ value, provided the return speeds the rebuild.
And speaking of young, inexpensive, controllable players with upside and value, there’s always Rupp, Herrera and Franco. It’s not easy to envision the Phillies dealing any one of these players, but if the right offer crosses Klentak’s desk ...