As MLB offseason begins, don't rule out a big trade for Phillies

As MLB offseason begins, don't rule out a big trade for Phillies

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.

The bullpen
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 offense
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 ...

Why it was Nick Williams packing his bags to make room for Scott Kingery

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Why it was Nick Williams packing his bags to make room for Scott Kingery

It was expected that when Scott Kingery returned from a month-long stint on the injured list with a hamstring injury, one of the Phillies’ veteran utilitymen would be the roster casualty. 

But it was Nick Williams packing his bags Sunday morning to make room on the active roster for Kingery, not Phil Gosselin or Sean Rodriguez. 

Williams was optioned to Triple A Lehigh Valley, where he will get regular at-bats. He has not played much for the Phillies, starting just eight of their 45 games. As a pinch-hitter, he is 6 for 33 (.182) with one extra-base hit and 10 strikeouts. 

Williams knew when the Phillies signed Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper that playing time in the outfield would be hard to come by. The Phillies do not consider Williams an option in center field, so when Odubel Herrera was shelved by a hamstring strain, McCutchen shifted to center and Williams played left field. 

Kingery, in his first game back from the IL, made his first career start Sunday in center field against Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland. 

Aside from getting Williams more reps at Triple A, optioning him also prevents another team from claiming Rodriguez or Gosselin on waivers. Both are out of options and would have had to be designated for assignment before being sent to the minors. 

Gosselin is 9 for 37 (.243) on the season but has had good swings lately. Of his last 10 plate appearances, one was a rocket line drive snagged by the opposing pitcher and two were deep flyballs he just missed.

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The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

Aaron Nola had no chance at seeing where the ball landed.

Not many did, unless you were a fan leisurely strolling through the center-field concourse and enjoying the amenities of Ashburn Alley at Citizens Bank Park.

"I think it went over the stadium, from where I was sitting," Nola said. "It was a long one."

That's how powerfully Bryce Harper struck his first-inning home run in the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see observations). The ball left his bat at 114.1 miles per hour, traveled 466 feet and cleared the brick walls in center field.

It was loud and it made the sellout crowd of 42,354 fans louder.

"I think just as a fan, you just stop and watch the distance of the ball," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think we saw a ball go that far to center field all year last year and certainly not this year. That's rare territory. Pretty impressive."

Harper pounced on a first-pitch fastball from Rockies right-hander Antonio Senzatela. The swing consisted of everything you want to see from Harper, who is 5 for 15 (.333) over his last four games with the homer and three doubles.

He's staying back and driving the ball.

"I think he's beginning to feel it," Kapler said. "I think part of that comes from the work he's been doing with [hitting coach] John Mallee, specifically being a little bit taller on his backside and his hands being a little bit closer to his body."

Harper didn't want to make too much about the distance of his home run. He remembered some advice from a former manager and five-time All-Star.

"Matt Williams always used to tell me, 'It's not how far, it's how many you hit,'" Harper said. "I'm just trying to go about it the right way every single day, doing things out there that help this team win. Just putting the bat to the ball and trying to win games.

Harper has eight home runs and 28 RBIs in 45 games. He has a .371 on-base percentage and is second in baseball to only Mike Trout with 34 walks.

However, he's hitting .230 and was 10 for his last 70 (.143) prior to this 5-for-15 stretch. The Phillies are seeing positive signs, though, from Harper's swing.

"We all believed he was going to break out of what he was in," Nola said. "Guy works hard, works hard at what he does. We've all seen what he's done in his career. Nobody is pressing over him, we know he's the gamer that he is and he does a lot to help the team.

On Saturday, it was a walk, a double and vicious contact on the first pitch he saw.

"I think Harp is best when he's gap to gap," Kapler said. "Every once in a while, he's out in front and pulls the ball down the line. He's at his best when he's hitting high line drives into the gaps, and the ones that he gets just underneath go into the seats or in this case, over everything in center field."

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