Bryce Harper? Manny Machado? Phillies should sit this one out

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Bryce Harper? Manny Machado? Phillies should sit this one out

Be bold.

That two-word mission statement set forth by Gabe Kapler became the center of the Phillies’ marketing push for the 2018 season. Many Phillies fans are hoping that mindset defines the team’s approach to this offseason as well.

The dots are easy to connect here: 

• The Phillies showed some promise this season before the wheels came off in mid-August. 

• Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will both be available in free agency.

• The Phillies have the financial wherewithal to land one of those two players.

When asked about the club’s future following the season, both general manager Matt Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail acknowledged the need to get better. But neither was willing to put the Phils’ eggs entirely in this year’s free agent basket.

You don’t want to pay sticker price if you can avoid it. This could just be a case of maintaining some leverage in future negotiations, but there are also legitimate reasons for the Phillies to temper their free-agent appetite.

I know nothing about building a house, but it seems logical that you ensure the foundation before getting to an addition. The Phillies are still in the foundation portion of their rebuild. That might be frustrating to fans that haven’t seen a postseason game at Citizens Bank Park in seven years, but that’s the reality.

Outside of Aaron Nola and possibly Rhys Hoskins, there’s no safe bet on the current roster to be an everyday contributor for a championship-caliber team. There are reasons to hope players like Scott Kingery, Jorge Alfaro and Roman Quinn will join that group, but they have not ascended there yet.

The anticipation surrounding this offseason reminds me somewhat of the mood following the 2002 season. After pushing the Braves to the final weekend of the 2001 season and clearing the deck of the Scott Rolen mess the following July, the Phillies went all-in prior to the 2003 campaign. Jim Thome, David Bell and Kevin Millwood were all acquired to push a team that had missed the postseason for nine straight seasons over the top.

It didn’t play out that way. Millwood was miscast as an ace. Bell was a basically a replacement-level player for most of his tenure. Thome was spectacular but eventually served as a Ryan Howard roadblock. As important, the talent around them was not as good as the front office originally hoped. It took another four years and an almost entirely reworked core to get the Phils back to October.

Admittedly, Harper and Machado are significantly younger than Thome was when he signed with the Phillies. They also have higher ceilings. There’s no doubt that adding one of these players makes the team better immediately. But neither player solely bridges the gap between the Phillies and top teams in Major League Baseball. 

Yet, making the commitment necessary to land a Harper or Machado changes the expectations. A team that makes that type of splash almost instinctively has to take on the mindset of a contender. That will certainly be the way the fan base sees it. And that can be dangerous. 

Icing is delicious. But it tastes best on a fully baked cake with all of the ingredients. Similarly, free agency works best when used to add a finishing touch.

You’re ready when you’re ready. And the Phillies aren’t ready for that yet. 

That might change next offseason. 2019 could call for boldness. But right now, the Phillies might be better served to sit this one out.

Be hesitant.

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Michael Brantley's contract makes Andrew McCutchen's look like an overpay, but here's why it made sense for Phillies

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Michael Brantley's contract makes Andrew McCutchen's look like an overpay, but here's why it made sense for Phillies

Michael Brantley was still on the board last week when the Phillies agreed to a deal with Andrew McCutchen at the winter meetings.

The Phils had interest in Brantley as well, but they valued McCutchen's durability over Brantley's solid left-handed bat.

The Phillies, as you know, signed McCutchen to a three-year, $50 million contract.

Brantley, on Monday, agreed to a two-year, $32 million deal with the Astros.

The first reaction was some surprise that McCutchen's deal not only beat the overall value of Brantley's but that McCutchen also got slightly more per year. These are similar players. McCutchen is seven months older, and Brantley is coming off the better season.

Seeing the deal Brantley received, some will say the Phillies overpaid McCutchen. They may have, but in this case, it's acceptable for a couple of reasons:

1. McCutchen unquestionably improves the Phillies

2. It's a three-year deal that won't prevent the Phils from making any future moves

Don't lose sight of that second point. The Phillies have a ton of money and did not weigh themselves down with this move. They also wouldn't really have weighed themselves down by beating the Nationals' six-year offer for Patrick Corbin, but there is a substantial difference between giving a 29-year-old pitcher with past injuries $150 million and giving a 32-year-old outfielder with no injury history half the years and one-third the price.

Back to McCutchen vs. Brantley.

McCutchen has a few distinct advantages over Brantley. The most obvious one is durability. McCutchen has missed a total of 65 games in the last nine seasons. Brantley has missed 242 the last three years alone.

The defensive metrics peg McCutchen and Brantley as equals when playing the corner outfield. Eye-test, I'm still giving McCutchen the advantage because of his instincts, ability to glide to the ball and his versatility. You must also factor in that the last two places McCutchen played the corner outfield most — AT&T Park and PNC Park — are among the most spacious and challenging outfields in baseball.

Brantley is a solid outfielder, too, but you can't put him in center field in a pinch at this point like you can with McCutchen. Brantley hasn't played center since 2015. 

Brantley gets the slight baserunning advantage, and he's obviously the better bet to hit .290 or .300. Yet the last two years, despite the fact that Brantley has out-hit McCutchen .305 to .267, McCutchen has the higher OBP — .366 to Brantley's .362.

Brantley strikes out less. McCutchen has more power. Brantley's left-handed bat may have balanced the Phils' lineup better. But McCutchen hits righties better than Brantley hits lefties.

Add up all these tiny advantages for McCutchen and you get a player the Phillies just felt more comfortable with. Then comes the "adult in the room" aspect of what McCutchen will bring the Phillies. He gives them an experienced voice in the clubhouse and another source of leadership they badly needed. It had gotten to the point the last year and a half where every game, good or bad, Rhys Hoskins was basically left to speak on behalf of his teammates. He won't have to do it alone in 2019.

If the Phillies were in the position of a mid-market team like the Rockies, Pirates, Reds or Royals, giving McCutchen $50 million over three years would have been a bad move because it swallows up so many of your resources. But on this team, in this city, with this future payroll and in an offseason when the Phillies are clearly shifting to win-now mode, paying a slightly higher price to get the guy they wanted made sense.

Boiled down to its simplest form, that $16.7 million per year the next three years won't stop the Phillies from improving elsewhere.

Phillies rumors: If no Manny Machado, Mike Moustakas would be clear upgrade over Maikel Franco

Phillies rumors: If no Manny Machado, Mike Moustakas would be clear upgrade over Maikel Franco

Many Phillies fans have been so focused on Manny Machado and Bryce Harper for so long that no other acquisition this winter will be a worthy consolation.

The Phillies, though, have prepared for the reality of an offseason that doesn't net them either huge star. If that does unfortunately happen, they'll have to pivot quickly to other offensive upgrades, provided quality options are still available.

Before getting to one immediately logical free-agent upgrade, just remember that Harper and Machado are not the final two stars who will ever come available. Unless the Rockies make an insane extension offer, Nolan Arenado will be a free agent this time next year at age 28. (I personally would rather build a team around Arenado than Machado, but anywho.)

For the Phillies this offseason, Mike Moustakas would make a lot of sense if Machado doesn't happen. He's a definite upgrade over Maikel Franco, offensively and defensively, and would give this Phils lineup better left-handed balance.

The need for lefty power

As of this moment, the best part of the Phillies' batting order will feature three right-handers among four spots in Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen and Rhys Hoskins. You can split it up a bit by going Segura one, McCutchen two, Odubel Herrera/Nick Williams three and Hoskins four, but it would be helpful to have some consistent power from the left side.

Moustakas offers that. He's homered 51 times off of right-handed pitchers the last two seasons, the exact same total as both Machado and Harper. (No, not a comparison, just an interesting fact.)

Moustakas' OPS against righties over that span is a few points higher than Anthony Rizzo's.

Phillies' interest in Moustakas

The Phillies were interested in Moustakas in July, before the Royals traded him to the Brewers, and have expressed interest in him again this offseason. Moustakas, like Harper and Zach Britton, is a Scott Boras client. 

A definite upgrade over Franco

When the Phillies were connected to Moustakas this past summer, some questioned whether he was even an upgrade over Franco. Around that time, Franco had been hot, flashing the kind of multi-week hot streak the Phillies had been waiting a long time for. 

But at the plate, in the field, on paper or in front of your eyes, Moustakas is just a better player than Franco and has been throughout Franco's big-league career.

Since 2015, Moustakas has hit .267/.324/.484. Franco has hit .255/.306/.442.

Moustakas has averaged 33 homers and 34 doubles per 162 games. Franco has averaged 27 homers and 29 doubles.

Moustakas' .808 OPS over that four-year span is 15 percent higher than the league average. Franco's .748 OPS is 60 points lower, and two percent below the league average.

Defensively, Moustakas has been average, but there is value in average. He has -1 defensive run saved over the past four years. Franco has -30, by far the worst mark in the National League.

What about the contracts?

Franco is projected to make $5 million through the arbitration process this winter. He is under club control through the end of the 2021 season. If he remains an everyday player throughout his arbitration years, he could realistically get $8 million in 2020 and $10 million in 2021. So for all intents and purposes, Franco would be about a three-year, $23 million player for the Phils.

Moustakas is a free agent. Things did not go so well for him last offseason, when he was a free agent but lingered on the market as possible landing spots like the Angels, Giants, Yankees, Mets and Braves were filled. 

Eventually, Moustakas went back to the Royals for one year and $5.5 million with incentives and a $1 million buyout. It wasn't what he or Boras expected.

Boras said last offseason that no major-league team offered Moustakas a multi-year deal. The weird thing was that Moustakas had just turned 29 and was coming off a 38-homer season, by far his best as a pro. He's now coming off a season that was about 70 percent as productive.

Moustakas, now 30, is a candidate for a two-year deal this winter, or a one-year pact with a vesting option. Boras likes to extract every last dollar, but two years in the $20-26 million range seems fair. 

That kind of contract would give the Phillies a better third baseman in 2019 (if they don't land Machado), and also give them the flexibility to pursue Arenado at the 2019 trade deadline or in free agency.

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