Last few years would've been so much different if Phillies kept Charlie Morton

Last few years would've been so much different if Phillies kept Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton earned the win in Wednesday night's wild-card game between the Rays and the A's. He didn't allow an earned run over five innings, departing with a four-run lead that Tampa Bay's uber-talented bullpen maintained.

The Athletics were at home but their home-field advantage was mitigated by Tampa's edge in the starting pitching matchup. Morton is better than even Sean Manaea, who had a 1.21 ERA in five late-season starts after missing a year with a shoulder injury.

That's not a knock on Manaea. Morton has been one of the dozen best starting pitchers in baseball the last three seasons. Otherwise known as his three seasons post-Phillies.

The Phils acquired Morton from Pittsburgh with one year and $8 million remaining on his contract before the 2016 season. All it cost them was a former 34th-round starting pitcher who never reached the majors. Morton just wasn't viewed then the way he's viewed now.

Morton pitched well in spring training for the Phils and showed signs of an improved repertoire to begin the regular season. His fastball velocity was up, and in four starts, Morton had a 4.15 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 17⅓ innings. To that point in his career, he had struck out only 6.3 batters per nine innings.

Morton tore his hamstring in his fourth start and missed the remainder of the 2016 season. The following offseason, he reached free agency and the Phillies opted against bringing him back. He signed a two-year, $14 million deal with the Astros with annual performance bonuses for reaching 12, 20, 25 and 30 starts. He reached seven of those eight incentives, earning an additional $4.375 million.

That same offseason Morton signed with the Astros, the Phillies signed Clay Buchholz, Joaquin Benoit and Michael Saunders. Talk about picking the wrong veterans.

Should the Phillies be criticized for not bringing back Morton? Maybe. It involves a ton of hindsight. But that's kind of the point. They simply have not identified enough under-the-radar, ascending talent in free agency or via trade. A regime as analytically-inclined as this one should have. Had the Phils' front office had more success with these types of moves, they'd get more of a pass for the ones they didn't make.

Think about how much different the last few years of Phillies baseball would have played out if they, instead of the Astros, were the team that signed Morton to that two-year deal before 2017. In the three years since that lone season with the Phillies, Morton is 45-16 with a 3.24 and 1.14 WHIP in 88 starts. He has 96 more strikeouts than innings pitched. He's basically been on par with Aaron Nola in overall value during that period.

Had the Phillies gotten from Morton what the Astros did, they would never have needed to sign a clearly declining Jake Arrieta. Arrieta's ERA, WHIP and rate of hits allowed all increased for three straight years before the Phillies committed $75 million to him. That's not hindsight; we outlined those concerns at the time, as well. There was a reason the Cubs shied away after Arrieta's storied run in Chicago.

Now, some will say that Morton would not have reached this level without going to Houston, where Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley have all thrived in an excellent organization that was at the forefront of the spin rate/high-heater movement. Maybe that's true. But Morton has always been extremely analytical himself. He's one of the most interesting and unique players to come through the Phillies' clubhouse in years. You could ask him a routine question and get a five-minute, poignant answer that helped you better understand the craft of pitching. Morton might have figured things out even without the Astros. He was on his way in 2016 before suffering that devastating injury running out a sac bunt.

The Phillies had another crack at Morton this past offseason but he went to Tampa for two years and $30 million. The Phillies were more so in pursuit of Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ. David Robertson signed with the Phils for two years and $23 million and will end up missing almost all of both seasons. Another unfortunate event for the Phils at a cost similar to what the Rays paid Morton.

Should the Phillies' front office be criticized for letting Morton slip from their grasp the first time? Probably not — they didn't have enough evidence that he'd be this good as he aged. The second time is less excusable. It's another example of the Phils failing to make that mid-tier move for a player that exceeds expectations. If Matt Klentak ends up losing his job, this theme will have played a large role. 

Phillies look to Red Sox for their new athletic trainer Paul Buchheit

Phillies look to Red Sox for their new athletic trainer Paul Buchheit

SAN DIEGO — Nothing official from the Phillies yet, but the team has apparently hired a new head athletic trainer.

According to multiple baseball sources, the Phils have hired Paul Buchheit for the position. Buchheit was most recently an assistant athletic trainer on the staff of the Boston Red Sox.

Buchheit replaces Scott Sheridan, who became the Phillies’ head athletic trainer in October 2006. Sheridan’s contract was not renewed after last season. General manager Matt Klentak declined to talk about specific reasons for the change last month.

Sheridan served on the National League’s athletic training staff for the All-Star Game in July. He was instrumental in helping Chase Utley continue his career after the second baseman developed serious knee issues earlier this decade (see story).

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Phillies officials head to winter meetings looking for an infield bat

Phillies officials head to winter meetings looking for an infield bat

SAN DIEGO — Baseball’s winter meetings are back in this seaside Southern California city for the first time in five years.

The San Diego meetings of 2014 were watershed times for the Phillies as the club traded its iconic shortstop and all-time hits leader, Jimmy Rollins, to the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

The deal brought the Phillies a pair of young pitchers, including Zach Eflin, and signaled the start of a rebuild as club officials conceded that the window of contention that had brought the Phillies five NL East titles and a World Series championship from 2007-2011 had officially closed.

Now, Phillies officials find themselves back in San Diego at another important time in franchise history. The rebuild ended when the team started lavishing big money on Jake Arrieta, Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper and giving up valuable prospects for J.T. Realmuto. Still missing, however, is a winning season. The Phils have not had one of those since 2011, the last year they made the playoffs. Ownership attached huge importance to the coming 2020 season when it pushed to have Gabe Kapler removed as manager after just two seasons in October and general manager Matt Klentak doubled down when he announced proven winner Joe Girardi as the new skipper and punctuated the announcement by saying, “No questions asked, it’s time to win right now.”

The urgency to win now showed last week when the club spent $118 million to sign starting pitcher Zack Wheeler. The hard-throwing right-hander has dealt with injury and inconsistency in his career, but his huge potential, coupled with the team’s acute need for pitching, made this a risk the Phils had to take. The Wheeler signing is expected to be announced as official as soon as Monday at the winter meetings.

So, what else will the team look to accomplish this week in San Diego?

Well, with Wheeler in the fold, the Phils have now prioritized adding an infield bat. That became imperative when the club cut ties with second baseman Cesar Hernandez and third baseman Maikel Franco last week.

The Phils’ ideal scenario would be to acquire a shortstop such as free agent Didi Gregorius. In that case, Jean Segura, whose dwindling range was a concern at shortstop last season, could move to second base and Scott Kingery could play third base. There could also be a scenario where Segura played third and Kingery second. The Phils had probed the market for third basemen and, according to sources, had seriously pursued Mike Moustakas before he signed with Cincinnati. The Phils are still monitoring the markets for free-agent third basemen Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rendon, but don’t get too excited because they appear to be more interested bystanders than active pursuers. Signing a shortstop like Gregorius, who just so happens to be a favorite of Girardi, would keep third base in play for the eventual arrival of prospect Alec Bohm, who will start the 2020 season in Triple A. Some rival evaluators do not believe that Bohm can survive defensively at third base in the majors — they see him as more of a first baseman — but Phillies officials remain convinced that he can do it. Time will tell.

There is competition for Gregorius. If the Phillies don't sign him, they look at Starlin Castro, Todd Frazier or Brock Holt as short-term fits at third base or other infield spots.

Even with Wheeler on board, the Phillies will continue to look for more pitching, though any further additions will probably come from the third and fourth tiers of the market. The Phils are speeding toward the $208 million luxury tax threshold and Wheeler, by all indications, will be their top wintertime expenditure. By most payroll estimates, the Phils are about $19 million under the tax, and that’s before adding an infielder, bullpen help and some rotation depth behind Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Arrieta and Eflin. Managing partner John Middleton is on record as saying he would not go over the tax for a marginal upgrade but would be open to it if the team was “fighting for a World Series,” and the upgrades were difference-makers like “Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay.”

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