Phillies

Early struggles continue for Phillies' David Robertson in loss to Nationals

Early struggles continue for Phillies' David Robertson in loss to Nationals

WASHINGTON— The Phillies lost their first game of the season Wednesday afternoon and it took three uncommon events for it to happen.

Aaron Nola had his worst outing since the 2017 season.

Rhys Hoskins simply missed a toss from Seranthony Dominguez that would have ended an inning but instead allowed the tying run to score.

And David Robertson pitched poorly again, his third straight subpar outing in his first week as a Phillie.

Robertson allowed a leadoff single to Anthony Rendon then walked the next three batters he faced to force in the game-winning run in a 9-8 Phillies loss (see observations).

The Phils, with an offense that will keep them in most games this season, had come back from an early 6-2 deficit and even took a lead in the top of the eighth before things fell apart.

Robertson's struggles are confounding. This is a pitcher with a 12-year track record of success as a late-inning reliever. He has been reliable setting up and reliable closing. And in nine of those seasons, he's done so in the high-pressure environment of New York.

"I'm pitching like crap," Robertson said, still hot about how his outing went. 

"I've been sucking out there, that's for sure. I throw it over the plate, it gets hit. Not throwing strikes, walking guys, putting guys on, giving them every chance to score runs.

"It's probably three of the worst outings I've ever put together. Fortunately, we won the last two games but I'm pretty hard on myself and if I keep going out there and pitching like crap, I'll have to figure something out."

Just six of Robertson's 19 pitches Wednesday were strikes. He's allowed four runs and nine baserunners in two innings of work. He has as many walks in three appearances with the Phillies as he had in his first 19 appearances with the Yankees last season. 

Of all the Phillies who may have been a candidate to struggle early, Robertson was not close to the top of the list. He had a 2.54 ERA and 0.94 WHIP with 189 strikeouts in 138 innings the last two seasons. And he's certainly not a reliever who cares much about having a specific role or inning.

Phillies fans are a passionate bunch. Many on social media are already ready for the team to sign Craig Kimbrel or determine that Robertson is worthless. Just search his name.

There's more scrutiny when the fanbase's only glimpses of you are bad outings.

"I would love to come right out of the gates hot and be that dependable piece at the back end of the bullpen like I felt I've been for most of my career," Robertson said. "It's not happening right now and I gotta figure it out."

Much of the Phillies' bullpen hopes rely on Robertson being that solid late reliever. The tandem of Robertson and Dominguez has a chance to shorten games, especially combined with Pat Neshek's consistency in multiple spots. 

Getting Robertson right is a top priority for a Phillies team with high expectations. If a few months go by and the bullpen is still underperforming, they'll be forced to look for help externally. But that's a ways away. The season is five games old and the Phillies are 4-1.

"One thing that stands out to me today is that we had three players not have their best games in Aaron, Rhys and David and they're all three guys that I would push all my chips in right now that are going to help us win a ton of baseball games and be at the central point of those wins," manager Gabe Kapler said. 

"They didn't have their best days today. I acknowledge that. We move on."

The Twins come to town Friday for a three-game series at Citizens Bank Park, which is sure to be rocking again. 

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Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Stephen Strasburg got how much? Good thing Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did

Good thing the Phillies signed Zack Wheeler when they did.

Stephen Strasburg, who entered the offseason as the No. 2 starting pitcher in free agency behind Gerrit Cole and ahead of Wheeler, is returning to the Nationals on a massive seven-year, $245 million contract, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.

As historically good as Strasburg was in October, that is an insane number for him. He will turn 32 midway through the first of the seven years. He has made 30 starts in just three of nine seasons and reached 200 innings twice. He was more durable than ever in 2019 and, boy, did he cash in because of it. 

Two seasons ago, in 2018, Strasburg made 22 starts with a 3.74 ERA. Had he had that type of season in 2019, he probably wouldn't have even opted out of the remaining three years and $75 million to find this next payday.

Good for him. But also good for the Phillies in agreeing with Wheeler five days before the Nats retained Strasburg. Because if Wheeler was still on the board today, that number is at least $20 million higher and maybe more. Would a team go to $140 million for Wheeler? What about $160 million? Think about how many free agents the White Sox have struck out on in recent years. Wouldn't they have been likely to up their offer one more time if Wheeler was still out there to see what Strasburg signed for?

Strasburg is a great pitcher, don't get it twisted. He proved in 2019 that he can be the most reliable and important arm in the league when the pressure is at its peak. But forget Year 6, by Year 3 or 4 of this deal, the Nationals could be regretting it mightily.

And if this is what it took to sign Strasburg, Gerrit Cole is even more likely to approach $300 million.

There has been much more offseason activity leaguewide than there was at this point a year ago. The five best remaining free agents are Cole, Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The next three would be Nick Castellanos, Didi Gregorius, Marcell Ozuna and then you're getting into back-end-rotation types.

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How close are Phillies to luxury tax threshold after Zack Wheeler signing?

How close are Phillies to luxury tax threshold after Zack Wheeler signing?

The Phillies, after signing Zack Wheeler for $118 million over five years, are approximately $20 million below MLB's luxury tax threshold for the 2020 season.

John Middleton was asked at a news conference six weeks ago about his willingness to exceed the $208 million tax, which for a first-time offender like the Phillies would result in a 20 percent penalty for every dollar they are over $208M.

This is what the Phils' managing partner said:

Here’s what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team. That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”

The 2020 Phillies are not one piece away from seriously contending for a World Series. Even after the Wheeler splash, they still need at least one more strong regular in the lineup, at least one starting pitcher, a couple semi-reliable relief arms and a more competent bench. The strength of the Nationals and Braves also complicates things.

Suffice it to say, this does not sound like the situation Middleton described above.

That does not mean, however, that the Phillies' front office is treating the tax threshold like a hard cap. If the right opportunity presents itself, they will pounce. If the expected dollar figure for Anthony Rendon somehow doesn't materialize, the Phillies wouldn't pass up a great deal for a great fit just to stay under in 2020.

They're just going to be logical about it. There is reason to leave flexibility for midseason when you have a better idea of how close you are to contending for a division title. Why overpay a middling reliever or starter now when you can potentially acquire a difference-making one in July? 

This is a key season coming up for the Phillies. After 2020, they free up $38 million as the contracts of Jake Arrieta and David Robertson expire. That's money that can be reallocated to a very good starting pitcher and a very good everyday player. Right now, those two contracts are hindrances. Robertson is unlikely to contribute in 2020 and the Phillies desperately need Arrieta to be better than a No. 4.

The Phillies' proximity to that $208 million luxury tax threshold helps explain why they didn't beat the Braves' one-year, $18 million offer to Cole Hamels. As nice as a reunion with Hamels would have been, they could probably replicate his production for half the money or maybe a little more with someone like Wade Miley or Rick Porcello.

The Phillies won't close the door on any free agent, but don't be shocked if their splashiest move came before the Winter Meetings even began.

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