Phillies

Phillies free-agent target: Austin Romine and other backup catchers

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Phillies free-agent target: Austin Romine and other backup catchers

Leading up to baseball’s winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game’s top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we look at the market for backup catchers, which includes an obvious fit in longtime Yankee Austin Romine.

The 2020 Phillies need a better backup catcher, period. If they want to avoid late-season fatigue or wear-and-tear for J.T. Realmuto — arguably their most important player — then they need to raise the floor and ceiling of the catcher making the other 35 starts. 

"I want the guy healthy in October because that’s where the prize is," Joe Girardi said of Realmuto the day he was introduced as Phillies manager.

The gap between Realmuto and Andrew Knapp is far too vast. The gap will be vast between Realmuto and practically any other catcher alive, but the Phillies need at least serviceable production if anything happens to their stud backstop.

Austin Romine may be just the guy. He has spent the last four seasons as the Yankees' backup catcher and been solid in the role both offensively and defensively. It seemed like every time in 2018 or 2019 that Gary Sanchez was either injured or struggling, Romine stepped in and produced. Word out of New York is that they could entrust that spot to 29-year-old Kyle Highashioka coming off his strong offensive season at Triple A.

The last two seasons were the 31-year-old Romine's best — he hit .262/.302/.428 in 505 plate appearances. 

Over that same span, Knapp hit .204/.305/.319. Same OBP, significantly worse contact.

Knapp has an option remaining. The Phillies could sign a better backup while optioning Knapp to Triple A and keeping him in the organization in case of injury. Remember, too, that MLB is going to 26-man rosters all season in 2020 and some teams may use that extra spot on a third catcher.

“He’s a really strong and influential guy in the clubhouse," Matt Klentak said of Knapp two weeks ago at the GM Meetings. "He’s very close to his teammates, he’s a leader in the clubhouse, and that’s another thing we have to make sure we appreciate with whatever decision we make. I think the pairing of Realmuto and Knapp is generally pretty good and can continue to be, particularly with the 26th man, which is likely going to add another bat off the bench and limit the number of pinch-hitting opportunities for the backup catcher.”

Adding Romine would make sense for the Phillies beyond the obvious Girardi connection. 

Russell Martin and Martin Maldonado are other options, though they may still be able to find more playing time elsewhere.

One other name to keep in mind: Jonathan Lucroy. The 33-year-old is nearing the finish line. He was released by the Angels in August, signed with the Cubs three days later and hit just .189 in 60 plate appearances down the stretch. Still, he has the capability to be a good backup.

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Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

For long stretches in each of the last two seasons, Zack Wheeler was every bit as effective as Aaron Nola.

Wheeler had four terrific months in 2018, posting a 2.52 ERA over his final 20 starts beginning on June 1.

In 2019, he found his groove right around midseason, pitching to a 3.04 ERA over his final 16 starts.

When you hear the phrase "untapped potential" in relation to Wheeler, this is what it means. It means that if he can pitch like this a bit more consistently — four good months instead of two — he can be a legitimate ace.

If he can't? Well then, if you trust his stuff and his results the last two years, you're getting no worse than a low-end No. 2 starter. Wheeler has made 60 starts the last two seasons with a 3.65 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, a strikeout per inning and less than a home run per nine.

Those numbers might not jump off the page, but they are impressive when you consider the surge in home runs in 2019 and especially so when considering his workload.

Wheeler is one of only 12 pitchers to reach 375 combined innings the last two seasons. The others are Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Aaron Nola, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Bauer, Jose Berrios, Miles Mikolas and Mike Leake.

In 2019, Wheeler made 18 quality starts (at least six innings with three earned runs or fewer). Nola also made 18. Zach Eflin had 14, Jake Arrieta had 10 and no other Phillie was in double-digits.

When Nola did not start a game for the Phillies in 2019, they received a quality start 31 percent of the time — less than once every three games.

Wheeler obviously helps with that. Think back to late last season when the Phillies could generate no momentum and had such a smaller chance to win when anyone was on the mound other than their ace. Wheeler changes that. He offers more of a chance for series wins, sweeps, actual winning streaks.

He also brings velocity, something the Phillies' rotation has sorely lacked for years. Wheeler's four-seam fastball averaged a career-best 96.7 mph last season, fourth-fastest in the majors behind Noah Syndergaard, Cole and deGrom.

The Phillies have never had a starting pitcher throw at least 100 innings in a season and average better than 95 mph with his fastball. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez came the closest. Wheeler has done it comfortably in back-to-back seasons.

Velocity is not the only thing, especially these days when so many have it, but it is obviously still a major part of missing bats and getting outs. Because Wheeler has 3 or 4 mph more on his fastball than Nola, and because he can locate significantly better than Pivetta or Velasquez, he offers the Phillies' rotation a different, much-needed look.

This is not to say Wheeler comes without flaws or concerns. He hasn't yet ripped off a string of strong seasons. Two is a start and the Phillies are banking on it continuing.

He hasn't been a Top 10 Cy Young finisher, though he should have been in '18.

He's never reached 200 innings in a season, though some of that was because of caution the Mets exercised with him.

And Wheeler, despite the velo, has gone through plenty of multi-start stretches where he's been hit hard and doesn't miss many bats, in a way you don't see with the tippy-top guys like Scherzer and deGrom (which Wheeler is not).

He had three starts in a row like that last August and two straight in June.

But Wheeler is as capable of 7 innings, 1 run, 11 strikeouts as any pitcher in either league. When he's on, he can be so, so good. He went at least seven innings 15 times last season and allowed one or no runs in seven of them.

This one addition will not boost the Phillies to 90 wins, but it's the first giant step to another critical offseason.



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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman react to the big news of the Phillies agreeing to a five-year deal with Zack Wheeler on the latest At The Yard podcast.

They also discuss the possibility of the Phillies signing Didi Gregorius, Cole Hamels heading to the Braves, and much more.

• Initial impressions of the signing
• What the guys like most about Wheeler
• Was this the right price?
• Bittersweet day with Hamels to Braves
• Phillies still need to add another good SP
• One Wheeler concern
• The market for Anthony Rendon



Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Phillies