Phillies

Despite risks, Phillies appear ready to plunge into high-priced free-agent pitching market

Despite risks, Phillies appear ready to plunge into high-priced free-agent pitching market

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — On Day 1 of baseball’s general managers meetings, Matt Klentak stood by his recent comment, you know, the bold one where he said it was time for the Phillies to win “right now, no questions asked.”

“That’s what I believe,” Klentak said as the meetings kicked into gear Tuesday. “Our roster is constructed in such a way that we have a core of talent on the club right now that is in the prime of their career. We have a dedicated ownership and organization that’s ready for it. We have a fan base that wants it. And it’s time.”

The Phillies entered 2019 with new toys (Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto) and high hopes of ending a playoff drought that has lasted way too long. But that drought grew to eight seasons when the Phillies went 81-81 and finished in fourth place in the NL East. Injuries hit the Phillies hard in 2019 but so did ineffectiveness in the starting rotation. The X-rays and MRIs will be clean when camp opens in Clearwater in three months. But will there be an infusion of talent in the rotation? It’s a must if the Phillies are to win right now.

“A lot of good teams in recent years have been constructed in different ways,” Klentak said. “The Washington Nationals just won the World Series largely on the strength of some horses in their rotation. Kansas City won a few years ago with kind of a bullpen-dominated team and speed and defense.

“I don’t think the next Phillies championship team has to be built in one way, but I do think as we look at some of our challenges last year and some of the areas where we can improve, I think placing a focus on the mound is definitely one of those areas. Now, it doesn’t mean that we have to go add multiple top-of-the-rotation starters, but the rotation is definitely an area that we are going to look into this winter.”

You can bet the Phillies will do more than look into improving the rotation this winter. They will get right in there and mix it up for some of the top free-agent arms. The class is led by Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. It also includes Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner and Jake Odorizzi.

There is already talk that Cole could command a multi-year deal worth more than $250 million and with the Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees both expected to be strongly in the bidding, the number could rise high above that.

Strasburg opted out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract with the Washington Nationals. He and agent Scott Boras (he also reps Cole) would not have done that if they weren’t certain of a bigger pay day.

The Phillies have the wallet to make a play for a Cole or a Strasburg, as well as any other pitcher on the market. Signing one of these pitchers, however, would require the Phillies’ forfeiting their second pick in next year’s draft. Klentak is not a fan of losing draft picks — no general manager is — but for the right guy, he would part with the pick. He did it last year for Harper.

“You just have to operate case by case,” Klentak said. “Draft picks have a certain value and sometimes you might be willing to forfeit that value and sometimes you may not.”

Klentak’s boss, club president Andy MacPhail, has long expressed a general distaste for conducting business in the free-agent pitching market. Just too many risks. MacPhail is a proponent of buying hitters and growing pitchers. But the Phils haven’t grown too many pitchers lately — right-hander Spencer Howard is knocking on the door but Klentak on Tuesday reiterated his comments from September that Howard needs time in Triple A — and that forced them to sign Jake Arrieta two years ago and make a run at Patrick Corbin last winter. Arrieta has not lived up to his $75 million price tag. He is 18-19 in two seasons with the Phils and required season-ending elbow surgery in September. The Phillies offered Corbin a five-year contract last winter but would not go six years. Corbin got that sixth year in Washington and quickly paid off in helping the Nationals win the World Series last month.

To get a top starter in this market — and maybe even a second-tier starter — the Phillies will probably have to be willing to go more than five years. Will their profound need for pitching and their desperation to win push them to do that?

For the right guy — probably.

“Pitching is fragile and if you’re relying on free-agent starting pitching to build your organization, you go into that knowing you may be left disappointed at some point in that contract,” Klentak said. “Even the Phillies during their great run from ’07 to ‘11, some of the more notable pitchers (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) that they brought in were really good at the front end of those contracts and not healthy at the back end of those contracts.

“So, you just have to know the pitfalls, know what you’re getting into. I don’t like to operate in absolutes, to say that we would or would never do something. I never thought we’d sign a position player (Harper) to a 13-year contract but we did it. You want to be open-minded and operate without absolutes, but at the same time you want to go in understanding your realities and some of the risks.”

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Phillies to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

Phillies to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

The Phillies are about to sign a player with a resume chock-full of impressive — and important — accomplishments.

According to sources, Matt Szczur, the 30-year-old outfielder from South Jersey, has agreed to sign a minor-league contract with the Phils. The deal will include an invite to major-league spring training camp.

Szczur — pronounced SEE-zur — has spent parts of five seasons in the majors with the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres. He is a product of Lower Cape May Regional High School and Villanova University. He was a two-sport star at Villanova.

On the football field, Szczur was a dynamic receiver and return specialist for Villanova’s 2009 NCAA FCS national championship team. He racked up 270 all-purpose yards in the title game win over Montana and was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.

On the baseball field, Szczur was an all-Big East player and a fifth-round draft pick of the Cubs in 2010. He played in 107 games for the Cubs team that won the World Series in 2016.

Szczur’s accomplishments extend beyond the playing field.

Off the field, he did something extraordinary when he took time off from his junior year baseball season at Villanova in 2010 to donate bone marrow that ultimately helped save the life of a young girl from Ukraine who had battled leukemia. Szczur’s life-saving gift started with his involvement in the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation. Talley was Szczur’s football coach at Villanova. Szczur has subsequently started his own charitable enterprise, the Szcz The Day Foundation.

Szczur hit .259 with five homers and 24 RBIs in 185 at-bats for the World Series champion Cubs in 2016. He was traded to San Diego in 2017. He spent parts of that season and the 2018 season in the majors with that club. He signed a minor-league deal with Arizona last season and hit .322 with eight homers, 28 RBIs and a .967 OPS in 44 games at Triple A Reno. His season was shortened by a quad injury.

The Phillies are set at the corner outfield spots with Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper and Adam Haseley is going to get a chance to hold down the center field spot with Roman Quinn in the picture as well. Szczur will give the Phillies some outfield depth and his ability to play center field is a plus. He is an excellent defender at all three outfield positions and could push for a spot on the big club as active rosters will expand from 25 to 26 men in 2020.

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Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

SAN DIEGO — A year ago, Phillies officials left the winter meetings with much of their offseason work still in front of them.
 
Manny Machado was still a front-burner free-agent item. Bryce Harper was still in the background and J.T. Realmuto was headed to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York … anywhere but Philadelphia.
 
You know the rest of the story.
 
Spring training had already begun by the time the Phillies settled their offseason last year. A year later, Phillies officials departed the winter meetings on Thursday with their heavy offseason lifting complete.

The Phils signed free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract last week and free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14 million deal at the meetings this week. The signings left the Phils about $5 million under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for the coming season and the club will be mindful of that. It’s likely — though not certain — that any further moves the Phillies make will qualify as tweaks.
 
Here are a few things to keep an eye on over the remainder of the offseason.

The starting rotation

Aaron Nola and Wheeler give the Phillies a “1 and a 1-A,” as manager Joe Girardi said.

Jake Arrieta is healthy and will be ready to go Day 1 of camp and Zach Eflin will hold down a job. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are slated to battle for the fifth job, though it would not be surprising to see the Phils bring back Drew Smyly on a minor-league deal to join the fight. The Phils were keeping an eye on Rick Porcello to see where his market was headed, but he signed for one year and $10 million with the Mets. Lefty Wade Miley could be someone to keep an eye on, depending where his market goes. The Phils are committed to having top prospect Spencer Howard start the season in Triple A, but he could have a major impact as the season goes on. The Phils will watch Howard’s workload — because of injury, he pitched under 100 innings last year — so adding bargain depth is a must.

The bullpen

At the moment, it looks like a fairly unchanged unit. The Phils are banking on Adam Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez being healthy again and Hector Neris, Jose Alvarez and Ranger Suarez carrying a heavy load again. Pivetta, Velasquez or both could be used in the ‘pen, depending on the depth that is added in the rotation. If the Phils want to push the tax, they could make a play for former Yankee Dellin Betances. Someone from the system like Garrett Cleavinger or Connor Brogdon could surprise in spring training. How about Tommy Hunter? The Phils put a lot of time into his rehab after elbow surgery last year. Could he be a fit on a bargain deal? Ditto for Jared Hughes and Mike Morin.

The bench

Former All-Star and .300 hitter Josh Harrison has been signed on a minor-league deal. He can play anywhere and figures to have a good chance to make the club. Phil Gosselin, another jack of all trades, is coming back on a minor-league deal and the team has shown some interest in free agent Matt Szczur. Brad Miller remains a free agent and a potentially good fit. Jay Bruce will add power off the bench. Andrew Knapp returns as backup catcher but it would not be surprising to see the Phils sign one or two more veteran catchers to push for work and add depth. Remember, Girardi has said he’d like to keep Realmuto to between 120 and 130 games so he is fresh in October. “That’s where the prize is,” Girardi said. Austin Romine would have been a nice fit, but he signed with Detroit. 

Trades

While it appears as if most of the team’s major moves are done, general manager Matt Klentak and his group will continue to stay engaged on the trade front and you never know if one could materialize. Nick Williams could be dealt. Miami has long liked him. Velasquez could be dealt for some salary relief, particularly if the Phils are able to add starting pitching depth. The Phils would surely listen on Jean Segura, but he has three years and $45 million left on his deal so that would not be easy.
 
Could the Phils make a major trade?
 
After seeing the Realmuto deal come together so quickly last February, it can’t be ruled out. Even something crazy is possible. By crazy we mean Kris Bryant. Yes, he’d be a nice fit as the Phils make a quick push at a title before he becomes a free agent. But it’s a real long shot and it would probably cost top prospect Alec Bohm, and it would definitely push the Phillies over the luxury tax threshold, though managing partner John Middleton has said he would go over it for the right championship-caliber opportunity. Maybe that’s Bryant. There will continue to be buzz about him and the Phillies will continue to be connected to him as long as there is.
 
J.A. Happ could be another guy to watch on the trade front. The Phils made him an offer last winter and he signed with the Yankees. The Yanks are now eager to move his $17 million salary and might attach a good prospect to the package to help make the deal. Happ would put the Phillies over the tax, but, given the Phils’ need for more pitching, it might it be worth rolling the dice on the left-hander having a bounce-back year if and only if the Yanks attach a good prospect or two to the deal. 

What about Herrera?

The end of the winter meetings begins to put spring training in focus and the Phillies have a big decision to make before then: Do they bring Odubel Herrera to camp? Do they release him? The Phils would eat most of his salary to trade him, but there has been no interest.
 
We dealt with the Herrera situation more deeply in this story.

Realmuto's extension

Sometime before spring training, the Phils are expected to pursue a contract extension with Realmuto.

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