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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What MLB's sliding scale proposal could look like from Phillies perspective

What MLB's sliding scale proposal could look like from Phillies perspective

Tuesday's meeting between MLB and the players' association kicked off an important week for a sport that knows it needs to quickly solve its financial battle and return to our screens.

According to multiple reports, the financial plan proposed to the players on Tuesday involved a sliding scale that would give the largest percentage of prorated salaries to players earning the least, and the smallest percentage of prorated salaries to players earning the most.

In simpler terms: If the players were to sign off on this plan, it would mean Bryce Harper ($27.5M in 2020) would get a lower percentage of his prorated salary than would Rhys Hoskins ($605,000).

The rationale of this reported proposal is pretty clear: There are so many more players earning close to the league minimum than there are superstars earning eight figures per year. If the players earning the least are given the highest percentage of their prorated salaries, it means a large chunk of the league would be close to earning what it would've if the March agreement regarding full prorated salaries remained untouched.

Let's use the Phillies as an example. In 2020, they were set to pay: 

• Bryce Harper just over $27.5M
• Zack Wheeler $21.5M
• Jake Arrieta $20M
• Andrew McCutchen $17M
• Jean Segura $14.85M
• Didi Gregorius $14M
• David Robertson $11M
• J.T. Realmuto $10M

They have seven more players set to make between $1.5 million and $8.5 million. The remaining 25 players on the 40-man roster, plus all the non-roster invitees and pre-arbitration players, all fall below that line.

This, from Joel Sherman of the NY Post, paints a slightly clearer picture of how it could shake out:

One person who had been briefed on the proposal said the expectation is that players due to make $1 million or less in 2020 would be made close to whole on a prorated basis for games played. Thus, if someone were making the MLB 2020 minimum of $563,500 and 82 regular-season games (almost exactly half a season) were played, they would receive roughly half their pay, about $282,000.

But players at the top of the pay chain such as Gerrit Cole and Mike Trout would get less. If that were in the 50 percent range — as an example — then Cole, who was due $36 million, this year would receive half of about the $18 million he would be due for half a season or roughly $9 million.

From a Phillies perspective, if those percentages are close to accurate, it would mean Harper would earn somewhere around $6.9 million of his $27.5 million salary. For Wheeler, that number would be about $5.4 million. For Arrieta, $5 million. And so on.

That is just an example, though. It is currently unclear how many different prorated tiers there would be, what the percentage would be for each, and whether the players would even sign off on this.

However, there are other factors at play. MLB could also elongate what we expected to be an 82-game season to closer to 100 games. The additional revenue of more games on local and national TV could mean a slightly higher percentage of salaries for players.

And, per the Post, "there also would be a kicker in which the players would receive a greater percentage of the salaries if the postseason is played — MLB receives the lion’s share of its national TV money from the playoffs."

There are some hurdles with this plan. There is the potential of pitting players against each other within their own union based on the different tiers of prorated pay. There is also the potential of a few superstar players feeling it's not worth it to play. What if you're Mookie Betts and you agree to play for a fraction of your salary and then suffer a bad injury that diminishes your free-agent value? 

There is no doubt that everyone in baseball is in this together and it benefits all sides to have the game return this summer. But there is still much more negotiating to be done.

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Important week on tap for MLB — can season actually begin in early July?

Important week on tap for MLB — can season actually begin in early July?

Signs point toward meaningful MLB news coming this week. 

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Saturday announced that teams could return to their facilities to train, which is meaningful nationwide given the fact that New York has had more than twice as many cases of COVID-19 reported as any other state.

In Tampa, Tropicana Field was reopened for limited workouts and more than a dozen Rays players participated. The Astros have announced that Minute Maid Park is open for workouts, too. The Angels' spring training complex is open to all players on their 40-man roster.

MLB and the players' association are scheduled to meet today. Understandably, the players' union has, so far, been unwilling to accept another pay cut on top of what it thought agreed to in March with prorated pay. Team owners have been adamant that it is not financially viable to pay players a half-season salary with no fans in stands. From their side, the losses would be too steep and would affect future finances.

Will the sides reach a compromise? They have to. We saw again over the weekend how many Americans are starved for sports when 5.8 million tuned into the Tiger Woods-Peyton Manning vs. Phil Mickelson-Tom Brady golf match, a number slightly higher than The Last Dance documentary received. 

MLB didn't need any more evidence that returning was crucial, but there it was. All parties feel a sense of urgency because the league doesn't want baseball to dip further in popularity, and the players want to play and get paid. If the sport were to disappear for a period of 18 months, it will fall off the radar for many casual fans. And a portion of die-hards will be so frustrated by the sides' inability to come to a financial agreement at a time when so many are suffering physically, mentally and financially and craving the escape of sports that even their viewership habits could change. 

MLB cannot afford that. It is not at the height of its popularity like the NBA.

The goal, when this is worked out, is still to hold Spring Training II in mid-June and open the season at the beginning of July. The closer we get to those dates without an agreement, the less likely it becomes that the regular season could start so soon. Players will need two or three weeks to prepare regardless of when a deal is struck.

It also looks increasingly likely that teams will stay within their own divisions. There would still be a good amount of interleague play between teams in close proximity to one another (think Yankees and Orioles for the Phillies), but the three-division, 10-team format idea is not as necessary if teams can play in their home states as opposed to just Florida, Texas and Arizona.

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