Phillies sound more likely to trade for starting pitchers than sign them

Phillies sound more likely to trade for starting pitchers than sign them

The Phillies went 35-35 in their final 70 games on the backs of a group of exciting young position players and an improved bullpen, so there's a growing perception that adding several starting pitchers to a rotation in shambles could inch the 2018 Phils closer to .500.

The Phillies, as of today, have just one starting pitcher they can feel good about heading into next season: Aaron Nola.

Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff had disappointing, injury-plagued seasons. Nick Pivetta showed flashes but also had the highest ERA in baseball at various points in September. Ben Lively had 10 quality starts in 15 tries, but when he was bad, he was really bad. 

There are some intriguing starting pitchers available in free agency this winter — Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb — but based on team president Andy MacPhail's comments Tuesday, it doesn't sound like the Phils will be spending for a starting pitcher in the first or even second tier this offseason.

"I would expect we’re going to have a relatively low payroll (in 2018)," MacPhail said. "I might be surprised. It’s [Matt Klentak's] job to stay open to other opportunities and if something comes up, we should jump on it."

The Phillies have just one player under contract in 2018: Odubel Herrera. After you account for all the arbitration raises and slight raises to players making close to the minimum, you get to a figure of about $30 million for a mostly-completed 25-man roster.

Now, "relatively low payroll" doesn't mean the Phils will stay at $30 million. Even if they increased it to, say, $75 million, that is still low relative to the rest of the league and certainly low compared to the $170 million or so they spent at the height of their contending phase.

But MacPhail doesn't sound like a man who wants the Phillies to pay for past performance.

"My philosophy hasn't changed," he said. "There are times when you're going to have to dive into that pool and just take a risk. But it's not my favorite place to be. 

"We get inundated with stories across the game about how everybody is looking for starting pitching. 'Just get two quality starters, and we'll be all set.' Well, you might as well look for a unicorn at the same time. It's tough. You don't want to be paying for past performance. That's often what you're confronted with — someone who has probably logged over 600 innings in the last three years and been a great pitcher and now we're on the wrong side of 30 and here we go."

There's a lot of merit to that last comment. In 2015, the Padres signed a 32-year-old James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract. He had exceeded 200 innings in each of the prior eight seasons and put up No. 2 starter stats. 

What happened? All of those innings caught up to Shields, who lost velocity and has been a high-priced disaster for most of the contract, posting a 5.60 ERA in his last 54 starts. It's one of many, many, many recent examples.

You never want to be that team. You don't want to be the team that pays Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn — two consistent right-handers who've already had Tommy John surgery — $75 million to be lesser versions of themselves.

The more you read into MacPhail's comments Tuesday, the more likely it sounds that the Phillies trade for starting pitching rather than sign a few guys to deals averaging $15 million per year.

"This is as deep an organization that I’ve ever been associated with," MacPhail said of the Phils' farm system. "We don’t have some of the marquee names that other teams have but in terms of depth, I think we’re as good as there is in the game. ... 

"Is it possible that Matt uses those assets in the minor leagues to augment our major-league club in '18? I think the answer to that question is definitely we’d consider it. The minor leagues are there to populate your major-league club, and it can happen a couple different ways. They can come up and play or you can turn them in for what is more known assets. ...

"Most of you guys have written about how the '18 (free-agent) class is a little on the light side, all the big guns come out in '19. It may well be that teams that want to compete in that '19 arena shed some salary that we won't anticipate right now in '18. So we have to keep our eye out for that, as well."

The caliber of starting pitcher the Phillies can find on the trade market depends on who they're willing to move. Freddy Galvis, as impressive as he is defensively, will not bring back a good, young starting pitcher. Galvis just isn't enough of a difference-maker, and he's a free agent after 2018.

Cesar Hernandez? That should get some talks started. Hernandez has been remarkably consistent the last two seasons, hitting .294 with a .371 OBP in 2016 and .294 with a .373 OBP in 2017. There was trade interest in Hernandez last winter and there will be more this winter, with the Phillies likely listening more intently now that they know more about Scott Kingery and J.P. Crawford.

Packaging Hernandez — or Maikel Franco, for that matter — with a prospect like Dylan Cozens could net the Phillies a younger pitcher with comparable skills to Cobb or Lynn but without the hefty price tag.

If the Phils dangle players like Nick Williams or Aaron Altherr, the starting pitching return could be even more impressive. Fans wouldn't like it, but trading an outfielder for a starting pitcher of similar value and then replacing that outfielder in free agency could turn out better than just signing a pitcher.

Take this hypothetical: The Phillies trade a nice prospect package including Williams to Tampa Bay for Chris Archer, then sign J.D. Martinez to play right field. Isn't a Phillies team with Martinez and Archer better than a Phillies team with Williams and Cobb? I'm not saying I think that's the absolute best idea, but the Phillies are admittedly in a position to listen to any possibility that comes their way.

"We need to stay open-minded," MacPhail said. "But, philosophically, it's not where I — you heard me drone on in spring training about pitching, pitching, pitching. Young pitching is at such a premium today. You need such a volume of it. You should always be focused on that."

Notice the word "young" preceding pitching. In this free-agent class, injured Michael Pineda is the only starting pitcher of note younger than 30.

Phillies poised to sign Yhoswar Garcia, top teenage outfielder from Latin America

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Phillies poised to sign Yhoswar Garcia, top teenage outfielder from Latin America

CLEARWATER, Fla. — It’s not the signing you want to hear about, but for those who like to follow prospects from the ground floor on up, it’s certainly interesting.

The Phillies, according to multiple reports out of Latin America, will land highly regarded Venezuelan outfielder Yhoswar Garcia when Major League Baseball’s international signing period begins on July 2.

Garcia is just 16. Word is he will receive a bonus in the neighborhood of $2.5 million. He is 5-11 and 180 pounds. He is an excellent athlete with speed, a strong throwing arm and a promising bat.

Young players like Garcia have miles to cover in the development process, but there is definitely something to dream on there and the player has obviously impressed Phillies scouts.

Two summers ago, the Phillies signed another Latin teen named Garcia for $2.5 million. Luis Garcia, a switch-hitting shortstop, has quickly risen to the top of the Phillies’ prospect chart. As a 17-year-old last summer, he led the Gulf Coast League in batting average (.369). He finished third in on-base percentage (.433) and RBIs (32) and was sixth in OPS (.921).

Luis Garcia projects to play at Single A Lakewood this season.

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Does Odubel Herrera become trade bait if the Phillies sign Bryce Harper?

Does Odubel Herrera become trade bait if the Phillies sign Bryce Harper?

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Odubel Herrera is a man of much interest in this Phillies camp.

He is coming off a disappointing finish to the 2018 season, one that led to management’s order to get into better physical condition.

Herrera arrived to camp early and in noticeably better shape. But that hasn’t made him immune to the injury bug — or speculation about his future in Philadelphia as the club negotiates with free-agent outfielder Bryce Harper.

Herrera pulled out of a first-to-third baserunning drill on Wednesday and hobbled off the field. A couple of hours later, he left the ballpark wearing a wrap on his left leg.

Manager Gabe Kapler called it a "mild" hamstring strain. Actually, it was a recurrence of a hamstring injury that Herrera suffered during workouts a few days before camp officially opened. Herrera had an MRI after the initial injury and had recovered to the point where he could participate in on-field workouts.

“It was tightening up on him during baserunning drills so we’re getting it checked out,” Kapler said.

Kapler was unsure whether Herrera would have another MRI.

There is plenty of time for Herrera to get healthy for the Phillies’ season opener. Or any team’s season opener, for that matter. The Phillies whiffed on Manny Machado on Tuesday and while that likely rescued third baseman Maikel Franco from the trading block, it may have put Herrera on it — or, at the very least, made him a consideration to be placed on it because he might fetch some value in a deal.

With Machado off the board, the Phillies are now 100 percent on Harper and there is enormous public pressure for them to land him and put an exclamation point on the Winter of Stupid Money. Harper, of course, is an outfielder. If the Phillies land him, they would likely have to subtract an outfielder.

If the Phillies were to land Harper, they could trade Nick Williams or send him to the minors. Both Aaron Altherr and Roman Quinn are out of minor-league options, but one could be a trade candidate. It would seem likely that the Phils would want to hang on to Quinn, who has the speed and arm to be a difference-making centerfielder — if he can finally put together a healthy season. Quinn’s inability to do that makes it difficult to bank on him as the regular centerfielder and that could convince the Phillies to hang onto Herrera, who has started 524 games in centerfield the last four seasons.

And there’s another reason to hang on to Herrera: He is talented and at 27 could still develop the consistency needed to be a star — or the batting champion that former manager Pete Mackanin once predicted he’d be. Herrera also is a left-handed hitter, which the Phils are short on.

Herrera was an All-Star in 2016. He signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract extension later that year. Last season, his overall game — the physical and the mental — slipped badly in the second half and he lost playing time in center to Quinn. Herrera hit just .189 with a .530 OPS over the final two months of the season, prompting management to order him to get into shape and improve his focus.

At the moment, all indications are that Herrera is in the Phils’ plans for this season and beyond.

But something will have to give if Harper dons red pinstripes.

Phillies officials remained in pursuit of Harper on Wednesday. Out on the field, players went through early-camp workouts in preparation of Friday’s Grapefruit League opener.

“My focus is on the camp,” Kapler said in response to a question about Harper-Mania. “I’m not saying we’re not aware of the things going on around us, but the focus is on crisp, efficient workouts.”

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