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Phillies turn sights to starting pitching after adding relievers at winter meetings

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Phillies turn sights to starting pitching after adding relievers at winter meetings

ORLANDO, Fla. — Matt Klentak's trip to the winter meetings netted two veteran relievers, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter.

Now, Klentak's focus becomes starting pitching. He'd like to add at least one before spring training begins, and chances are good that he will.

"We will probably slow down on the reliever front for a little while," the Phillies general manager said on Wednesday, Day 3 of the meetings. "I think for right now, we’ll probably shift our focus back toward the starting pitcher market, see what comes of that and just be patient with it.

"My expectation is that we will have another move before we go to spring training. I would not be surprised if we’re done for the winter meetings, but I would be surprised if we’re done for the offseason."

The Phillies have probed the free-agent market — big-ticket items such as Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta are unlikely — and spent the fall gauging other teams on which starters could become available in trades.

"I couldn't handicap the way it'll happen or even if it'll happen," Klentak said. "I think we're continuing to stay engaged with some agents. There's a few teams we've talked to about trades, some short-term options, some more controllable options. I just don't know.

"We've said as an industry and the Phillies have talked about this for a long time: it's so important to be able to develop your own starting pitchers because to acquire them in a trade is incredibly expensive in terms of player capital and to acquire them in free agency is incredibly expensive in terms of total dollars. Maybe never in our history has it been more important to develop starting pitchers."

In recent seasons, the Phillies have added starting pitchers (Jeremy Hellickson, Charlie Morton, Clay Buchholz) near the end of their contracts. The Phils could still do that and have the money to take on a salary dump. But there would be merit to taking on a younger pitcher who has more contractual control, and the Phillies have the prospects to get in the hunt for Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole or Michael Fulmer, three pitchers who fit this profile.

The Phillies have a logjam in the middle infield with J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery pushing Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez. Galvis and Hernandez are both available for trades. Officials from other clubs say the Phillies have been aggressive in shopping Galvis. The Phils will look to get pitching for Galvis, but the return might not be robust because he is a rental player who will be a free agent after the 2018 season. Hernandez figures to bring a better return because he has three years of contractual control remaining. A person from a club that has spoken to the Phillies about Hernandez said the Phils are looking for two pitchers for him.

Another starting arm is needed to complement a group of starters that includes Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and Ben Lively.

It's possible the Phils could also look for a veteran outfielder to come off the bench. But it's just as possible that the Phils give in-house prospect Roman Quinn a chance to be that guy. Quinn, a dynamic, speedy switch-hitter, has been plagued by injuries throughout his minor-league career, including last season when he missed significant time at Triple A with an elbow injury. He will turn 25 in May. It might be time to bring him, even if it means filling a reserve role.

"This is a year we want to find out about our young kids," Klentak said. "If we can find out about Roman Quinn, we would like to do that. On the flip side, if we have a chance to bring in a great makeup, complementary player that can help our young kids and show them the ropes a little bit, then we’d be open to that, too. That’s not likely to be an early offseason venture."

Also, as the rest of the offseason plays out, the Phils will monitor the availability of Miami outfielder Christian Yelich. The Phils have long liked Yelich and would certainly try to make a play for him. But as much as the Phillies like the player, Klentak has made it clear he's not in a hurry to subtract core players and prospects. That could hurt the Phillies' chances because it would take a big package of talent to get Yelich.

Notes
The Phillies pick third in the Rule 5 draft on Thursday morning. They will likely make a pick, but there's a strong possibility they will make it for another club and quickly trade the player. If the Phils lost someone in the draft, it could be outfielder Carlos Tocci or lefthander Brandon Leibrandt.

Klentak hinted that hard-throwing pitching prospect Seranthony Dominguez would begin transitioning to the bullpen in spring training. Mark Appel will also make the move to the bullpen.

COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

The Phillies have four players on the COVID-19 injured list (Hector Neris, Ranger Saurez, Scott Kingery and Tommy Hunter) and three more who have yet to arrive in camp because of coronavirus protocols (Aaron Nola, Adam Haseley and Christian Bethancourt).

We’re already seeing how unsteady and unpredictable this 60-game season will be. Nola is the Phillies’ best starting pitcher and Neris is their best reliever. Kingery is their starting second baseman. Haseley was set to start or split time in center field. Suarez was in the race for the fifth starter’s job.

So much for the Phillies would change without them, and it’s reasonable to expect at least a few of them will miss time early in the season. Phillies lefty Cole Irvin said Saturday he thinks it could take pitchers up to six weeks to return from coronavirus because it would require two weeks of quarantine, then the resumption of throwing, then a few bullpen sessions. The severity of cases varies, but it looks like it will generally cost pitchers more time than position players.

The best hitter in the NL East, Freddie Freeman, is also dealing with COVID-19 and is not feeling well at all right now, according to his wife Chelsea. Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters Saturday "it will be a while 'til we can get him back." It totally changes the Braves’ equation and 2020 chances if their rock is missing for a third of the season.

Will Smith, Atlanta’s top-tier lefty reliever signed to a three-year, $39 million in the offseason, also tested positive. Then on Saturday, Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez opted out of the season, as did their first base coach Eric Young Sr. Four Marlins players tested positive as well.

Yankees All-Star infielder D.J. LeMahieu tested positive.  So did Royals catcher Salvador Perez, Twins slugger Miguel Sano, Padres outfielder Tommy Pham and Indians speedster Delino DeShields Jr. Last week, Charlie Blackmon tested positive. There are at least another dozen known or suspected cases around the league with more, surely, to come.

On Friday, Mike Trout said "Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable" about the season ahead with a pregnant wife.

On Saturday, Dodgers left-hander David Price opted out of the season because of health and family concerns, joining King Felix, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Leake and Joe Ross. Buster Posey is reportedly mulling the decision too.

Other than that ... decent first weekend of camp?

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Aaron Nola not in Phillies camp; will Zack Wheeler start opener?

Aaron Nola not in Phillies camp; will Zack Wheeler start opener?

It has been widely assumed that Aaron Nola will make his third straight opening day start when the Phillies begin their shortened 2020 season later this month.

But now you have to wonder if things might be shaping up for Zack Wheeler to make that start.

Nola has not participated in either of the Phillies' first two workouts since training camp opened — re-opened might be a better way to put it — on Friday.

"He is not here yet," manager Joe Girardi said Saturday. "We're trying to work our way through that."

Nola is said to be working out, throwing, locally. It's unclear why he has not worked out with the club, though many things are unclear in the age of COVID-19. Girardi is prohibited from discussing anything related specifically to COVID-19.

Center fielder Adam Haseley has also missed the first two workouts. He is also said to be working out locally, away from the team.

Girardi did say Haseley's absence was "due to a medical condition. We're trying to work through it and get him here."

Ditto for non-roster catcher Christian Bethancourt, who, despite being absent from the 60-man player pool, is still part of the organization, according to Girardi.

Already, the Phillies are without pitchers Ranger Suarez, Tommy Hunter and Hector Neris and second baseman Scott Kingery. All are on a special COVID-19 injured list.

If you're keeping score at home, the Phillies have yet to see their potential opening day starting pitcher, their second baseman and their center fielder. That's not exactly good for the strength-up-the-middle philosophy. At least shortstop Didi Gregorius worked out for the first time Saturday. Catcher J.T. Realmuto is in camp and working out, as well.

Given that Nola has been throwing, it's still possible he could make the opening day start in three weeks. But if he's delayed much longer getting into camp, Wheeler could jump in. The right-hander threw to hitters on Saturday and his next outing could come in an intrasquad game, according to Girardi. That could put him considerably ahead of Nola.

"I thought he looked pretty good," Girardi said of Wheeler's work on Saturday. "I think in a lot of ways, pitchers might be ahead of where they would be in a normal spring training when it comes to the volume, but what they're missing is having a hitter in there and competing. 

"That's what our concern is about, being sharp and being able to get out of jams and those sorts of things. But I thought he looked pretty good today. His next outing, I'm not sure what it'll be, if it'll be another bullpen, a simulated game, or even an intrasquad but he should be able to go further as long as he wakes up and feels good."

It's not a given that Wheeler would be the opening day starter if Nola doesn't get enough time to prepare with the team. Wheeler's wife is due to give birth around the time of the July 23 or 24 opener. He will leave the team for a few days to be with his wife. But if the birth doesn't happen until a day or two after opening day, Wheeler could make that start then slip away to be with his family and possibly not even miss a start.

More will be known in the coming days. But Nola's status is certainly something to keep an eye on.

Meanwhile, another player, former American League Cy Young winner David Price of the Dodgers, opted out of his season on Saturday because of concerns about COVID-19.

Girardi is still confident the season will get off the ground.

Time will tell.

"I think there's a lot of concern and I think that's why we continue to educate as much as we can," he said. "We continue to test every other day, there's temperature checks a number of times during the day. 

"It's players being socially responsible to themselves, to the people around them, and to their teammates. If you have a symptom, don't just assume 'Ah, I have a headache today. It's normal,' or 'I'm sneezing more than normal today. It's my allergies.' You have to be completely honest in all of these questionnaires that we fill out or you jeopardize everyone in the room. It is a concern, yes."

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