So far, Phillies proven right for free-agent pitching approach

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So far, Phillies proven right for free-agent pitching approach

Though Jake Arrieta struggled Monday night against a bad Marlins team, I was left during his start thinking back to the offseason, when we had no idea whether or not the Phillies would add an accomplished starting pitcher.

Signing Arrieta took some luck for the Phillies. It's not like they went into the winter knowing that he would linger in free agency until the second week of March, or that his own team, the Cubs, would value Yu Darvish over him.

Even with the luck factor, Matt Klentak, Andy MacPhail (and of course John Middleton) deserve credit for pouncing on Arrieta when it became apparent a deal could be struck. We've been over that.

But they deserve even more credit for avoiding two of the other top pitchers on the market — Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb — during that long period before the Arrieta signing.

Entering the offseason, both Lynn and Cobb appeared likely to find multi-year deals. After Darvish and Arrieta, they were widely considered the two best veteran SPs on the market.

Lynn had a 3.30 ERA over his last four seasons, missing 2016 completely after Tommy John surgery but averaging 33 starts in the other four. 

Cobb had posted a 3.36 ERA in his last four seasons, missing 2015 and most of 2016 after Tommy John surgery of his own but otherwise pitching well in the AL East.

MacPhail and Klentak made clear from the moment they arrived in Philly that they were uninterested in multi-year deals for mid-tier pitchers on the wrong side of 30 who'd had serious arm injuries in the past. Lynn and Cobb fit all of those criteria, so in retrospect, it was wrong to think either pitcher was ever on the Phils' radar.

But if the Phillies didn't get Arrieta, many fans would have been upset about them not landing Lynn or Cobb, who also remained unsigned until well after spring training started. Innings needed to be eaten and the rotation was rail-thin beyond Aaron Nola.

It turns out the Phils were right on both counts. A month into the season, Lynn has been a disaster with the Twins, posting an 8.37 ERA and allowing 50 baserunners in 23⅔ innings. Cobb has been even worse, allowing 22 runs and 37 hits in 17⅔ innings with the Orioles. The duo has a combined 8.93 ERA, and Minnesota and Baltimore are 0-9 in the nine starts Lynn and Cobb have made.

The Twins are on the hook for only this year with Lynn ($12 million), so it won't be a crippling long-term move.

Cobb is a different story. He's in the first of a four-year, $57 million contract for an Orioles team that rarely spends money and already looks destined for mid-July selling. A month into Cobb's contract, the O's have to be regretting it.

If the Phillies knew they would've been adding 2014 Lynn or Cobb, then it would've made sense. But that's just not what happens in free agency, where it's far more common to regret paying for past performance than get a pleasant surprise.

It's evident that free-agent valuations have changed leaguewide, especially with starting pitchers. It's not difficult to see why; just look at the past few days around the National League. Johnny Cueto and Jacob deGrom, two consistent, top-of-the-rotation arms, are suddenly facing season-ending elbow injuries. Pitching is so fragile, and more often than not, the price tag proves to not be worth it.

In retrospect, the Phillies would have been unwise to pursue either mid-tier arm. Even when compared to the Zach Eflins and Ben Livelys of the world, neither Lynn nor Cobb would have been a massive upgrade in terms of pure stuff. They wouldn't have catapulted the Phillies from a 75-win team to a club on the brink of the playoffs.

Arrieta may not either, but he's at least moved the needle on the field with his performance and off of it by showing young Phillies pitchers how to prepare and react to jams.

With the jury still out on Vince Velasquez, Eflin and Lively, the Phillies will probably have rotation needs again this winter. When that time comes, think back to how this offseason played out. Because even though the Phils will be a year closer to contention, they won't be going beyond one or two years for a pitcher who was a No. 3 starter at his peak. 

At the Yard podcast: Predicting where Top 12 MLB free agents will sign


At the Yard podcast: Predicting where Top 12 MLB free agents will sign

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman predict where the top 12 MLB free agents will land in Monday's At the Yard podcast.

• Anthony Rendon

• Gerrit Cole

• Stephen Strasburg

• Zack Wheeler

• Madison Bumgarner

• Josh Donaldson

• Mike Moustakas

• Rick Porcello

• Cole Hamels

• Hyun-Jin Ryu

• Nick Castellanos

• Didi Gregorius

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Matt Klentak's 'Time to win' comment makes this a crucial offseason for Phillies and it begins this week

Matt Klentak's 'Time to win' comment makes this a crucial offseason for Phillies and it begins this week

Throw a log on the hot stove.

Major League Baseball general managers will assemble in Phoenix for their annual meetings on Monday. The event, which ends Thursday, serves as the de facto starting point of the offseason and this will be a busy one, locally and industry wide.

The free-agent market is led by three stars of the recently completed World Series — starting pitching studs Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg and hard-hitting third baseman Anthony Rendon. Strasburg and Rendon were part of the World Series champion Washington Nationals club and Cole starred for the American League champion Houston Astros. All three players are represented by super-agent Scott Boras, who a year ago used the general managers meetings as a pulpit to announce that “Harper’s Bazaar” had opened for business. Three and a half months later, Bryce Harper signed a mammoth, 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies.

Harper led the Phillies in OPS (.882), homers (35) and RBIs (114) in his first season with the club, but the Phils, who led the NL East at the end of May, faded in June and again in September to finish in fourth place in the National League East, 12 games behind the second-place (and wild card) Nationals and 16 behind the division-winning Atlanta Braves.

The Phillies have not had a winning season (they finished .500 in 2019) or made the playoffs since 2011 and impatience is raw from the fan base to the ownership level. Managing partner John Middleton ordered the ouster of manager Gabe Kapler, proven winner Joe Girardi is now at the helm and normally guarded general manager Matt Klentak is on record as saying, “No questions asked, it is time to win right now.” That statement makes this a crucial offseason for Klentak and the Phillies because this team must fill some serious holes if it is going to win right now.

The most glaring hole — or holes — reside in the starting rotation where the Phillies currently have just one dependable starting pitcher on their roster. After Aaron Nola, the Phils have reason to believe that a healthy Jake Arrieta (he had elbow surgery in September) and an inconsistent but promising Zach Eflin can contribute in 2020, but neither are a sure-thing and even if they make an impact, the Phils will need a lot more starting pitching than that, from the top of the rotation to the back end.

You can bet the Phils will be in on all the top arms on the free-agent market. Boras, who during Harper’s Bazaar built a chemistry with Middleton, will make sure of that. 

The Phillies will at least start the offseason in the sweepstakes for Cole and Strasburg and see where it takes them. Cole seems to have his eye on the West Coast and Strasburg could end up back in Washington, but the deep-pocketed Phils cannot be ruled out, especially this early in the offseason. The Phils will be in on other top starters such as Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler. Signing any one of these four would require the Phillies to forfeit their second pick in the 2020 draft. The Phils, with a new scouting director (Brian Barber) and a need to add talent to their prospect pipeline, are not keen on losing high-round selections, but their need for starting pitching is so acute and their thirst to win so desperate that it would not be surprising to see them sacrifice a pick for an impact arm.

Given the lack of depth in the rotation, the Phillies will cast their net in the lower end of the free-agent pool, as well. Cole Hamels has long spoken of a desire to finish his career in Philadelphia. Rick Porcello and others could also boost the back end of the rotation.

As nice as Rendon’s bat would look at third base — where there is a need — the Phils probably have to allot the bulk of their financial resources on starting pitching, not to mention locking up catcher J.T. Realmuto to a contract extension. The Phils have been linked to third baseman Mike Moustakas, yet another Boras guy, the last two winters and this might be the time to try to grab him on a one- or two-year deal. He won’t cost nearly as much as Rendon and shouldn’t cost as much as free-agent Josh Donaldson, who is also expected to cost a draft pick after being extended a qualifying offer.

With Andrew McCutchen set in left field and Harper in right field, the Phils could pursue a short-term fit like Brett Gardner in center field, but they also could look to re-sign corner man Corey Dickerson, a good lefty stick, and try to get enough out of a McCutchen-Adam Haseley combination in center field. 

As for Odubel Herrera, it’s too early to tell if he will ever suit up for the Phillies again. The guess here is that he will not, but the Phillies still have several months to make that call. Only the need for a roster spot (the team currently has five openings) or the arrival of spring training will create urgency to make a decision on Herrera, if it already has not privately been made.

It’s kind of fitting that the GM meetings are being held in the Phoenix area. That is Scott Kingery’s hometown and he sits in the middle of this Phillies offseason. Depending on how the team maneuvers its way through the winter, Kingery could open the 2020 season at third base, shortstop, second base or center field. He could play third if the team does not bring in someone from the outside, shortstop if Cesar Hernandez moves on and Jean Segura moves to second base, as has been discussed internally, or second base if the team wants to play him at his best position. He also improved greatly in center field last season and could fill that spot, depending how this offseason shakes out.

There are many possibilities for this team that says it's time to win now.

Throw a log on the fire. The hot stove is warming. Baseball’s offseason gets chugging this week.

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