Phillies

Lessons to learn from the ascent of World Series-bound Nationals

Lessons to learn from the ascent of World Series-bound Nationals

The Nationals made quick work of the Cardinals in the NLCS, sweeping them emphatically to break through to the World Series after years of playoff disappointments.

Much has been made, here and in D.C., about the Nationals doing this in the first season after Bryce Harper left them for the Phillies. It quite obviously has nothing to do with Harper's absence ... other than the fact that it opened the door for Washington to replace him with Patrick Corbin. In their first year with their new teams, Corbin equaled or out-produced Harper. 

Can any lessons be learned from the 2019 Nats?

Paid the right pitchers

They zigged when so many other organizations have zagged away from paying premium prices for aces. Pitchers are fragile and so many of the nine-figure contracts for them do not pan out.

The Nationals, though, correctly identified three pitchers worth the money. Max Scherzer will go down as one of the four best pitchers of his era, along with Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Jacob deGrom. Stephen Strasburg saved his best work for 2019, leading the NL with 209 innings after averaging 145 the previous four seasons. Strasburg was especially dominant late in the season and in the NL playoffs, pitching so well that it seems like a no-brainer now for him to opt-out this winter of the final three years and $75 million on his contract.

And then there's Corbin, who struck out 12 and won Game 4 against the Cardinals after appearing as both a starter and reliever in the Nationals' preceding playoff series. Corbin was fantastic this season, going 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 238 K's in 202 innings. He signed that six-year, $140 million contract in the offseason. If Washington gets four years close to this from Corbin, that deal is a win.

A key difference between this Nationals playoff run and previous ones was the presence of that third ace in Corbin, and the commitment from Dave Martinez to ride his aces. Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin all started and appeared in relief.

The perfect mid-rotation piece

It helped that Aníbal Sanchez was also awesome when he pitched. Two years in a row, an NL East team has signed Sanchez and two years in a row, he's produced like a No. 2 or 3 starter — 3.39 ERA in 303 innings for the Braves and Nats since 2018. Think about how much farther along the Phillies would be if, say, Jake Arrieta's ERA the last two seasons was closer to 3.39 than 4.26. A useful veteran in Sanchez has been right under their nose.

The Nationals didn't only hit on their big-ticket items like Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. They also hit on the right mid-tier veterans like Sanchez and doubles-machine Howie Kendrick, the NLCS MVP who has hit .322 in 2½ seasons as a National since being traded by the Phillies at the 2017 deadline.

If you paid attention, you could tell

It was not a trendy pick to go with the Nationals over the Dodgers when the NLDS began, especially in this area where so many fans (rightfully) have enjoyed basking in the Nats' postseason failures.

But something looked and felt different about this year's Nationals team, particularly in September when they were steamrolling opponents after playing months of playoff-type games just to get back in the race. By the end, they had the best and healthiest roster they'd had all season. Daniel Hudson finally gave them a second option to close games or set up for Sean Doolittle. That missing high-leverage option cost Washington game after game in April and May.

Rendon had a career year. Juan Soto solidified himself as an elite hitter you never want to face in a pressure situation. All three of the aces were healthy at the end of the season, which is meaningful because it so rarely happens these days. Scherzer missed seven starts in July and August and didn't go deep into games when he returned, but in the playoffs, he's been the dominant Scherzer. The two teams with the best and healthiest horses — Washington and Houston — are the two teams in the best position right now to win it all.

Learning how to win BS

Teams don't "learn how to win" until they do. Look at the 2015 Royals. Look at the 2008 Phillies. Those were young cores that had been together for several seasons without breaking through. The Phillies were not viewed as the World Series favorite at any point in the '08 season, nor were the Royals in '15.

"Learning how to win" can really just mean pulling out an extra game in October and riding the momentum the way the Nats have. If ace lefty reliever Josh Hader was able to pick up the final outs needed by the Brewers in the wild-card game, the narrative about the Nats would have continued. Instead, it has changed dramatically in the span of two weeks.

Big free agents

The Nationals are going to be a problem for years to come, especially if they can retain superstar free-agent-to-be Anthony Rendon. If Washington loses both Rendon and Strasburg, the NL East opens up. If they retain both, they'll remain likely to win 90-plus games for at least the next three seasons. If they retain one and not the other, the gap between the Nationals, Braves and Phillies will shrink a bit but Washington will still have the most top-end talent.

The Phillies will likely be looking up at the Nats and Braves again next season unless they can add some talent. Adding some talent does not only mean potentially signing a superstar like Rendon or Gerrit Cole. It also means finding the right bench pieces or extra men like Kendrick. It means finally identifying a Sanchez for the rotation rather than a starting pitcher you send out and cross your fingers will get outs. It means having the foresight at the trade deadline to acquire a mid-tier reliever like Hudson who you can ride through high-leverage innings when he's hot.

Matt Klentak didn't inherit the same type of core but he hasn't successfully made those moves as Phillies GM. Mike Rizzo has. The Nationals have drafted better than the Phillies, made better international signings, made better free-agent signings and better trades. That's why they're headed to the World Series while the Phillies are searching for a new manager.



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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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