Baseball's offseason ramps up this week as the general managers' meetings, the starting line for the sport's wintertime wheeling and dealing season, commence outside of San Diego.
Last year, the event was held remotely because of the pandemic and the Phillies technically did not even have a general manager at the time. Dave Dombrowski was hired as president of baseball operations on December 11. He will have a full offseason to upgrade the team this year and he's probably going to need it given the holes that must be filled as the club tries to snap an ugly 10-year playoff drought in 2022.
True to his modus operandi leading four other big-league clubs, Dombrowski has promised to be aggressive this winter.
Will his aggressiveness translate into a willingness to break up what was viewed as the team's strength a year ago?
Will he subtract from the club's starting pitching staff in an effort to improve the team?
Specifically, will he shop Aaron Nola for a trade this winter?
This is a question that has quietly percolated around the baseball industry since Nola completed a disappointing season in 2021.
After pitching to a 3.23 ERA from 2017 through 2020, Nola recorded a mark of 4.63 in 2021. He uncharacteristically made mistakes over the plate, was stung by home runs and two-strike hits and often struggled to pitch deep into games.
On the plus side, he's healthy, durable and still has strikeout stuff.
There are reasons to believe that 2021 was just one of those years for Nola and he'll bounce back strong alongside Zack Wheeler, Ranger Suarez, Zach Eflin and Kyle Gibson for the Phillies in 2022.
But there are also reasons to believe that this might be the time to throw the right-hander's name out there and see what he'd fetch. He'll turn 29 in June and is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, due to make $15.5 million in 2022. The contract contains a $16 million option for 2023 that can be bought out for $4.25 million.
Five weeks ago, Dombrowski was straightforward in listing the team's needs this winter. He mentioned leadoff hitter, middle-of-the-order bat, closer and shortstop.
That's a lot. And there's even more considering the need for bullpen arms beyond closer.
"We'll be aggressive," he said. "We'll pursue every avenue we possibly can -- free agents, trades, any way you can do those things."
The Phillies had a payroll of about $205 million in 2021. That ranked in the top 6 in the majors. They have already freed some payroll this winter and, based on guarantees and arbitration projections, are currently looking at a 2022 payroll commitment of about $171 million, so they have room to operate.
Top free agents include outfielders Nick Castellanos, Chris Taylor and Starling Marte. There is a healthy class of shortstops with Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. Raisel Iglesias and Kenley Jansen lead the market of free-agent closers with the Chicago White Sox likely making All-Star Craig Kimbrel available in a trade.
The Phillies do not have a deep farm system and they will be protective of the quality prospects they have, guys like Mick Abel, Andrew Painter and Bryson Stott, who could be in play in the infield at some point in 2022. Dealing someone from the big-league roster could make sense if it brings back the right package, but, other than second baseman Jean Segura, there are probably limited trade options on the roster. Rhys Hoskins' value in the middle of the lineup became quite clear when he went down with an injury in the second half of the season and the possibility of having a designated hitter in the National League could make him even more vital in 2022. Wheeler, Suarez, Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto aren't going anywhere. Eflin is coming off an injury. Alec Bohm is the kind of young/inexpensive talent the Phillies need to develop and integrate into the lineup.
All of this could make Nola a guy to keep an eye on as the winter unfolds.
The Phillies have a history of doing business at the general managers' meetings. They acquired Brad Lidge in a trade with Houston at the GM meetings in 2007 and you know what he did in 2008.
But generally, the GM meetings are a time when executives lay groundwork for trades and signings that might come later in the offseason. This year's event will take place just a few weeks before the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the owners and the players expires on December 1. Rules governing free agency, the luxury tax, the designated hitter and other matters could change in the new CBA and that might slow the pace of transactions in November and grind them to halt if there's a lockout in December.
Nonetheless, the offseason is here and the Phillies have work to do.