aaron nola

Phillies have a number of options in filling infield need

Phillies have a number of options in filling infield need

SAN DEIGO — On Day 1 of the winter meetings, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak reiterated his team’s need to add a starting infielder.

“That's been the focus,” Klentak said Monday afternoon. “Today is Day 1, but technically we've been here for almost two full days. It feels like that is what we have mostly been working on since we've been here. We're just trying to explore all different avenues. Single-year and multi-year fits. Trade and free-agent fits. In the way that the pitching market has really come together quickly, this one doesn't seem to be coming together quite as quickly. But not because there aren't options.”

The free-agent pitching market is indeed moving quickly. Stephen Strasburg returned to the Washington Nationals on a staggering seven-year, $245 million deal on Monday and Gerrit Cole is expected to blow past that deal in the coming days. The Phillies made some (sort of) news Monday when their signing of Zack Wheeler became official after the right-hander passed his physical exam.

“We felt it was important to add someone to our rotation that could pair with Aaron Nola at the top and give us a chance to win any series against the best pitchers in baseball,” Klentak said. “I think those are as good a twosome as you'll find in the league.”

New manager Joe Girardi concurred.

“We have 1 and 1-A,” he said.

Now, the question is: Who will play second base, third base and shortstop behind Wheeler and Nola?

Scott Kingery and Jean Segura are likely to hold down two of the spots. We say “likely” because there’s always the chance that Kingery could play center field (right now it looks like Adam Haseley will be the guy there) and Segura could be traded if the Phils could find someone to take on the three years and $45 million that remain on his contract. That won’t be easy, even if the Phils eat some salary.

Ideally, the Phillies would land a shortstop like free-agent Didi Gregorius on a one-year or manageable multi-year deal and move Segura from shortstop to second base and play Kingery at third. The Phillies have had serious talks with Gregorius, but have to be ready to pivot if they can’t lock him up. As Klentak said, there are options in the infield. Most of them, however, are not shortstops. A free-agent second baseman like Jonathan Schoop could be a good fallback if the Phils can’t sign Gregorius. He had 23 doubles and 23 homers in 433 at-bats for the Twins last season. Signing Schoop would mean that Segura would have to stay at shortstop or move to third with Kingery playing shortstop.

There are plenty of options at third base, from veteran Todd Frazier to top-of-the-market superstars Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson. There are also versatile veterans like Starlin Castro and even Brock Holt who could be used in mix-and-match, platoon scenarios.

“There’s a bunch of different ways we can go,” Klentak said. “We can go a shorter-term variety, we can look at a longer-term solution, we can look at the trade market, we can look at the free-agent market and we can look into piecing it together with multiple players potentially, which not only would help the starting infield, but would improve the bench. That’s where a lot of our focus this week is being turned.”

All right, let’s address those top-of-the-market names: The Phils have had contact with the representatives for Rendon and Donaldson and they have not tapped out of those markets, but signing one of those big-money players remains a longshot. The Phils signed Bryce Harper for $330 million last winter, Wheeler for $118 million this winter and still have to budget for a potential $100 million contract extension for J.T. Realmuto. Rendon is expected to command well over $200 million and Donaldson should get more than $25 million per season when he lands. The Phils are creeping up on the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million in total payroll. Managing partner John Middleton would go over the tax for the right opportunity. There’s a lot of never-say-never here, but …

“Ownership has always encouraged us to stay engaged on everything,” Klentak said. “If there's an opportunity to bring something to them we will. I think the most notable example was signing Jake Arrieta two years ago. That was not necessarily on our radar. It came together late and the owners jumped on it. I'm not going to sit here today and declare that we are or are not in on certain players or that we will or will not exceed the tax threshold. Our job is to keep an open mind and continue to pursue all avenues and see what makes sense for us. There is an element of this from a management perspective in making sure we apply the proper balance to roster building and not get too top-heavy. We need to be responsible about it, but we're not going to shy away from pursuing or at least exploring opportunities, whether we bring them to the finish line or not.”

With Wheeler on board, an infielder on the way, the return to good health of some key players and the projected improvement of others, Klentak is confident of this:

“We are definitely building a team that we expect will contend in 2020,” he said.

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Phillies sign free agent Zack Wheeler to 5-year deal

Phillies sign free agent Zack Wheeler to 5-year deal

The Phillies have added a big arm to pair with Aaron Nola atop their starting pitching rotation.

Multiple sources have confirmed that the team has agreed on a five-year, $118 million deal with free-agent right-hander Zack Wheeler.

Wheeler joins Bryce Harper, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard as the only players in Phillies history to receive contracts of $100 million or more.

Wheeler, 29, has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency in his career, but he possesses elite stuff — his 97-mph average velocity was fourth-best in the majors in 2019 — and is seen as a pitcher ready to blossom. The Phillies are banking on it happening with them.

Adding a pitcher who profiles near the top of the rotation was the Phillies’ No. 1 offseason objective, but they still have work to do if they are going to break a postseason drought that has reached eight seasons. Adding an infield bat such as Didi Gregorius is a high-priority item. The Phils are in talks with Gregorius. The team also continues to monitor the market for starting pitching, but probably for more of a low-ticket arm that could add depth.

In addition to a big fastball, Wheeler has excellent breaking stuff. He was the No. 6 overall pick by San Francisco in the 2009 draft. He was traded to the Mets two years later for Carlos Beltran, who is now the Mets manager. Wheeler is 44-38 with a 3.77 ERA in 126 career big-league starts. He will turn 30 in May.

Like all pitchers on long-term, big-money contracts, Wheeler comes with risk. He missed significant time recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and 2016. He spent time on the injured list in 2017 and was briefly sidelined in 2019 with what was called shoulder fatigue. He rebounded quickly and was able to make 31 starts, but his health history can't be ignored. Still, this was a move that the Phillies, in win-now mode and desperate for starting pitching, had to make. When the dust settles on this free-agent winter, Wheeler’s contract could pale in comparison to what Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg get.

Obviously, Cole and Strasburg are much more accomplished pitchers than Wheeler, but many evaluators see Wheeler as an ascending talent. He has been mostly healthy the last two seasons, going 23-15 with a 3.65 ERA in 60 starts for the Mets. He has pitched 182 1/3 and 195 1/3 innings, respectively, the last two seasons, a good sign after struggling with injuries early in his career.

Wheeler has gotten stronger as the last two seasons have progressed. He went 14-3 with a 2.26 ERA after the All-Star break the last two seasons. The Phillies, who have suffered big collapses the last two Septembers, could benefit from Wheeler's second-half prowess. He will join Nola, Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin in an evolving starting rotation that could also include someone already in the organization or a low-profile addition in the coming weeks.

Wheeler chose the Phillies over the Chicago White Sox. The Sox reportedly had more money on the table. Wheeler, who hails from Georgia, has family in New Jersey and that certainly did not hurt the Phillies' cause.

The Mets had extended Wheeler a $17.8 million qualifying offer for 2020 so the Phillies will forfeit their second pick in the June draft for signing him. The Phils have a new scouting director — former Yankees scout Brian Barber — and want to build through the draft. Forfeiting high-round draft picks is not conducive to that. But this was a price the Phils had to pay to address their need for pitching at the big-league level.

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Phillies free-agent target: Cole Hamels

Phillies free-agent target: Cole Hamels

Leading up to baseball's winter meetings, we will take a daily look at some of the game's top free agents and how they could potentially impact the Phillies.

Today, we check in on someone Phillies fans know well, veteran lefty Cole Hamels.

The vitals

It feels funny typing those words — veteran lefty — but that's just what Hamels is now. He turns 36 in December. Hard to believe for those of us who remember the squeaky-voiced teenager who showed up at Veterans Stadium for a news conference after the Phillies selected him 17th overall in the 2002 draft. Six years later, Hamels was MVP of the National League Championship Series and World Series as the Phillies won it all in 2008. 

Hamels was traded to Texas as the Phillies ramped up their rebuild in the summer of 2015 and now he's a free agent who still has something to offer. One-hundred fourteen of his 163 wins have come in a Phillies uniform. Will he come full circle and win a few more for the Phillies now that the rebuild is over?

Why he fits

Hamels is no longer the top-of-the-rotation pitcher he was during his prime in Philadelphia, but the Phillies need pitching up and down their rotation and he would make a lot of sense as a stabilizer at the back half of it. He had a 3.81 ERA for the Cubs in 27 starts last season but missed a month with an oblique injury suffered in late June. Hamels was quite good before the injury, recording a 2.98 ERA in 17 starts. He struggled and pitched to a 5.79 ERA in 10 starts after returning from the IL.

With an offseason to heal, Hamels will be healthy as he joins some team this winter and he should be able to deliver 150-160 innings. He did not receive a qualifying offer from the Cubs so he would not cost a draft pick.

Once upon a time, Hamels grew up as a young pitcher in Philadelphia under the tutelage of Roy Halladay. Hamels is a serious student of the craft of pitching. It would be poetic if he returned to Philadelphia and served as a mentor to some of the Phillies' young arms, and fans would certainly welcome his return as part of a pitching staff upgrade.

Why he doesn't fit

The only way we see a reunion not being a fit is if the market for Hamels gets extremely competitive and his price becomes more than the Phillies want to commit to a 36-year-old pitcher. The Phils will need a starting pitching upgrade beyond Hamels, but he'd be a solid second wintertime addition.

The price tag

As far back as May, Hamels talked about his desire to finish his career in Philadelphia. He recently told MLB.com that he'd be open to a one-year contract. That's not exactly strategy out of the Negotiating 101 handbook and it hasn't stopped agent John Boggs from seeking a multi-year deal. Hamels made $20 million with Cubs last season. It's difficult to see him getting that much, but not difficult to see him getting something in the neighborhood of $17 million per season.

Scout's take

"He's no longer that middle-to-top-of-the-rotation guy, but a one-year deal should probably entice every team in the game. He really knows how to pitch. You look at the No. 4 guys in the league. If he's healthy, I'd have solid confidence in him in that role."

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