Jake Arrieta

All this spending and still, half of Phillies' pitching staff in question

All this spending and still, half of Phillies' pitching staff in question

The Phillies have added more than $100 million of payroll three offseasons in a row.

There was the $135 million combined to Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta in 2017.

There was the $403 million for Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson.

And then $132 million more for Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius this offseason.

The Phils have been as aggressive as any team over those three offseasons, yet as they prepare for 2020, questions remain about more than half of the pitching staff.

All that spending and the No. 5 spot in the rotation still projects to go to Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta.

Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin, if healthy, will fill the Nos. 3 and 4 spots.

A Phillies optimist could say that the battle between Velasquez and Pivetta could lead to actual progress, that a healthy Arrieta will be better and that Eflin showed meaningful signs of promise in 2019. But there are just as many valid reasons to be skeptical about that group.

In the bullpen, Hector Neris is proven and that's really it. 

Adam Morgan has shown at times he can be a very good left-handed reliever. Seranthony Dominguez in 2018 looked like a dynamic right-handed flamethrower. Jose Alvarez was solid as a lefty specialist a year ago. But those three are far from slam-dunks as your setup trio, especially from a health perspective with Dominguez.

Over the past week, the Mets signed Dellin Betances and the Twins reportedly added starters Rich Hill and Homer Bailey on one-year deals. There aren't many free-agent pitchers left even if the Phillies wanted to add between now and spring training.

The free-agent starting pitching market is now so thin that Drew Smyly and Jason Vargas might really be two of the top five options left. 

Lefty Alex Wood is still out there. So are low-risk, potentially high-reward reclamation projects like Danny Salazar, Aaron Sanchez and Jimmy Nelson. It would behoove the Phillies to take a serious look at one of them; they sure could use a player who outperforms the contract he signs.

The most notable relievers left on the free-agent market are Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Steve Cishek, Jeremy Jeffress, Arodys Vizcaino and Pedro Strop. All could help. All have pitched higher-leverage innings than many of the Phillies' relievers.

The best path to a good starter would be a trade. Lefties Robbie Ray and Matt Boyd still look destined to be dealt between now and the trade deadline. The issue there is the Phillies will have trouble acquiring any high-end starting pitcher without trading Spencer Howard or Alec Bohm, which is extremely unlikely. Ray and Boyd themselves might not be good enough to warrant a big prospect package anyway.

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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: Gerrit Cole

Phillies free-agent target: Gerrit Cole

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.

We start with pitcher Gerrit Cole, who is bound to sign a record-setting contract.

The vitals

The powerful 29-year-old right-hander and former No. 1 overall draft pick (by Pittsburgh in 2011) is the unquestioned prize of this winter’s free-agent class. He has built an impressive career resume, especially recently. He is 35-10 with 2.68 ERA and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 65 starts over the last two seasons for the Houston Astros. He is durable and postseason tested. He went 20-5 with an American League-best 2.50 ERA in 33 starts in 2019. He had an 0.895 WHIP and led the majors with 326 strikeouts. For the season, his fastball averaged 97.1 mph, according to Statcast. Only the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard chucked it harder at 98.1 mph. 

Why he fits

Because he’s one of the best pitchers in the game and would immediately make the Phillies better as they try to live up to general manager Matt Klentak’s goal of winning now. Cole would give the Phils an ace who could stand up to Max Scherzer in Washington, Jacob deGrom in New York and the lineup in Atlanta. As an unquestioned No. 1, he’d take pressure off Aaron Nola, who felt some down the stretch in 2019.

Why he doesn’t fit

“If this were major-league Christmas, we would be looking at 30 stockings that clearly wanted a lump of Cole,” agent Scott Boras said of his client as the market opened last week.

The competition for Cole will be intense as teams from the game’s largest markets bid for his services. Cole is from Southern California and word is the Los Angeles Angels are ready to back up the truck for him. The mega-rich New York Yankees also want him. That sets up a nirvana-like situation for Boras, who can play the two markets off each other. The Phillies will be in on Cole — they’ve already touched base with Boras — and they cannot be counted out because they have money and an owner willing to spend. However, given what it might take to sign Cole, the Phillies might be better off spreading their money around and trying to fill multiple holes in the rotation and lineup.

The price tag

Cole is right in the middle of his prime years. There has been speculation that he could fetch $300 million in a long-term deal. He almost surely will eclipse David Price’s $217 million deal with Boston, a record for a pitcher, and could top Justin Verlander’s annual salary of $33 million, also a record for a pitcher. In other words, he’ll be expensive.

Scout’s take

“It took a while, but it looks like he found out how good his stuff is and his success has given him great confidence. He really knows how to utilize that great fastball high in the strike zone.”

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