Mike Moustakas

Phillies officials head to Winter Meetings looking for an infield bat

Phillies officials head to Winter Meetings looking for an infield bat

SAN DIEGO — Baseball’s winter meetings are back in this seaside Southern California city for the first time in five years.

The San Diego meetings of 2014 were watershed times for the Phillies as the club traded its iconic shortstop and all-time hits leader, Jimmy Rollins, to the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

The deal brought the Phillies a pair of young pitchers, including Zach Eflin, and signaled the start of a rebuild as club officials conceded that the window of contention that had brought the Phillies five NL East titles and a World Series championship from 2007-2011 had officially closed.

Now, Phillies officials find themselves back in San Diego at another important time in franchise history. The rebuild ended when the team started lavishing big money on Jake Arrieta, Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper and giving up valuable prospects for J.T. Realmuto. Still missing, however, is a winning season. The Phils have not had one of those since 2011, the last year they made the playoffs. Ownership attached huge importance to the coming 2020 season when it pushed to have Gabe Kapler removed as manager after just two seasons in October and general manager Matt Klentak doubled down when he announced proven winner Joe Girardi as the new skipper and punctuated the announcement by saying, “No questions asked, it’s time to win right now.”

The urgency to win now showed last week when the club spent $118 million to sign starting pitcher Zack Wheeler. The hard-throwing right-hander has dealt with injury and inconsistency in his career, but his huge potential, coupled with the team’s acute need for pitching, made this a risk the Phils had to take. The Wheeler signing is expected to be announced as official as soon as Monday at the winter meetings.

So, what else will the team look to accomplish this week in San Diego?

Well, with Wheeler in the fold, the Phils have now prioritized adding an infield bat. That became imperative when the club cut ties with second baseman Cesar Hernandez and third baseman Maikel Franco last week.

The Phils’ ideal scenario would be to acquire a shortstop such as free agent Didi Gregorius. In that case, Jean Segura, whose dwindling range was a concern at shortstop last season, could move to second base and Scott Kingery could play third base. There could also be a scenario where Segura played third and Kingery second. The Phils had probed the market for third basemen and, according to sources, had seriously pursued Mike Moustakas before he signed with Cincinnati. The Phils are still monitoring the markets for free-agent third basemen Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rendon, but don’t get too excited because they appear to be more interested bystanders than active pursuers. Signing a shortstop like Gregorius, who just so happens to be a favorite of Girardi, would keep third base in play for the eventual arrival of prospect Alec Bohm, who will start the 2020 season in Triple A. Some rival evaluators do not believe that Bohm can survive defensively at third base in the majors — they see him as more of a first baseman — but Phillies officials remain convinced that he can do it. Time will tell.

There is competition for Gregorius. If the Phillies don't sign him, they look at Starlin Castro, Todd Frazier or Brock Holt as short-term fits at third base or other infield spots.

Even with Wheeler on board, the Phillies will continue to look for more pitching, though any further additions will probably come from the third and fourth tiers of the market. The Phils are speeding toward the $208 million luxury tax threshold and Wheeler, by all indications, will be their top wintertime expenditure. By most payroll estimates, the Phils are about $19 million under the tax, and that’s before adding an infielder, bullpen help and some rotation depth behind Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Arrieta and Eflin. Managing partner John Middleton is on record as saying he would not go over the tax for a marginal upgrade but would be open to it if the team was “fighting for a World Series,” and the upgrades were difference-makers like “Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay.”

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Phillies free-agent target: Mike Moustakas

Phillies free-agent target: Mike Moustakas

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: Mike Moustakas, a third baseman who's been connected to the Phillies multiple times over the last two years and whose agent the Phillies have already touched base with this offseason.

The vitals

You know what you're getting with Mike Moustakas: power, a .250ish batting average, an OPS about 10 percent above the league average and defense that won't hurt you. 

He's not Top 5 at his position or even Top 10, but he's a helpful player who can bat fifth or sixth and produce runs. Moustakas' .845 OPS last season was 14th among qualifying third basemen, but it was 130 points higher than Maikel Franco's. If the 2019 Phillies had Moustakas, they probably would have won a few more games.

Moustakas will play the 2020 season at age 31. His 101 home runs the last three seasons are 14th-most in the majors and fifth-most among third basemen. That list: 

Nolan Arenado: 116
Eugenio Suarez: 109
Joey Gallo: 103
Manny Machado: 102
Mike Moustakas: 101

Why he fits

The Phillies need another productive everyday player at third base, shortstop or center field. Scott Kingery's defensive flexibility allows the Phillies to pick from multiple position groups. 

If the Phillies can add only one of Didi Gregorius or Moustakas, for example, they'd have to weigh whether Moustakas' power or Gregorius' all-around game is more beneficial to their infield. 

For the Phillies, signing Moustakas to a two-year deal would allow them more time for Alec Bohm to develop (especially defensively) at Triple A. It would also buy the Phils an extra year to figure out whether Bohm can even play third base, whether Bohm may need to move to first base and make Rhys Hoskins expendable, or whether Bohm himself could be used as a trade chip.

Why he doesn't fit

If you sign Moustakas to a two- or three-year deal, and Bohm does develop and force the issue, then what? Then you've created a problem for yourself and a need to trade somebody to make room on the infield corners. 

In theory, it may sound like no big deal — if that happens, you can flip one of Hoskins, Bohm or Moustakas for a player at an area of need. But it doesn't always work out that way. The league would see the Phillies' need to make a deal and that would diminish some of the Phils' leverage.

Moustakas' age isn't a big concern — at 31, he's at the tail-end of his prime, and his next contract is unlikely to take him into his late-30s.

The price tag

Moustakas was forced to sign one-year deals each of the last two offseasons. He deserved better but the free-agent market isn't always fair or linear. 

Coming off a career-high 38 homers in 2017, Moustakas rejected the Royals' qualifying offer of $15 million and ultimately had to settle for a one-year, $6.5 million deal to return to Kansas City.

Then Moustakas hit 28 homers and drove in 95 runs with a .774 OPS and had to settle for another one-year deal, this time for $10 million with Milwaukee ($3 million of which came in the form of a 2020 buyout from the Brewers).

This winter, Moustakas should finally find a multi-year deal. Something like two years, $24 million seems fair. Moustakas' side (he's represented by Scott Boras) will want more years, but teams will be hestitant to commit to his age-33 season. Moustakas still might get three years.

It will be interesting to see whether Moustakas or Josh Donaldson signs first. Both have incentive to let the other set the market. Donaldson was the better player in 2019 but Moustakas was the better and healthier player overall from 2017-19.

Scout's take

"Fair defender. Power is solid, results are there. Limited athleticism. Threat in the middle of the lineup but the body gives concern for excessive years of commitment."

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Phillies free-agent target: Anthony Rendon

Phillies free-agent target: Anthony Rendon

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, it's the top position player on the market: Anthony Rendon.

The vitals

Rendon first turned heads back in 2014. He was a dynamic player in 2017 and 2018, but this past season, he was just about the perfect position player.

Rendon hit .319/.412/.598 with 44 doubles, 34 homers and a MLB-leading 126 RBI despite missing 16 games. He did all of that damage while striking out just 86 times. Add in the solid defense and he's become one of the five best position players in the game today.

He only added more dollars to his free-agent score in the 2019 playoffs by hitting .328 with three homers and 15 RBI in 17 games en route to a ring.

The stat that epitomized Rendon in 2019 was that his batting average didn't dip below .300 once after April 1, nor did his OPS dip below .916. He was basically slump-proof.

Why he fits

The Phillies obviously need a third baseman and this market just so happens to offer three of the best. Rendon is top-two at his position leaguewide, Josh Donaldson top-seven, and Mike Moustakas is a tier slightly below Donaldson but perhaps more reliable.

If the Phillies could somehow add Rendon, they'd have an incredible duo batting 2-3 or 3-4. Many would say, "Yeah, they had that in Washington, too," but that ignores the fact that Rendon has evolved into a much better player than he was during those years.

Think about a Phils lineup of Andrew McCutchen leading off, Bryce Harper batting second and Rendon third. You'd have a ton of OBP at the top, followed by a clutch, line-drive hitter who thrives with runners in scoring position and barely swings and misses.

It could catapult the Phillies' win projection to the upper-80s, but many teams will be hotly pursuing Rendon.

Why he doesn't fit

Can any organization sign a player for $330 million one offseason and about $275 million the next? It's just not a path to sustainable success unless you hit on almost every mid-tier move and under-the-radar acquisition.

The Rangers are expected to offer Rendon, a Texas native, a ton of money as they open their new ballpark in 2020. The Nationals will do their best to retain him. The Dodgers could very well be in play. The presence of even two of those teams will make matters difficult for the Phillies.

The price tag

Nolan Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million extension with the Rockies in February. If Rendon wants to play eight more years, why would his deal be for a dollar less?

Arenado and Rendon are comparable players, especially when you factor Coors Field out of the equation. If you believe the defensive metrics, the gap between the two has shrunk even though Arenado is still a perennial Gold Glover.

Rendon is a better overall player than Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. His deal probably won't reach $300 million, though, because he's three years older than they were when they hit free agency a year ago.

Scout's take

"Everyone thinks he's going to Texas to help open that new ballpark. He's a real quiet leader, not demonstrative like others at that position. There's fire but it burns internally. He's a real pro and, obviously, a difference maker."

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