It has become obvious how Phillies General Manager Matt Klentak is trying to build the 2017 major league roster: dumpster diving.
You reach down as far as you can in the trash bin, find something no one else wants and convince your fans he will be exactly what your team needs. Then you coach those guys up to reach their true potential to turn a profit on whatever measly pittance you’re paying them. We forget now, but former Phillies General Manager Pat Gillick found no less than three pillars of the 2008 Phillies – Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and J.C. Romero – that way, which kept the team’s salary down while they were comfortably signed to wildly team-friendly contracts.
In 2016, it worked with Jeremy Hellickson, even though he’ll cost the Phillies $17.2 million this year. That’s his market value, sure, but his value to the Phillies is much lower. They’re going to find someone on the scrap heap this year they’ll hope will give at least some of the production Hellickson provided last year, but at about one-tenth of the price of what they’ll pay Hellickson in 2017.
So the search for Hellickson 2.0 begins now, and while Klentak was able to find Hellickson via trade last year, he might have to resort to the free agent market to fill out a rotation and bullpen that still has far more questions than slam dunks. Even though the Phillies already have signed two relievers, and brought in lefty Sean Burnett on a spring training invitation, they still need depth in the bullpen – including from the left side – and won’t want to pay too much to fill out the rest of the ‘pen.
And sure, it looks like the rotation already is crowded with prospects pushing their way into Philadelphia, but no one believes they’re all going to turn into No. 1 starters overnight, and the reality is some of them won’t be able to stick in the big leagues. We’d like to think the Phillies are set for the future and we can just cruise into 2020 and start contending for the playoffs again, but it doesn’t work like that just because they played well for seven weeks of 2016. No, the Phillies are still in Throw It All at the Wall and See What Sticks mode. They especially will be that way in spring training for at least the next two years, where their coaches will be able to assess fully whomever they trot into camp.
But instead of chasing the Jason Hammelses (too expensive), Chris Capuanos (too old) and Tim Lincecums (too … just no) of the dumpster, there are some likely bargains out there that could have value to a Phillies team just looking to get to 81 wins this year:
Daniel Hudson. He got knocked around most of 2016, but from Aug. 3 through the end of the season – a time when the Diamondbacks gave Hudson the opportunity to close – he struck out 24 in 21.2 innings with a .602 OPS against and four saves. With the D-Backs talking about bringing Brad Ziegler back, Hudson’s chance to close in Arizona will be limited. He’s heading into his age-30 season, so he doesn’t have that many more prime contracts coming, and would likely love the chance to close before he exits his prime. If you can sign him for set-up man money (two years, $4 million or one year, $2.5 million) and invite him into the closer competition, he could be motivated enough to provide closer value on the 2017 trade deadline market.
Cory Luebke. Yikes, has it really been more than five seasons since Luebke burst on the scene with 154 strikeouts in 139.2 innings as a starter for the Padres? If it feels like the blink of an eye for fans, it’s probably been an eternity since that season for Luebke, who hasn’t been able to throw 40 innings total since then. Two Tommy John surgeries derailed his career, but he finally made it all the way back to the bigs last year, throwing 8.2 innings with the Pirates before being released and picked up by the Marlins. His 2016 stats don’t matter, what matters is he made it back. And if the Phillies can get him on a minor-league invite, he may be motivated by pride, opportunity and health to pitch his way into a potential rotation spot.
Ryan Vogelsong. How did the Phillies not go after him harder last year? The Chester County native and Kutztown University alum signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Pirates heading into 2016, and though he missed half the year after getting cracked in the eye by a line-drive comebacker to the mound, he returned and threw halfway decent at the end of the season. He’s entering his age-39 season, so we’re not talking about a lot of on-the-mound or trade-value upside. Where Vogelsong could have value outside of the whole “veteran leadership” thing is for the Phillies to use this as a one-year tryout (at a cheap price) to see if he has what it takes or has the inclination to join his hometown organization as a pitching coach on the 2018 staff in Reading – a 20-minute drive from Kutztown – or even Lakewood or Williamsport.
Brett Anderson. He’d probably be too expensive, even at a one-year, $6 million deal, for the Phillies to deal with his inherent injury risk. His season career-high for innings is 180 in an eight-year major-league career, and he’s only thrown over 100 innings two other seasons. His back caused him to miss almost all of the 2016 season, and as much as elbows and shoulders usually can be fixed, backs are a lot trickier for a pitcher to come back from. You can book at least one DL trip for Anderson, even in a largely healthy season. That injury history also will reduce his value at the trade deadline, even if he’s been able to trot out every five days for the first half of the season. All that being said, if other teams balk at something like a $6 million contract and the Phillies can get him for $2 million plus appearance and innings incentives and convince him he’ll be starting, it’s probably worth it for a guy who had a good season in 2015, is a lefty and whose peripheral stats have always been better than his actual stats.
Jonathan Broxton. With all the mental anguish the Phillies caused Broxton in 2008 and ’09, he probably wants no part of Philadelphia. And in the grand scheme of things, the Phillies should want no part of a past-his-prime former closer. But he hasn’t managed a save since mid-2014 and if he wants one more decent payday, he’ll have to prove to someone he can close. So it makes sense for him to sign a team-friendly, one-year, incentive-based contract in a place where he for sure have an opportunity to showcase himself for his next contract. That gets trickier in Philadelphia with Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek already in place, but the closing opportunities around the league seem to be drying up somewhat quickly, and Broxton probably will be left standing in a game of musical closer chairs. If he wants another crack at closing, he’ll likely have to go somewhere that can offer him a “closer competition,” and the Phillies can at least do that.
Gerardo Concepcion. The rarity among non-tendered players: one with perceived value who is under the radar. The lefty entering his age-25 season somehow missed out on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, despite being a somewhat touted Cuban signing in 2011. Well, actually, we can see why he got non-tendered: He hasn’t been very good. At all. The Cubs promoted him to triple-A Iowa at last season, where he was completely hammered to the tune of 57 hits and 24 walks in 42 innings – good enough for an unseemly 1.929 WHIP and 7.29 ERA. But he did still manage to strike out 35 in that time, which is actually quite an accomplishment for how wild and hittable he was. So maybe there is something in the bottle the Phillies and their coaches can uncork. He hasn’t started for any of the Cubs’ affiliates since 2013, so it would be a bullpen role with the Phillies, or at least Lehigh Valley to start. But it likely would only take a minor-league invite to get him into camp.
Brian Matusz. The former Baltimore reliever always had an electric left arm and a classic pitcher’s body, which caused the Orioles to spend the better part of four years at the major-league level trying to turn him into the top-of-the-rotation starter they projected and developed him as. But once they faced facts that for whatever reason the whole starting pitcher thing wasn’t happening, Matusz turned into a better-than-middle-of-the-pack setup man, culminating in 2015 when he struck out a career-high 10.3 batters per nine innings and pitched to a career-low 2.95 ERA in 58 innings. As has been the case throughout his career, injuries caught up to him in 2016 and he only threw nine major-league innings with three different organizations. Because he just happens to throw with his left hand, Matusz could get a one-year deal at the league minimum. But it’s more likely he’ll be a non-roster invite somewhere, a tantalizing price for the Phillies to land a former top prospect who was a meaningful contributor on decent, playoff-caliber teams from 2013-15. The chances are slim he’ll come in for a spot start in mid-June, have a great day, earn a few more starts and ultimately end the year in the rotation with mild thoughts about bringing him back for 2018, but you can see it happening.
Josh Outman. With a lot of these low-risk, high-reward guys, the hope is they perform well during the season so that you can flip them at the deadline for something more valuable than the low-rent cost you signed him for in the first place. That wouldn’t be the case with Outman. His value would be to the Phillies only; no one is blowing up Matt Klentak’s cell for a lefty specialist in his age-32 season who hasn’t pitched in the league in two years. But he’s a former Phillies prospect, part of the package that brought Joe Blanton to the Phillies in 2008, and the Phillies have only inexperienced lefty specialist candidates. Not that they necessarily even need an experienced one, but to make it appear as if they’re trying to build a competent team for 2017, they should probably have one that will take the league minimum and will be happy to prove himself to extend his career with a spring training invite. You could almost hear Outman’s ears ringing after you read that.
Keyvius Sampson. Let’s be clear: Even on something as dreadful as the Phillies’ bullpen roster, there shouldn’t be any room for a righty who has issued 53 walks in 91.2 major-league innings. When the soon-to-be 26-year-old walks the bases loaded on 15 pitches in a July game, that might be the day that finally makes Larry Andersen not say a word, but just take his headphones off, leave them gently on the desk of the booth and leave the radio broadcast, never to be heard from again. But control is something that could come with a change of scenery and coaching staff, and after being non-tendered by the Reds this month, Sampson could be an interesting minor-league invite to spring training.