For the better part of the last five years, the free-agent class after the 2018 season has been seen as an offseason where the Philadelphia Phillies would look to land a superstar talent. Heck, both Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com and Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports noted this summer that there’s some around the sport that think Phillies managing partner John Middleton – apparently eager to spend his money to help the Phillies return to contention – could try to land both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. In his season-ending press conference, Phillies president Andy MacPhail wasn’t able to speak directly on Harper or Machado, but he seemed to throw some cold water on the idea of altogether splurging this offseason.
“This isn’t the last year that major league baseball is ever going to be played,” MacPhail reminded the collective media. “So you’re not going to throw every resource you have at this year because there’s the following year as well.”
Four of five years ago, the offseason of 2018-19 looked as though it could be the greatest free-agent class in baseball history. While Harper and Machado, who both will be 26 at the start of free-agency, will be two of the more appealing players to ever reach free-agency, the rest of the class doesn’t look quite as deep. Clayton Kershaw, while still very effective when healthy, hasn’t pitched over 200 innings since 2015. Former American League MVP Josh Donaldson’s contract year was essentially a wash due to a calf injury, though he will appear in the postseason with the Cleveland Indians. Dallas Keuchel, a former American League Cy Young Award winner, will also appear in the postseason, but was the fourth best starting pitcher on his own team in 2018. Matt Harvery, who once appeared to be a Hall of Fame talent, is just a guy now. And Jose Fernandez tragically passed away in September of 2016, or he may be the most attractive free-agent this offseason.
MacPhail did also note that next offseason’s free-agent class looks appealing as well. Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, J.D. Martinez, Marcell Ozuna, Gerrit Cole, Miles Mikolas, Justin Verlander, Zach Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Dellin Betances and Kenley Jansen could all be free-agents after the 2019 season.
Hired to take over as Phillies president in June of 2015, MacPhail suggested that issuing a historic contract would be indicative of the Phillies thinking they are ready to compete for a World Series with said player in the fold.
“If you were going to invest all you have on one star-type player, then that would be sort of an acknowledgement that you think you may be one player away,” MacPhail said. “I think we’re going to have to make some hard evaluations as to really, where are we? Are we the first 117 games? Are we the last 45? The truth is, we’re probably somewhere in between, we don’t know exactly which side.”
It is true that pursuing Harper and/or Machado would be just the first of many things on a to-do list for general manager Matt Klentak this offseason. Four-fifths of the Phillies rotation posted an ERA north of five after the All-Star Break. The Phillies graded out as one of the worst fielding teams in the sport in 2018, with an out-of-position Rhys Hoskins struggling to adjust to left field. Though Cesar Hernandez, Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera and Luis Garcia are under team control in 2019, it’s unclear whether they’ll be with the Phillies next season. Scott Kingery adjusted nicely to playing shortstop as his rookie season went along, but his -19.2 offensive WAR was the sixth worst mark in baseball in 2018. Roman Quinn flashed star potential in 50 games for the Phillies, though it’s unclear if the team can be confident in him remaining healthy for a full season. It’s not a stretch to say that this may be the most important offseason in Phillies history.
Still, it’s not difficult to imagine the Phillies with Harper and/or Machado developing into a force in the National League in 2019 and 2020. The best-case scenario in player development doesn’t always happen, but neither does the worst. Kingery and Jorge Alfaro could very well take major steps forward in 2019. A lineup with Harper and Hoskins would look pretty scary if things break the right way for the Phillies over the next few seasons. The rotation is anchored by All-Star Aaron Nola, and though there was a second-half collapse from the trio of Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin and Nick Pivetta, their highs were very high in 2018. Top prospects Sixto Sanchez and Adonis Medina will likely reach the major league level at some point in the next two seasons.
Signing Harper, Machado or two-time All-Star Patrick Corbin also wouldn’t use up all of the Phillies financial resources. The Phillies, who carried a payroll just shy of $170 million in 2011, have under $70 million in financial commitments for 2019. They have under $60 million in financial commitments for 2020. As players reach arbitration, those numbers will increase. But the Phillies could sign a player like Harper, pay their current players and still have enough money left to make another major addition – whether it was another front-line starter or a back-end-of-the-bullpen reliever.
Some have taken MacPhail’s quotes as a sign that the Phillies won’t make an aggressive push for Harper or Machado. However, every indication for the past few years has been that the Phillies will pursue at least one of the two. It’s well documented that prior to Machado being dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers this July, the Phillies made a push for the four-time All-Star.
Instead, MacPhail may simply be opining that signing Harper and Machado is very unlikely. As much as Phillies fans may be keen on the idea of trying to trade for future Hall of Famer Mike Trout, giving up player capital and signing him to a deal in excess of $400 million could be considered an example of “investing all you have in one star-type player.” But while the Phillies aren’t likely to be reckless this offseason, it would seem unthinkable (and unlikely) for them to sit on the sidelines.
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