Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

Future free-agent classes look strong, but kicking can would be tough sell for Phillies


Philadelphia Phillies president Andy MacPhail was right in his season-ending press conference when he said that 2019 isn’t the final year baseball will be played. And though the 2019 and 2020 free-agent classes aren’t as anticipated as this offseason’s, they do look to have the potential to be strong. But after years of leaks and speculation, after managing partner John Middleton talked about “maybe being a little stupid” with how the Phillies spent money this offseason, kicking the can down the road another year or two in the club’s attempt star hunt would be very difficult to sell the fanbase on.

Perhaps impossible.

For years, the free-agent stints of Bryce Harper (left) and Manny Machado (right) have bee anticipated. (Arturo Pardavila III and Ian D’Andrea)

Xander Bogaerts, Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt can all become free-agents next offseason. Emphasis on can. If the Nationals don’t retain Harper, it feels very realistic that they could re-sign Rendon, a star in his own right. The same goes for Arenado in Colorado. The Red Sox will have to make some difficult decisions on which of their multitude of stars they will re-sign in the coming years, but it’s far from a certainty that Bogaerts will reach free-agency. Goldschmidt, meanwhile, was just acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals, who figure to make an attempt to retain him past 2019. Even if they don’t, he’ll be 32 and plays first base, a position currently occupied by Rhys Hoskins.

If they aren’t able to reach a long-term deal with him in the interim, the Los Angeles Angels could make Mike Trout available next offseason, fearing that he’ll leave in free-agency after the 2020 season. (Mookie Betts will also be a free-agent after 2020, though even with some tough decisions ahead, Betts not remaining in Boston is hard to imagine.) If the Phillies strike out this offseason, that’s no doubt where the attention of Phillies fans will pivot to.

It’s not that a trade for Trout is impossible, but simply because Trout is a Philadelphia sports fan doesn’t mean that if he’s made available he will end up in Philadelphia. He seemingly likes Los Angeles and would only leave the Angels because they haven’t been able to put a contending team around him. But would he object to a trade (and long-term extension) with the Dodgers? What about the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants or either New York franchise?

Lost in any thought of Trout is that the Angels would have to agree to trade Trout. It feels unfathomable that they would allow him to reach free-agency. And while he may have interest in playing for the Phillies, the idea that he’s going to object to a trade to another prestigious organization and demand to be traded to the Phillies doesn’t check out.

With that in mind, the Phillies would have to put together the most intriguing offer for Trout. Can they do that without including Aaron Nola (which they won’t)? Sixto Sanchez is a tremendous prospect, but an elbow injury limited him to less than 50 innings at Single-A in 2018. It’s not clear if the Phillies would part with Hoskins, but he projects as a DH in the American League. The last thing a team that employs Albert Pujols and Shohei Ohtani needs is another DH type. That doesn’t mean the Angels wouldn’t have interest in Hoskins, he’s a 25-year-old slugger with 35-40 home run power. He’s also not that much younger that Trout. So we may be overestimating how much Hoskins would pique the interest of the Angels in a scenario where they are considering moving a generational talent.

It’s also very rare that two players with Hall of Fame talent will reach free-agency at age 26. There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about how anyone signing Harper or Machado may have to deal with some lean years at the end of a contract.

But if Trout signs a 10-year deal that begins in the 2021 season, it would run through his age-38 season. Arenado will be entering his age-29 season when (or if) he reaches free-agency. Part of the reason that Harper and Machado’s free-agency has been anticipated for years now is that getting a few extra years in a player’s 20s makes a giant difference.

If Robinson Cano had signed a 10-year deal at age 26, as opposed to age-30, his deal would have gone down as one of the best long-term deals in baseball history. Instead, the Mariners needed to attach superstar closer Edwin Diaz to Cano to convince a team to take his money on in a trade.

None of this is to say that signing Harper or Machado to a 10-year deal won’t look like a mistake in five years. Or eight. It may. But in an offseason where general manager Matt Klentak has talked about how “perception matters,” it would be hard to explain leaving the offseason without one of Harper or Machado when credible insiders suggested at the outset of the offseason that signing both wasn’t impossible.

Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen will allow the Phillies to make incremental improvements in 2019. Much of how the 2019 season shakes out will probably come down to what strides Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin make, especially after the team lost out in the Patrick Corbin sweepstakes. But ESPN didn’t select the Phillies for the first Sunday Night Baseball game of the 2019 season for incremental improvements. They selected them with the expectation that the club would employ either Harper or Machado. If that isn’t the case, the Phillies risk having an apathetic crowd at Citizens Bank Park that night – and for the foreseeable future.

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