When Philadelphia Phillies president Andy MacPhail talked about a desire to “grow the arms and buy the bats,” he wasn’t kidding.
Twice in the past week, the Phillies have been reported as being seen as the favorite for a free-agent pitcher (and perhaps nearing a deal), only for the pitcher to go elsewhere. Patrick Corbin, the prize pitching free-agent of the offseason, ultimately chose to sign with the division-rival Washington Nationals, who were willing to guarantee him six years, over the Phillies, who weren’t. At the time of publication of this piece, J.A. Happ is still a free-agent, though multiple reports have suggested that he’s nearing a three-year contract that will allow him to return to the New York Yankees. Matt Gelb of The Athletic says that the Phillies were unwilling to guarantee Happ, 36, a third year in a contract.
And then there’s the curious case of Charlie Morton, who Jon Morosi of MLB.com says is signing with the Tampa Bay Rays. The 35-year-old right-hander closed out the World Series for the Houston Astros in 2017. In 2018, Morton was an All-Star for the first time, going 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA, 3.59 FIP and 3.1 fWAR in 167.0 innings. Though the Phillies would prefer to add a lefty to their starting rotation, Morton would have immediately become the Phillies No. 2 starter behind All-Star Aaron Nola.
Perhaps the Phillies were scared off by Morton publicly pondering whether he wanted to continue playing beyond 2018. Perhaps his four-game stint with the Phillies in 2016, where he was effective in a small sample size but had his season cut short by a torn hamstring, made it too difficult to bet on Morton given his injury history. But FanGraphs says that Morton’s production over the past two seasons in Houston was worth just shy of $50 million. The small-market Rays, per Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, will pay Morton $15 million annually over the next two seasons. He’s throwing harder than he ever has, something doesn’t add up from the Phillies perspective.
Former American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel is still a free-agent. Keuchel doesn’t strike batters out like he once did, but he still posted a 3.1 fWAR in just over 200 innings in 2018. The Phillies have been linked to him and maybe the two sides will eventually reach a deal. But Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors projected that Keuchel, a few weeks away from his 31st birthday, will get a four-year/$82 million free-agent contract. Based upon how the Phillies have acted the past 12 months, it’s hard to imagine them guaranteeing the two-time All-Star more than three years. Who knows how keen they’ll be on the idea of going more than two seasons for Keuchel.
Earlier this offseason, I wondered in a column for SportsRadio 94 WIP whether the Phillies front-office was on the same page as eager-to-spend managing partner John Middleton. After Middleton talked about “maybe even being a little stupid” about the money the Phillies spent this offseason, Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports said there was some thought that the Phillies front-office was trying to “rein” Middleton in a bit. It remains to be seen what happens when it comes time to put-up-or-shut-up on Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, but if the Phillies front-office felt they needed to calm Middleton down a bit, they’ve certainly done so in the starting pitching market. They may very well look wise in the long-run for not guaranteeing a six-year deal to Corbin. But not guaranteeing a Happ a third year or matching the Rays offer for Morton almost makes the Phillies look like they are very cautiously in the starting pitching market. That’s a far cry from where they seemed to be a few weeks ago, when some wondered if Middleton wouldn’t hand agents a blank check for players he wanted to obtain.
In the end, this was always seen as a defining offseason for general manager Matt Klentak and MacPhail. It’s never a wise practice to force moves you don’t think will pan out well because you have a ton of money to spend, an owner that wants to spend said money and a fanbase that’s waited a few years for this offseason. But it will take years to evaluate whether Klentak and MacPhail were wise to exercise restraint on the trio of starting pitchers that have already signed. It may only take days for the Phillies fanbase – and Middleton, as an extension – to grow frustrated if the Phillies aren’t ultimately able to make a noteworthy addition to their starting rotation this offseason. Ask Sam Hinkie and Ron Hextall if you always get to see out your full rebuild plan.
Again, Keuchel is still a free-agent. So too are Yusei Kikuchi and Wade Miley. There’s plenty of speculation about the Phillies as a suitor for Cleveland Indians aces Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. But as presently constructed, Klentak and MacPhail may be tying their futures to whether Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez are able to put together full seasons of the type of production they had in the first-half of the 2018 season. Each is young enough that they could take major steps forward in 2019, but each also had an ERA north of five after the All-Star Break. So did Jake Arrieta, who currently is slotted in as the Phillies No. 2 starter. Jerad Eickhoff was an excellent back-of-the-rotation starter in 197.1 innings in 2016, but injuries have limited him to 133.1 innings over the past two seasons.
There’s no indication that Klentak and MacPhail are on the hot seat. But there is a managing partner, the face of the ownership group, that’s made clear his desires to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011. There’s a fanbase that regardless of whether it’s a good idea or not, isn’t eager to kick the can down the road another offseason or two. So it won’t be enough if the contracts of Corbin, Happ and Morton don’t look great in a few seasons time. In the short-term, Pivetta, Eflin and the rest of the Phillies young starters may have to form a playoff-caliber rotation behind Nola, something they weren’t capable of doing in the waning weeks of the 2018 season.
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