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Phillies Nuggets: On Trout, Harper and building a World Series team

Mike Trout can become a free-agent after the 2020 season. (Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire)

There was a time where the idea of the Philadelphia Phillies acquiring Mike Trout was a pipe dream. Trout had just signed a six-year/$144.5 million extension with the Los Angeles Angels, so he wasn’t close to free-agency and the Angels had no reason to even ponder the idea of trading the generational talent. The Phillies had also fallen behind the curve in terms of how championship teams were built and had elected to delay an inevitable rebuild for another season.

It’s no longer March of 2014.

The revamped Phillies introduced six-time All-Star Bryce Harper at Spectrum Field Saturday afternoon. Harper, who signed a record 13-year/$330 million deal with the Phillies, is the cherry on top of an incredible offseason for general manager Matt Klentak and managing partner John Middleton. The Phillies acquired All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, who Harper called “his favorite player in the game,” a couple weeks prior to securing Harper. They signed outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson to lucrative free-agent contracts, adding two players with postseason experience to a team thin on players who have been a part of October baseball. And the first major move of the offseason was sending Carlos Santana to the Seattle Mariners in a trade for shortstop Jean Segura, who Harper called “an absolute stud” Saturday. Moving Santana also allowed Rhys Hoskins – who, like Harper, is represented by Scott Boras – to move back to his natural position of first base.

The 2019 Phillies have a lineup that’s good enough, at least on paper, to compete for a World Series. For an organization that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 – let alone reached the postseason – the organization’s chances to make the next two seasons special shouldn’t be overlooked.

But, of course, Harper’s introductory press conference couldn’t go by without Trout being discussed. And Harper didn’t even have to be asked directly about the two-time American League MVP to allude to him.

“I’m making $26 [million] a year. That’s going to be able to bring some other guys in as well to build up this organization,” Harper said Saturday. “There’s another guy that in about two years will come off the books. We’ll see what happens with that.”

That other guy that Harper was referring to is Trout, a seven-time All-Star. But while the Angels look brilliant for locking Trout up early in his career to a deal that bought out his first three free-agent years, they’ve largely wasted Trout’s historic production. The last time that the Angels reached the postseason was in 2014, seventh months after Trout’s extension. The Angels were swept by the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 ALDS and haven’t been back to the postseason since. So Trout, now 27, has nearly as many league MVP Awards as postseason games played in. And that sure isn’t his fault – he already has a higher WAR7 and JAWS than the average Hall of Fame center fielder.

There’s zero indication that the Angels are interested in trading Trout. All-time bad contracts issued to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have restricted the Angels ability to put a winning team around Trout, who is unquestionably the greatest player since Barry Bonds. That hasn’t stopped the Angels from trying to build a contending team, though.

They haven’t had a sexy offseason, but it has been a busy one nonetheless, with general manager Billy Eppler signing Cody Allen, Trevor Cahill, Justin Bour, Jonathan Lucroy and Matt Harvey. Last offseason, the Angels splurged on a trio of players; they re-signed Justin Upton for $106 million, signed infielder Zack Coazrt to a three-year/$38 million deal and lured two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani to La La Land. Upton hit 30 home runs in the first year of his deal, while Ohtani took the baseball world by storm, winning American League Rookie of the Year. However, Ohtani needed Tommy John Surgery in October, putting into doubt how sustainable it is for him to be a two-way star – and certainly how realistic it is to prove he can be a two-way star before Trout has to decide on his future. Cozart, who moved to third base from shortstop when he signed with the Angels, played just 58 games in his first season with the Angels before tearing his labrum.

Like the Phillies, the Angels won just 80 games in 2018. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that of the two teams, the Phillies have a significantly brighter future. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that Trout is becoming aware of this.

Friday, Trout told the collective media, which included‘s Rhett Bollinger, that he “hasn’t even thought about it” in regards to his own future. But he seems to have pointed Harper in the direction of the Phillies. He also told Bob Nightengale of USA Today in February that he was constantly asked this offseason when he was going to join the Phillies, to which he publicly responded by saying “I can’t predict the future.” That he has been asked about potentially joining the Phillies isn’t a surprise. That he publicly talked about being asked about joining the Phillies is noteworthy. No, it doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be in center field for the Phillies on Opening Day in 2021. But as he said ahead of a Phillies-Angels game in August of 2017, kids always dream of playing for the team they grew up rooting for.

Angels owner Arte Moreno hopes to kill the Trout to the Phillies speculation. And best believe, he’s going to go down swinging in his attempt to keep Trout with the Angels for his entire career. The Angels are one of the deepest-pocketed teams in the sport, and Pujols’ deal will come off the books after 2021. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic says the Angels have pondered offering Trout a 10-year/$350 million extension recently. Would that be enough to keep Trout in Los Angeles through his late 30s? Probably not, but it’s not a bad place to start. The Angels play in one of the biggest markets in the sport, so they have enough money to sell Trout on being the league’s highest paid player and putting a contender around him. They are motivated to do so, and it’s hard to imagine them continuing to have as much bad luck with major transactions as they have in the first eight seasons of his career.

There will come a time, if the Angels get the sense that Trout won’t re-sign or that they’ll have to compete on the open-market after 2020 to retain him, where Eppler and Moreno will have to seriously consider trading Trout. In the end, though, Trout will control his future. He has a full no-trade clause. That probably won’t matter at least until next offseason – it’s difficult to imagine the Angels listening to offers on Trout during the 2019 season, even if they fall out of contention in the American League West. If they entertain offers for Trout next offseason, it’s fair to question whether the Phillies, who traded No. 1 prospect Sixto Sanchez to acquire Realmuto, would be able to put together enough to entice the Angels. Scouts are high on shortstop Luis Garcia and 2018 first-round pick Alec Bohm, but it would be a hell of a risk to trade Trout for a package headlined by two players in the lower levels of the Phillies minor league system. Aaron Nola, who Harper says he’s excited not to have to face anymore, isn’t going anywhere. Hoskins probably isn’t either, and even if the Phillies made him available in Trout discussions, he projects as a DH in the American League and is less than two years younger than Trout.

If Trout becomes available to trade for in the future, the Phillies will be bidding against teams with deeper farm systems. But this exercise of trying to put together a trade package does make you realize that nothing the Angels get in return for Trout, should they ultimately move him, will come close to being equivalent to him. The Toronto Blue Jays could call the Angels today and put together a trade for Trout headlined by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the No. 1 prospect in the sport, and the Angels wouldn’t be getting back a player that would produce anything like Trout. That doesn’t mean they won’t ultimately accept defeat, but the Angels are going to try their damnedest to keep Trout, because there is nothing like him in the sport.

The feeling here is that if the Angels did work out a trade that allowed Trout to go to another major-market team – the Dodgers, the New York Yankees – he could, and should, consider waiving his no-trade clause to go there. It’s unclear if he would be willing to waive his chance to become a free-agent after 2020 to sign a long-term deal with a team like the Dodgers or Yankees. We also don’t know if the Dodgers or Yankees would trade a historic package for just one guaranteed season of Trout (2020), with the hope that he would ultimately re-sign.

Will Trout use his no-trade clause to block any trades between now and 2020 to assure he can reach the open market and pick his next team? That still feels like a stretch, especially if a major-market contender like the Yankees or Dodgers made an aggressive push for his services. But if he did so and hoped to sign with one specific team after 2020, it’s not a stretch to think he would have the Phillies in mind. He’s a Philadelphia sports fan and the Phillies have again become an extremely attractive organization to play for. Arriving at those two conclusions isn’t a matter of reading tea leaves, it’s a matter of opening your eyes.

Lost in this discussion are a couple things: talk of how well Trout will age, and whether investing nearly $70 million in two superstar outfielders, even if both are Hall of Fame caliber players, is the best way to build a championship team.

On aging: Trout will almost certainly be a corner outfielder, rather than a center fielder later in his contract. That diminishes some his value. One of the appealing parts about Harper as a free-agent is that he entered free-agency ahead of his age-26 season. Some of that appeal was watered down by signing him to a 13-year deal. Trout will be a free-agent ahead of his age-29 season. If he signs a 10-year deal, both he and Harper would be signed through their late 30s. There’s a risk for quite a few of lean years in the late 2020s if the Phillies sign Trout, and even if those years feel so distant, they count just as much as the next five seasons.

On tying up $70 plus million annually on Trout and Harper alone: this would be such a unique opportunity. It wouldn’t be that different from when the Phillies had a chance to bring back Cliff Lee, teaming him up with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. The case could have been made ahead of the 2011 season that the Phillies would have been more well-rounded if they had invested on extending Jayson Werth, as opposed to becoming even richer in their starting rotation. But Lee, unquestionably, was more valuable than Werth in 2011. You would be hard-pressed to make a case that the Phillies would have won a franchise-record 102 games in 2011 if they had paid Werth over Lee, who finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting in 2011. But, Lee blew a four-run lead in Game 2 of the 2011 NLDS and the Phillies ultimately couldn’t put a run on the board in Game 5, losing 1-0, despite Roy Halladay allowing just one run over eight innings.

There will come a point where the Phillies will have to have these discussions. But based on how the Phillies acted this offseason, you get the sense that the organization is keen on the idea of leaving themselves flexible enough to pursue Trout if he becomes available. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote as much in January. It can’t be a coincidence that even though the Phillies could have financially afforded to sign both Harper and Machado, that never seemed realistic. It also can’t be a coicidence that Harper seems to have walked away from multiple meetings and an eventual signing with the Phillies thinking he could share an outfield with Trout in a few seasons. 

For the time being, the Phillies appear primed to make noise in the National League East and beyond in 2019. But with the great (or not-so-great?) offseason of Harper and Machado out of the way, the noise on Trout figures to only grow louder. And just maybe, it’s becoming somewhat realistic.

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