The Philadelphia Phillies will enter Monday evening’s matchup with the Atlanta Braves just two games back of the Chicago Cubs for the second National League Wild Card spot. Still, FanGraphs says that the Phillies have just a 4.8 percent chance to make the playoffs in 2019, the fourth best odds in their own division. Regardless of what happens in the final few weeks of the 2019 season, it will be hard to window dress the obvious holes on the current team.
That means that general manager Matt Klentak – even after having what he described as “objectively great” offseason a year ago – will have his work cut out this winter.
Without a ton in the way of prospect capital, spending their way out of any holes may be the Phillies best route this winter. And an offseason after signing Bryce Harper away from the division-rival Washington Nationals, the Phillies, at least in a speculative sense, could very well find themselves connected to two Nationals stars again.
Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon has forced his way into a historically tight National League MVP race, as he’s slashing .337/.417/.630 with 32 home runs, 114 RBIs and a 6.8 fWAR. Since the start of the 2016 season, FanGraphs says that Rendon – not Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant or anyone else – has been the best third baseman in baseball.
Remarkably, 2019 is the first time that the 29-year-old has been voted an All-Star. Don’t get it twisted, though, he’s going to be compensated like a perennial All-Star this offseason, probably because he should have been an All-Star a few times now.
Mark Feinsand of MLB.com says that Rendon, who is represented by Scott Boras, could attempt to top the eight-year/$260 million extension that Nolan Arenado signed with the Colorado Rockies in February. Here’s the thing: Arenado started that extension in his age-28 season. Manny Machado signed a 10-year/$300 million deal last offseason, that, like Arenado’s deal, runs through his age-35 season. The feeling here is that a deal that pays Rendon slightly more annually than Arenado but runs through his age-35 season is more likely. That would mean a six-year deal with a total value around $200 million. The deal could include a club and/or vesting option for a seventh season, along with an opt-out after the third or fourth season that would allow Rendon to re-enter free-agency if he would be so inclined.
When considering Rendon, the Phillies will have to ask themselves quite a few questions, and many of them circle back to first baseman Rhys Hoskins. There’s a case to be made that 2019 has shown Hoskins is more suited to be a No. 5 hitter, as opposed to hitting cleanup. Signing Rendon, in theory, would allow them to make that a reality.
The issue is that the Phillies top overall prospect, Alec Bohm, is a third baseman. Bohm – who hitting coach Charlie Manuel spoke glowingly about at the Futures Game – profiles as a middle-of-the-order bat and will seemingly be ready to be a regular contributor at the major league level in 2020. There are questions about whether Bohm will be strong enough defensively to remain at third base, though Hoskins is entrenched at first base and at least for the time being, DH isn’t an option in the National League.
Could the Phillies sign Rendon and shop Hoskins this offseason with the plan for Bohm to take over at first base next summer? Perhaps, but that would be quite the risk before Bohm ever plays a game at the major league level. Hoskins is also a leader in the Phillies clubhouse. Even if you set both of those things apart, Hoskins is probably best suited to be a DH and likely would be treated as such in potential trade discussions. Would a team trade a controllable, young starting pitcher for Hoskins this offseason? Almost certainly not.
As appealing as adding Rendon may sound, it is fair to wonder if investing $200 million in a position player – as opposed to a pitcher like Houston Astros RHP Gerrit Cole – is the best path forward for the Phillies. Even a team with the financial wherewithal of the Phillies can only give so many mega contracts.
It feels as though the Phillies have backed themselves into a corner where they need to make multiple impact additions to their starting rotation this winter. Cole, one of the favorites to win the American League Cy Young Award, would obviously be a nice start. But like last offseason’s pursuit of LHP Patrick Corbin, things happen. Cole may have a preference to pitch elsewhere, his price may get too high, etc.
With that in mind, Jon Morosi of MLB.com‘s report last week that Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg is “increasingly likely” to opt-out of the $170 million that he’s owed after 2019 ($100 of which will come over the next four seasons) should be of note to the Phillies. It’s first worth adding the qualifier that Strasburg may do what Clayton Kershaw did last offseason, when he used the threat of opting out of his contract to land a new three-year/$93 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Strasburg, who turned 31 last month, would presumably like to get an extra year tacked onto his deal that runs through the 2023 season. The Nationals, who currently are slated to pay Strasburg $45 million in 2023, would probably like to restructure the three-time All-Star’s deal.
But, it’s always difficult to predict exactly how the Nationals will act. Is there a scenario where Strasburg opts out and ultimately doesn’t agree to a new deal with the Nationals? Sure. Los Angeles Dodgers LHP Hyun-jin Ryu, San Francisco Giants LHP Madison Bumgarner, Minnesota Twins RHP Jake Odorizzi, Chicago Cubs LHP Cole Hamels and New York Mets RHP Zack Wheeler can all also become free-agents this offseason. They probably all won’t, but the more the merrier for the Phillies because beyond Aaron Nola, it’s anyone’s guess as to what their starting rotation will look like in 2020.
There are a few things to ponder when weighing a potential pursuit of Strasburg. First, Morosi wondered in his piece whether Strasburg – who is from San Diego and pitched in college at San Diego State – may want to pitch on the West Coast. If he does, well, there’s not a whole lot the Phillies can do about that. The issue more pertinent to the Phillies is that since having Tommy John Surgery in September of 2010, Strasbourg has pitched over 1,300 innings. The surgery has been wildly successful, as Strasburg has had an excellent career, but it’s far from rare to need the surgery a second time. The Phillies, and any other potential suitors, would have to factor that in when considering a pursuit of Strasburg.
The truth is, though, it’s very rare that a pitcher without any flaws becomes a free-agent. Cole, who turned 29 over the weekend, may be the closest thing to that, and he’s likely to break the bank this offseason. If Strasburg becomes available, the Phillies may not ultimately choose to pursue him aggressively. But for as nice as the idea president Andy MacPhail has preached of “growing the arms and buying the bats” sounded, it hasn’t worked for the Phillies. Frankly, it’s been a disaster. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea in principle, but the Phillies haven’t developed pitching well. In a division with four formidable teams, the Phillies are going to have to take some risks on pitching this offseason if they want to be able to compete in the National League East.
So, yes, it’s September and the Phillies are legitimately contending for the playoffs. The Phillies are seven wins away from their first non-losing season since 2012, and eight away from their first winning season since 2011. But it feels like they are still a ways away from building a team that’s a consistent force in the National League playoffs. And as they search for solutions this offseason, two of Harper’s former Nationals teammates will certainly be considered.
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