The World Series won’t even begin until Tuesday night, but there are some early signs that the starting pitching market may not be align in a way that’s favorable to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Houston Astros RHP Gerrit Cole went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA, 2.64 FIP and 7.4 fWAR in 33 regular season starts. The 29-year-old is likely to win the American League Cy Young Award, and after posting a 0.40 ERA in three postseason starts, he’ll start Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday.
Signing Cole, who is going to be one of the most-coveted free-agents ever, isn’t necessarily a pipe dream for a team with the financial wherewithal of the Phillies, but it would certainly be a smart bet to take the field over Philadelphia.
Unlike last offseason, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are likely to be very motivated in attempting to sign the offseason’s top free-agent following disappointing postseason exits.
There’s some indication that Cole – who is from Orange County and went to college at UCLA – might be keen on returning to California. ESPN‘s Buster Olney spoke to some Astros teammates of Cole that think he’ll ultimately sign with a team from California. What’s more, Olney says there is an “industry expectation” that Cole will ultimately land with the Los Angeles Angels. Certainly, the Angels, who haven’t made the postseason since 2014, are motivated to build a team around Mike Trout, and they are essentially Cole’s hometown team.
Matt Klentak and the Phillies should (and probably will) make a serious play for Cole. There’s a case to be made that adding a player of his caliber is the only way the Phillies could realistically win the National League East in 2020. But is it more likely that Cole plays for one of the 29 other teams in the league in 2020 than the Phillies? Probably.
The second best potential option on the market this offseason will be RHP Stephen Strasburg. The former No. 1 overall pick had one of the best seasons of his career in 2019, going 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA, 3.25 FIP and 5.7 fWAR. He’s likely to finish in the top five in National League Cy Young Award, and almost equally as likely to opt-out of the four years and $100 million remaining on his contract.
That said, Mark Feinsand of MLB.com says there’s a belief around the sport that while Strasburg will opt-out, he’ll ultimately re-sign with the Nationals for five or six seasons. The Nationals could lose superstar third baseman Anthony Rendon in free-agency this offseason, though it doesn’t appear likely that Strasburg, a three-time All-Star, will leave the Nationals.
Lost in this discussion is that for as impressive of a career as Strasburg has had, he’s 31, has had Tommy John Surgery once and has thrown 1,438.2 regular season innings in his career. The Phillies, perhaps correctly, were unwilling to go to six years for LHP Patrick Corbin last offseason, out of fear that the back half of the contract wouldn’t age well. Strasburg is two years older than Corbin, and likely would be looking at a free-agent deal five or six years long.
The thing is, the Phillies have backed themselves into a situation where they need to add front-line pitching to realistically contend in 2020. Very few times do pitchers like Cole reach free-agency. When they do, the overwhelming majority of major-market teams have some level of interest. Most pitchers that reach free-agency are on the wrong side of 30, have concerning injury histories or some combination of the two.
Los Angeles Dodgers LHP Hyun-jin Ryu, San Francisco Giants LHP Madison Bumgarner, Minnesota Twins RHP Jake Odorizzi, Boston Red Sox RHP Rick Porcello, Chicago Cubs LHP Cole Hamels and New York Mets RHP Zack Wheeler can all also become free-agents this offseason. Ryu, Bumgarner and Hamels are all over 30, and Ryu has shoulder surgery previously. Porcello is 30, and has posted a 4.79 ERA in the three seasons since winning the American League Cy Young Award. Odorizzi will turn 30 next March and has a 4.09 career FIP. Wheeler will turn 30 next May, and has a 3.77 career ERA.
There’s plenty to like about potentially adding any of the secondary free-agent options, but that’s without considering the potential terms of a contract. One of these second-tier free-agent options probably wouldn’t be enough to help propel the Phillies into the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Tuesday, the Phillies officially announced the hiring of Brian Barber as their new scouting director. A decision on Gabe Kapler’s successor as manager might not be too far behind. But with the way that the starting pitching market appears it may align, an offseason that’s already been filled with difficult decisions for the Phillies may just be getting started.
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