Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

What will Phillies backup plan be on free-agent pitching market?

Could Cole Hamels return to the Phillies to wrap up his career? (Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

After World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg opted out of the final four years and $100 million on his contract with the Washington Nationals, he’s set to join Houston Astros RHP Gerrit Cole – the likely American League Cy Young Award winner – at the top of the free-agent market.

While there’s some indication that Strasburg could ultimately return to D.C. and that the Phillies may be a long-shot to sign Cole, certainly general manager Matt Klentak will inquire on the two aces. There’s a case to be made that the only way that the Phillies could enter 2020 with a serious chance to win the crowded National League East is by signing one of the two arms.

But there has to be a legitimate Plan B and Plan C this winter, because there wasn’t last offseason, and the Phillies ultimately got burned by it.

The Phillies did tour free-agent LHP Patrick Corbin at Citizens Bank Park in December, but the former Arizona Diamondback ultimately signed a six-year/$140 million deal with the division-rival Washington Nationals. The back-half of Corbin’s deal may ultimately prove to be unsuccessful, but he helped a division-rival win a World Series in 2019, while the Phillies unsuccessfully bet on the quartet of Jake Arrieta, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez.

It would be untrue to say that the Phillies didn’t pivot at all on the free-agent market last offseason. It did appear at one point that they were headed for a reunion with J.A. Happ. But the Phillies were unwilling to match the two-year/$34 million deal Happ signed with the New York Yankees, which included a vesting third-year option. At the time, that didn’t exactly feel like a ridiculous deal.

But let’s say the Phillies did ink him to that deal – Happ posted a 4.91 ERA and 5.22 FIP in 2019. Even if pitching in the National League may have helped improve his numbers to some degree, Happ wouldn’t have made a major impact on what was ultimately a very disappointing 81-81 season.

Charlie Morton would have – he went 16-6 with a a 3.05 ERA, 2.81 FIP and 6.1 fWAR in 2019. However, after a brief stint with the team in 2016 that concluded with him tearing his hamstring, the Phillies never appeared to show interest in Morton. While his injury history may have been a fair concern, the Tampa Bay Rays signed him to a two-year/$30 million deal with a vesting option for 2021 – it’s clear now (and seemed to be then), that such a deal would have been worth the risk.

The moral of the story is this – the Phillies erred mightily last offseason on pitching. They can’t again this offseason. Of course, Cole or Strasburg would be a tremendous addition. But this offseason’s market may provide better secondary choices than last year. That may prove crucial when you consider that the Phillies probably don’t want to part with either of their top prospects – RHP Spencer Howard or third baseman Alec Bohm – in a trade for pitching this offseason. Both could make an impact at the major league level in 2020.

Zack Wheeler will be a free agent this offseason. (David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)

Of the second-tier free-agent options, New York Mets RHP Zack Wheeler could be the most intriguing. Though frustrating at times, Wheeler has an 8.9 fWAR over the past two seasons, which is tied with Phillies ace Aaron Nola for the ninth-best mark in baseball over that timespan. He went 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA in 11 starts after the All-Star Break in 2018. At 29, there’s a case to be made that the best stretch of his career may be yet to come. A four-year deal could allow new Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price the chance to attempt to get the most out of Wheeler, who the San Francisco Giants once traded to the Mets for new Mets manager Carlos Beltran.

Minnesota Twins RHP Jake Odorizzi, also 29, will reach free-agency after his first All-Star season. Odorizzi went 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA, 3.36 FIP and 4.3 fWAR in 2019. Odorizzi saw his average fastball velocity reach a career-high at 93.0 in 2019, and while his ERA jumped to 3.97 in 13 starts after the All-Star Break, beggars can’t be choosers. (The Phillies are the beggars for competent major league starting pitching, in case you were wondering.)

If the Dodgers ultimately choose to make a serious push for Cole, Hyun-jin Ryu could be an interesting name to monitor. Ryu has struggled to stay healthy consistently during his career, but when he’s been healthy, the 32-year-old has been a front-line starter. In 2019, he had the best season of his career, going 14-5 with a 2.32 ERA, 3.10 FIP and 4.8 fWAR in 182.2 innings. Given his health history, there would certainly be a level of risk in signing Ryu to a three or four-year deal. But signing him – if the Dodgers don’t ultimately retain him – wouldn’t involve giving up draft compensation, as the Dodgers can’t issue a qualifying offer to Ryu after he accepted their’s last offseason.

San Francisco Giants LHP Madison Bumgarner’s place in postseason history will make him a popular suggestion among Phillies fans. But while Bumgarner is still only 30, he posted both a 3.90 ERA and FIP across 207.2 innings in 2019. He’s still an effective pitcher, but not one that has been a front-line starter since 2016.

Chicago Cubs LHP Cole Hamels, who spent the first nine-and-half seasons of his career with the Phillies, will also become a free-agent. Clearly, the Phillies would have been wise to trade for Hamels in July of 2018, as he posted a 2.99 ERA in 13 starts after being acquired by the Cubs. That said, Hamels was limited to a 141.2 innings in 2019 by an oblique injury. He still posted a 3.81 ERA and 4.09 ERA in 27 starts, so there’s value in him – but as a back-end-of-the-rotation option. Hamels will turn 36 in December and has logged 2,694.2 regular season innings in his career.

Klentak and company took heat for not signing Dallas Keuchel either last offseason or after the MLB Draft in early June. The former American League Cy Young Award winner ultimately landed with the division-rival Atlanta Braves, where he went 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA and 4.72 FIP. Both the 31-year-old’s FIP and career-high 36.8 percent hard contact rate should set off alarm bells. The Phillies were probably correct in wanting to steer clear of Keuchel as a free-agent, the problem is that even this version of Keuchel would have been an upgrade over other options in the 2019 rotation.

Rick Porcello had some very nice seasons early in his career with the Detroit Tigers, before winning the American League Cy Young Award as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2016. The problem is, Porcello’s other four seasons in Boston were underwhelming, including 2019, when he posted a 5.52 ERA and 4.76 FIP. Porcello, who will pitch at age 31 next season, could be someone to target on a one-year bounce-back deal, though it would be pretty difficult to project what type of production he would bring.

The best bet for the 2020 Phillies would be to sign one of Cole or Straburg as free agents. The most realistic backup plan would be pairing an option like Wheeler with Hamels.

If the Phillies were to sign Wheeler and Hamels, it would certainly improve their rotation heading into 2020. The possibility also exists that Nola pitches closer to his 2018 self, Arrieta stays healthy and at least one of Pivetta, Eflin or Velasquez breaks out. Of course, all of those possibilities existed in 2019 as well.

Phillies icon and special advisor to the general manager Larry Bowa said last week that he believes the team could compete with “the big boys” in 2020 if the necessary pitching was added. Would heading into the 2020 season with Wheeler and Hamels, for example, improve the Phillies rotation? Certainly. Would it be enough to compete with the Nationals, Dodgers, New York Yankees and Houston Astros? The Phillies will have to answer that question in the coming weeks and months.


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