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October 27, 2023

Five thoughts: Dave Dombrowski, Rob Thomson speak on where the Phillies go from here

Aaron Nola is headed for free agency, so is Rhys Hoskins, and tough decisions on them and other areas of need will be what face the Phillies this winter.

Only a couple of days removed from a seven-game defeat in the NLCS that still very much stings, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and manager Rob Thomson held their exit interviews on Thursday from within the tunnels down below at a now quiet Citizens Bank Park. 

A week ago, the stadium was the most electric place in baseball with a club that looked destined for the World Series. 

But now?

"It's difficult," Thomson said. "It's difficult. There's a lot of reflection. I didn't – as I said the other night: two days ago, two weeks ago, two months ago, I wouldn't expect us to be where we're at right now, so it's very disappointing to me, and I'm accountable for everything that goes on around here.

"At some point, you have to turn the page and get going on to next year, and we've done a little bit of that so far, but it's disappointing."

And with some tough decisions and conversations to be had this winter ahead. 

Here are five thoughts on where the Phillies go next based on Dombrowski's and Thomson's availability on Thursday...

Nola (or his replacement) is the priority

Aaron Nola is headed for free agency, and as the No. 2 starter behind Zack Wheeler, that's a lot of innings and a lot of strikeouts the Phillies could be at risk of losing – and yes, that's even with fan frustration over an inconsistent regular season and a bad last start in Game 6 of the NLCS. 

"He's a Phillie," Dombrowski emphasized when asked about the club's homegrown and longest-tenured player, and they'd prefer to keep him. But in the event that they don't – or can't – then there's suddenly a massive hole left in the projected 2024 rotation of Wheeler, Ranger Suárez, Taijuan Walker, and Cristopher Sánchez. 

So the top priority this offseason will be trying to secure a top-end starter, be it Nola or someone else.

"We need to be in a position where we have somebody else who would be a starting pitcher of quality in the rotation," Dombrowski said. "So yes, it's either Aaron or somebody else."

Dombrowski and the Phillies had talks with Nola and his camp last winter and spring about a possible contract extension, but nothing amounted from them and negotiations were ultimately shelved to focus on the season at hand. 

Dombrowski referred back to those talks on Thursday to acknowledge that he isn't fully sure that the Phillies will be able to get a deal done with Nola now, but said they will be "aggressive in trying to make that happen."

The Phillies' president of baseball operations also discussed the desire for a bit more starting pitch depth further down as well, mentioning that he doesn't expect top pitching prospects Mick Abel and Griff McGarry to be contributing to the big-league club until later into the 2024 season – hopefully. Then, of course, there's phenom Andrew Painter, who Dombrowski said they're not even thinking about now until 2025 as the 20-year old recovers from Tommy John surgery. 

"So starting pitching depth will also be something we need to focus on," Dombrowski said.

But Nola, or whoever might succeed him, is the priority.

What's next for Rhys?

Rhys Hoskins is also slated for free agency, and on Thursday, Dombrowski was asked straight up if the longtime Phillies first baseman would receive a qualifying offer ahead of it. 

He couldn't say. Not yet at least. And unlike Nola, where the Phillies have a very clear need for a starting pitcher, Hoskins' situation is a bit more complicated. 

There's the fact that he's still working his way back from the ACL tear suffered in the spring, but also that the club shifted rather radically in response to his absence. 

Bryce Harper learned to play first base to get back into the field, which allowed Kyle Schwarber to settle in as the primary designated hitter. Nick Castellanos improved his fielding well enough to stay out in right, while Brandon Marsh's and later Johan Rojas' defensive prowess earned them the other two outfield spots. 

There's not much room for Hoskins to fit back into the Phillies' regular lineup in its current form, and bigger is that among this group of heavy hitters, there are only so many at-bats to go around.

"In many ways, I'm saying the same thing about Rhys as I'm saying about Aaron Nola," Dombrowski said. "You can't find better people than them, and they're Phillies through and through. 

"I think the world of both of them. What they've done for the Phillies organization has been outstanding. Quality players, quality people they've brought to the community. In Aaron's case, it's very simple for me to say we want to pursue him and be in a situation because we need a starting pitcher and all that. As far as Rhys is concerned, there are still some moving parts that I'm just not sure of, different answers at this time, so I can't answer that question at this time."

And the key part among them...

Where will Harper play next year?

So what happens if Harper wants to return to right field next season?

Suddenly the Phillies would be faced with a hole at first – assuming Hoskins doesn't return – and an outfield/DH logjam between him, Castellanos, Schwarber, Marsh, Rojas, and – assuming he does return – Hoskins. 

"We need to sit down with Bryce and ask him what his preference is and sit down with a heart-to-heart on what he wants to do, and how he would like to approach it going forward," Dombrowski said. "So I don't know what he's gonna do yet at this time, but it is something that we'll have to do relatively soon because we'll have to know what type of moves we're gonna make."

Harper successfully picking up first base this season was a blessing for the Phillies when it came to lineup flexibility, but now it might actually stand to give them a headache or two this winter and into 2024 depending on what happens next. 

Perhaps no perfect answer here.

About the Taijuan thing

Taijuan Walker signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Phillies last winter and then went on to win 15 games for them this season – though with a 4.38 ERA. 

But in the postseason, he didn't appear at all, even with an opportunity to for Game 4 of the NLCS. The Phillies opted to go with Cris Sánchez in the bullpen start instead. 

So after it all fell apart in the Game 7 defeat to Arizona Tuesday night, Walker's frustration from having to just sit there and watch boiled over on social media, when he posted on Twitter/X that the "disrespect is at an all-time high," while liking a subsequent reply that was critical of Thomson's decision not to use him.

Dombrowski and Thomson were both aware of that, but was there offense taken or any fracture in the relationship? Hardly, both of them said.

"Oh, not at all," Thomson said. "Not one bit. People get emotional. He's a competitive guy. I love Taijuan, I really do. This guy gives us 15 wins, every time he goes out to the mound, he competes until we take him out, and he never wants to come out. I want a guy like that.

"That type of thing doesn't bother me. I'll call him at some point, but I love him. I love his demeanor. I love his toughness. I'm sure everything will be fine."

The hunted

Thomson sat at the podium on Thursday still disappointed over a crushing NLCS defeat that is still very much fresh. 

But he maintained that he's still proud of his players for all that they've accomplished over the past two years – back-to-back NLCS appearances is no easy feat – and that they'll be back in 2024 knowing there's plenty of work yet to be done. 

But he also noted that the sting of this loss does have to shift the club's thinking a bit from here on out. No one is getting taken by surprise by the Phillies anymore. They're a known juggernaut now, and are going to draw everyone's absolute best. 

"It's a motivator," Thomson said. "The one thing we are now that we weren't last year, now we're the hunted. Last year we were the hunter. So now we have to take that mindset that nobody's gonna lay down for us. People are going to come after us constantly, so you have to be aware of that and be on guard for that. You gotta play well, get ahead, and then put people away, because they're not gonna quit."

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