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September 27, 2017

Mackanin wants 'bonafide, top of rotation pitcher' and Phillies will surely be shopping this winter

This time a year ago, as the Phillies were putting the finishing touches on their fifth straight season without a winning record and nary a young, middle of the order lineup piece to get excited about for their ongoing rebuild, Pete Mackanin was clear about his offseason wish list. He wanted a hitter. He wanted two hitters.

“We just need some professional hitters in the middle (of the lineup). … We need at least a guy in the middle who is a go-to guy,” he said toward the end of the 2016 season. “No question about it, I’d like to get two professional hitters. As many as I can.”

The front office also understood the need and they did just what the manager had asked, trading for Howie Kendrick and signing Michael Saunders, the former a long-time lineup mainstay for the Angels and the latter an All-Star in 2016 with Toronto. They were meant to be short-term fixes as both were due to become free agents after the season.

Whether the moves were the right ones or even necessary isn’t really worth debating at the moment, since those additions have since been subtracted and didn’t have a negative effect on the rebuild from a big picture standpoint, even if they were largely underwhelming. What is relevant a year later, with just four games remaining in the 2017 season, is that the Phillies probably don’t need to go shopping for a bat or two this winter.

Since the All-Star break, the Phillies rank in the top half of baseball in runs scored (sixth in the National League), they’re sporting a .748 OPS (50 points higher than their first-half OPS), they’re sixth in the NL in extra-base hits, and they’re averaging 4.65 runs per game (a healthy uptick from 3.82 RPG in the first half). To put the latter stat in perspective, the playoff-bound Nationals and Dodgers have 4.46 and 4.07 runs-per-game since the All-Star break, respectively.

The Phillies have plenty of young hitters to play eight positions in 2018, including many they’re still evaluating for the long-term. Couple that with the fact that the 2018-19 free agent class, and not this winter's upcoming class, is littered with star position players and it makes sense for the Phillies to evaluate what they have on offense again in 2018 before breaking open their wallets in a big way in about 14 months.

“But,” Mackanin said when his offseason wishlist was broached again on Wednesday afternoon, “every manager wants more.  You always want more. You want to win. We want to do better than we've done the last two years.”

But given the choice between adding more offense or adding pitching this winter, well, it’s not really a choice.

Phillies starting pitching in 2017: Aaron Nola and pray for rain

  NolaRest of rotation Nola, 2nd half Everyone else, 2nd half 
G 27131 14 57 
W-L 12-11 29-51 6-5 17-21
ERA3.54 5.11 3.49  5.41
WHIP 1.211.43  1.23 1.46
 K/BB 3.762.32  4.29 2.40
HR/9  0.96 1.65 1.03 1.73

Just as a year ago you could look at the lineup and see just one player (Odubel Herrera) that felt like a legitimate piece for the next contending team, you can look at the group of pitchers who have started games for the Phillies this year and feel pretty similar. It’s Aaron Nola and a lot of maybes, question marks, and unknowns.

“I think it would behoove us to get a bonafide starting pitcher,” Mackanin said. “To move forward I think we need a stabilizer at the top. … Somebody's who's proven at the top of the rotation.”

The Phillies need to fortify their rotation this winter, and with the possibility of contending not that far away (a lineup core is coming together, there are real pieces to like in the bullpen, and the aforementioned 2018-19 free agent winter is coming) the front office needs to do more than the patchwork of the last few offseasons. Fewer Jerome Williamses, Jeremy Hellicksons, and Charlie Mortons, Aaron Harangs, and Clay Buchholzes, more guys who stand a chance to start a postseason game for you in 2019 if everything absolutely breaks right in the next two seasons (which should be the goal).

So who’s out there for the taking?

The upcoming free agent pitching class is led by right-handers Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, both of whom will turn 32 in 2018. Alex Cobb, who turns 30 next month, is another interesting name as he’s finishing up a breakout year (his numbers this season are very similar to Nola’s) after missing most of the last two seasons with Tommy John surgery.

If you’re skittish about handing over an excess of $125-$175 million for an All-Star pitcher on the wrong side of their 30th birthday, which could be the territory Arrieta and Darvish will try to find, you could look at trading for pitching.

As we mentioned here (including some intriguing names) two months ago, the best play may be to find a young pitcher under club control, someone a bit younger who could fit into your current core. Of course this is the very kind of asset every team wants, but if you find a team that’s changing directions and looking to rebuild (as Detroit did this summer, as teams like Pittsburgh and Toronto could look to do this winter) perhaps you could find a match by putting together a package of young big league hitters (the Phillies are set to have a logjam of infielders in '18) and promising A-ball pitchers.

Then there’s the more outside-of-the-box thinking, like considering re-acquiring Cole Hamels (the Rangers are currently in fourth place, but still have Hamels for two more years) or asking about Zack Greinke if Arizona decides it wants to unload his excessive contract (four years, $138.5 million remaining after 2017). The former doesn’t seem likely and the latter sounds like crazy-talk, although if you’re interested in Arrieta or Darvish, and possibly flirting with the idea of Giancarlo Stanton's massive contract, why not check in on Greinke’s availability? (Notable: Greinke has a partial no-trade clause and could want no part of Philadelphia). 

Some of these moves are obviously big and outlandish, and whether the Phillies are at that stage of their rebuild to make such a move is a legitimate question.

The Nationals made such a splash after the 2010 season, when they lost 93 games, by signing Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract. Like the Phils, they have payroll flexibility ... but they also had the Stephen Strasburg-Bryce Harper duo in place for the next half dozen years, too. The Diamondbacks, who had gone as long as the Phillies have without a winning season until this year, weren’t the most obvious landing spot for Greinke when they signed him as a free agent two years ago. But they surprised many and out-bid the field. 

Given their status as a big market team with payroll flexibility that would make any opposing general manager jealous, and an ownership eager to see more Ws in the 2018 standings and butts in the thousands of unoccupied blue seats at Citizens Bank Park, you probably can’t rule anything out for the Phillies this winter.

But they absolutely need to add, as Mackanin said, a bonafide, proven, top-of-the-rotation pitcher to pair with Nola. Because as promising as the offense has looked in the last two months, the starting pitching has been largely a sore spot. And Sixto Sanchez is still a teenager in A-ball.

Mackanin wants an arm or two, and there’s good reason to believe, like last year, he’ll get what he wants before he arrives in Clearwater, Fla., in February.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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