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November 07, 2016

MLB Free Agency: A half-dozen pitchers for the Phillies

PHOENIX – A year ago, Matt Klentak arrived at baseball’s General Manager’s Meetings during his first month on the job. This week, Klentak will be a year and change into his tenure with the rebuilding Phillies when he checks into the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia for the 2016 GM Meetings today.

While the rebuild has gained steam since his arrival – not necessarily to his credit and his credit alone as many prospects were in place before Klentak was hired – the Phillies are in a situation not unlike last season when it comes to upgrading their major league roster.

Once again, they’re not expected to contend in the upcoming season. So it makes little sense to overspend in free agency since those dollars would be better allocated to players that will be around when you do expect to contend. (Note: these two facts do not have to be mutually exclusive either. It is possible to sign a veteran to a multi-year deal with the expectation that you could contend in 2018 or 2019).

But the odds are the Phillies will not be in play for the premiere players in this year’s free agent class, like Edwin Encarnacion or Ian Desmond. In a weak pitchers market, Jason Hammel (who became a free agent Sunday) and Jeremy Hellickson will probably get paid well as two of the most dependable arms on the market, and thus, will probably match up with a contender (and not with the Phillies).

The free agent season officially opens at midnight on Tuesday. We looked at a half-dozen hitters who could potentially fit the Phillies needs on Friday.

Here are some pitchers who could make some sense:

(And just a word of warning: this might be a historically bad free agent pitching class, so if you’re expecting sexy names here – which, again, you probably shouldn’t anyway, given the Phillies status as a non-contender – then maybe just click out of this and go watch an episode of Atlanta or something instead of being let down by the following six names.)

Doug Fister, RHP

Remember the way Matt Klentak went about adding veteran starters last winter? He traded for buy-low, bounce-back candidates, a couple of veterans in Hellickson and Charlie Morton whose salaries the team could easily manage on their payroll. Speaking of Morton, who missed the majority of last season after hamstring surgery, he might make sense again this year.

Fister is the same age as Morton (both turn 33 this winter) and is coming off a very uneven season with the Houston Astros. He had a 3.21 ERA in his first 14 starts … and a 6.02 ERA in his last 17 starts.

But perhaps a move back to the National League (and a division he’s familiar with) could benefit Fister, who could probably be had on a short-term deal. And if he bounces back, you could flip him at the trade deadline.

Fister probably had the worst year of his career (his ERA, WHIP, and K/BB right were all the worst of his career). But his 0.88 ground ball to flyable ratio ranked 31st in the big leagues, so he would be an ideal veteran for Citizens Bank Park if you’re confident he can still a capable big league starter in 2017.

Henderson Alvarez, RHP

So this name probably excites you more than Doug Fister, and maybe that’s the only reason I’m putting it on the list. Henderson Alvarez underwent his second should surgery since July 2015 at the end of the 2016 season and he appeared in just four major league games since 2014.

So, wait, why the heck is he on this list? Because he’s very young (Alvarez turns 27 in April) and he once was one of the more talented young starters in the game (with the Marlins, he appeared in an All-Star Game and threw a no-hitter before his 25th birthday).

A team like the Phillies obviously would not be signing Alvarez with the intentions of plugging him into their rotation in 2016. With Hellickson departing and both Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin returning from injuries, they will probably need a veteran to do that in April, but Alvarez will also be recovering from an injury and certainly can not be counted on for that role.

But, this is about the big picture, about setting yourself up best for when you do expect to contend again. Alvarez has had enough problems with his shoulder that he very well could be finished as a big league pitcher. But a team like the Phillies, if they are remotely interested, can afford to gamble with an incentive-laden deal with the hopes he could return to form in 2018.

Travis Wood, LHP

Again, this is not a star-studded free agent pitching class by any means and this one might be a little more thinking outside the box. Wood, who turns 30 in February, was a more-than-serviceable piece in Joe Maddon’s bullpen on the Cubs path to their first championship since 1908. But what if you tried to make him a starting pitcher again?

Wood, a left-hander, didn’t have great splits against right-handed batters in 2016. And he didn’t have great splits against right-handers in his last season a starting pitcher, either. Perhaps he knows his limits and his role at this point … but Cliff Lee’s workout buddy and the fellow Arkansas native is probably still young enough and competitive enough to give starting a go one more time if the offer is there.

Wood was a decent starter (3.83 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) from 2010-13 with the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs. Remember the time he took a perfect game into the ninth inning against Roy Halladay and the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park as a rookie?

Maybe you gamble, give him a two-year deal. And if he doesn’t pan out as a starter, he can go back to being a good lefty out of the ‘pen who you could probably trade at the deadline. The Phillies do need left-handed help in their relief corps for 2017, too.

Another lefty who once looked like a promising young starter who might be worth a gamble with a minor league deal this winter: former Orioles first-round pick Brian Matusz.

Jon Niese, LHP

Now we enter the guy-who-spend-his-whole-career-with-one-team-and-struggled-when-he-left section of free agent pitchers. Last December, the Mets swapped long-time rotation member to the Pittsburgh Pirates for second baseman Neil Walker

Niese was pretty terrible in Pittsburgh, with an ERA closing in on 5.00 and a 1.50-plus WHIP. He was traded back to the Mets on August 1 for old friend Antonio Bastardo

Niese, who just turned 30 and became a free agent when the Mets declined his option, went 39-38 with a 3.65 ERA in 117 games (113 starts) for the Mets from 2012-2015. The Phils don't have any obvious left-handed options for their rotation (unless Adam Morgan grabs a spot in spring training) and Niese has the track record that he would seem to make sense as a veteran you can count on for 25-30 starts and 170ish innings from the bottom half of your rotation. 

Sure, he could turn into the next John Lannan. But he's a better left-handed starter free agent option than, say, Jorge De La Rosa.

Drew Storen, RHP

We promise: this list is nearing an end. Drew Storen, the former long-time Washington Nationals reliever, didn’t have a great first season out of D.C. in 57 games between the Blue Jays and Mariners.

But Storen, who doesn’t turn 30 until August, isn’t far removed from being the guy who saved 29 games for the Nationals (with career bests in K-rate and K/BB ratio, too) before their management made the unwise decision to demote out him out of the role and trade for everyone’s favorite malcontent, Jonathan Papelbon.

After acquiring Pat Neshek on Friday, Klentak said one of his goals this offseason is to give manager Pete Mackanin a more competitive bullpen. Slipping Storen into that mix, with Neshek, Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, and Edubray Ramos, would actually give Mackanin the makings of a pretty decent ‘pen, at least from the right side.

Mike Dunn, LHP

A lot of what can be said of Storen and how he’d help the Phillies' relief corps can be said of Mike Dunn, a long-time Marlins reliever. With only young Joely Rodriguez in the mix at the end of last season, the Phillies are certainly going to need to sign at least one left-hander this winter.

Dunn’s ERA jumped almost a full run in September. And while his strikeouts were down in 2016, his walks were in even steeper decline.

Unless some contending team wants to overpay on a multi-year deal (this would seem unlikely, but relief pitcher contracts are often unpredictable) the 31-year-old Dunn, who has spent his entire career in the NL East, would seem to fit the bill of a veteran left-hander that could help fulfill Klentak’s vision of a more reliable bullpen.

The well-traveled Marc Rzepczynski, also 31, is another veteran left-hander on the market, but he walked too many batters in 2016 and I really don’t want to have to type that name out on deadline regularly in 2017.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21