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November 06, 2019

Phillies 2019 free agency primer: 9 burning offseason questions

Baseball free agency is the classic example of the sports unofficial motto: "Hurry Up And Wait."

When the NFL goes to its swap meet of players, the marquee names are off the market within 48 hours. The NBA actually seems to make the important decisions before the signing period begins by 24 to 48 hours. The NHL seems to have its free agent period cleaned up by the 4th of July barbecues.

Baseball? Well, the free agent period opens this week and... will sort itself out by next April. 

And even that’s not a given — witness the cases of Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel last summer.

Still, here we are at the start line again and the Phillies approach the off-season needing multiple holes just to keep in the ballpark of the Nationals, Braves and even Mets.

The biggest one, however, is crystal clear. It’s pitching. Lots and lots of pitching. Guys who can start. A few that can throw out of the bullpen without the constant need for an on-call ambulance. (Peace out, Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter.) And that’s just the start.

So as the free agent derby begins, here’s the biggest questions and perhaps some answers as things get underway.

1) How active will this winter be for the Phillies?

Maybe not the seismic one that took place last year with Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura all showing up in red pinstripes on Opening Day. Still, it was pretty clear that even with those high profile moves, the Phils were nowhere close to contention within the division.

Baseball Prospectus has the Phillies currently projected at $110 million on the Opening Day roster for 2020 with six players listed as having salaries at over $11 million for the season. (Jay Bruce is one of those, but the Mariners will pay $12 million of the $14 million of that contract.) That’s also not counting a new contract for Realmuto, which is clearly on the priority list with free agency looming after the year.

Even before Realmuto’s contract, the Phillies have enough cash to go make some noise. According to Baseball Prospectus, there’s a projected $75.5 million in room between the Phillies and the luxury tax. In other words, there’s a big ticket there to be given out beyond Realmuto.

2) How about the arbitration guys?

One of the most interesting could be Cesar Hernandez, entering the final year of arbitration eligibility. The hunch here is Hernandez gets tendered so he can possibly get traded this winter to free up room for Scott Kingery at second.

There’s also Odubel Herrera, who was reinstated to the 40 man roster after serving his MLB-issued suspension for violating the policy on domestic violence on Monday. And then, Maikel Franco also is arbitration eligible. Herrera could be non-tender possibility, but the Phillies have to find an answer for center field to make sure they don’t violate the CBA conditions which says any removal from a roster come as a baseball-related situation. Franco is almost certainly going to be sent packing.

3) We all know starting pitching is the main focus… who is the main target?

Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Enough said.

4) What are the odds either ends up in Philadelphia?

Not good at all. Strasburg may have declined the option only to get more money out of the Nationals as a business move. However, if he moves anywhere, that could be to San Diego — where the Padres have money, a young roster and A.J. Preller’s desire to stay employed as general manager as motivating factors.

Cole will get the full Harper/Manny Machado treatment by the Phillies if he dares to come back east for some cash. If you believe Cole’s Houston teammate Josh Reddick, he already has his eyes drawn to his native California and pitching for the Angels. Cash can change a lot of that and John Middleton has plenty of it. Still, it would be a bigger upset if Cole ends up a Phillie than it was when Harper put the uniform on last March.

5) So what’s the next tier?

Well, there’s Madison Bumgarner and Cole Hamels — both with tread off the tire but still better than anything the Phillies threw out there without the name “NOLA” written on the back of their jerseys. Hamels could be a reunion and likely a short term deal. Bumgarner still feels like he has something, so you may get pinned into a contract you regret in three or four years.

If you want younger, there’s Zack Wheeler — who often got lost in the shuffle in the Mets rotation but has good potential still at 29 — and Jake Odorizzi. Rick Porcello, who won a Cy Young in 2016 with the Red Sox, could actually be a good “prove it” deal on a short term contract.

Realistically, the Phillies need two new starters at least with the idea that Nola, Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin probably are in the mix for three spots. Of course, there could be other options like trades.

6) Could the Phillies move a current player off the roster for starting pitching and fill elsewhere?

That would be a practical and creative way to fill without dipping into the danger zone of free agents.

If that’s the case, the two guys to keep an eye on would be Segura and Rhys Hoskins. Segura had a disappointing 2019 and showed why he’s got a lot of stickers on his luggage. Still, he has value and three years of control at $14.5 million per year for teams that would like a .300 hitter who can play the position.

And then, there’s Hoskins. He had a disaster of a season in 2019 — especially in the second half. It probably cost him a long-term deal now. It would be highly unlikely that the Phillies move him unless they have another move in mind to fill some other spots. Let’s say moving Alex Bohm to first base if they get another third baseman as a free agent. Oh hey, let’s get to…

7) Any chance Anthony Rendon could end up in Philadelphia?

It may be less than 10 percent, but it is probably a little better odds than Cole or Strasburg because of the scenario listed above. Rendon is a Hall of Fame level talent and would instantly be in the conversation with Scott Rolen for second best third baseman in modern franchise history.

If you want a more realistic third base option, it could be Josh Donaldson. Donaldson was huge for the Braves last year in the second half and would be an upgrade over Franco. Third base should be a fill just to make sure that Bohm isn’t rushed up to the majors.

8) How about the bullpen?

They are located here at the bottom of the list. Dive into that shark-infested pool at your own risk. The Phillies actually would be wise to check out Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta as part of the mix there before investing too much cash into the bullpen.

9) This all sounds so boring… come up with one hypothetical that would change the landscape...

It is doubtful that the Phillies have the prospect depth to get the deal done, but I would call the Red Sox if Boston’s serious about trading Mookie Betts before his free agent year next winter. The Red Sox want to get below the luxury tax and the J.D. Martinez decision to stick around on Monday puts them right to the threshold before Betts goes into his final year of arbitration. If the big name free agents don’t land here, there’s no harm in kicking the tires and getting the best centerfielder in the game.