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June 28, 2017

MLB Trade Deadline 2017: Why the Phillies should be buyers as well as sellers

Major League Baseball’s trade deadline is just more than four weeks away, but that doesn’t mean teams have to wait until the final few days or hours of July to strike a deal.

Nine years ago, the Milwaukee Brewers made arguably the biggest pre-deadline deal, acquiring CC Sabathia, on July 7. The Phillies acquired their own rotation piece a week later during the All-Star break (Joe Blanton).

Sometimes the early bird gets the … player they wanted bad enough to strike a deal early rather than waiting and potentially missing out later.

The rebuilding Phillies are expected to be active prior to the July 31 trade deadline. Armed with an army of veterans on one-year deals entering the season, Matt Klentak and Co. hoped to be able to flip guys like outfielders Michael Saunders (released on Sunday) and Howie Kendrick, starters Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz (likely out for the season), and bullpen pieces like Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek before the end of July.

The hope now is to still extract value for two or three of those guys. But none of these guys are Cole Hamels, either, so do not expect big-ticket returns.

The reality is the Phillies could be on the other end of a big-ticket return if they decide to become aggressive and play both seller and buyer. This strategy is certainly not out of the question for a big market team with the most payroll flexibility in baseball moving forward and a bevy of prospects and controllable big leaguers that could be enticing to a team looking to move salary.

This is the thought process that probably led to that recent, off-the-wall Giancarlo Stanton rumor. Two years removed from dumping Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon (and less than a year removed from still being saddled with Ryan Howard), it’s difficult to see the Phils being interested in a massive, possibly destructive contract at this juncture, although they are in near-desperate need for a marketable, box office draw at Citizens Bank Park, and soon.

So, yeah, probably not for a contract that calls for Stanton to make $244 million after his 30th birthday. Ditto, say, Joey Votto, who turns 34 in September and has seven years and $157 million remaining on his own whopper of a deal. Not that the Reds have interest in dealing Votto anyway.

But as anyone knows who has watched Phillies baseball over the last decade (I don’t really have to name all the names, do I?) players in their 30s are prone to decline or succumb to injuries. With that said, the Phillies could still acquire such a player but with a smaller commitment (read: a little younger, fewer years/money, less risk) to both improve the current hard-to-watch product on the field and help set up the future, too.

One outside-the-box idea: Andrew McCutchen.

Over the winter, it looked like a certainty that McCutchen was a goner from Pittsburgh. It’s good the Pirates decided to hold onto him with Starling Marte levied an 80-game suspension back in April, because they would have needed some production from their outfield and McCutchen has surely given them that for the season’s first three months.

But Marte will be back before long and the Pirates, who entered play Tuesday six games under .500, in fourth place in the NL Central, and 10 1/2-games back in the NL Wild Card standings, seem unlikely to contend in 2017, and as a smaller market team, still seem unlikely to sign McCutchen for the long-term. He’s a free agent after the 2018 season.

Yes, as a soon-to-be free agent he might not fit into a rebuilding team’s plans … unless you’re able to sign the 30-year-old McCutchen to an extension (as the Phils did with Roy Halladay when they traded for him). And an extension that would probably be a lot less expensive than the deals the younger Bryce Harper and Manny Machado figure to get as 2018-19 free agents. 

Tear up the $14.75 million owed to him in 2018 and turn it into $20 million, then tack on six years and $150 million. If you can't come to an agreement, in say, a year, you flip him at next summer's trade deadline. Crazy? Not really. Risky? Surely. Doable? Perhaps not, but this is the thinking that Klentak and Co. should be doing in the next month, adding that type of player and salary.

Getting back to this specific example: the smarter play for Pittsburgh, of course, would be to wait to survey the trade market this winter, especially in a summer where it appears most contenders are set offensively, particularly in the outfield (really, look atop the standings and way-too-early wild-card races).

But if a mystery team (like the Phillies) comes along and offers a young, controllable, talented major leaguer, a top prospect at Triple-A, and a couple of lower-tier prospects, too, you’d have to consider it, too, wouldn’t you?

This is used less as a workable scenario and more as an example of the type of deal Klentak could look to make to improve the current product while adding a pillar for the long-term rebuild, too.

While an everyday player with clubhouse clout, a track record, and marketability seems exactly like what the Phillies could use moving forward, one of McCutchen’s teammates would probably fit the Phils’ rebuilding window better. But the fact that the Pirates still have two years of club control over 26-year-old right-hander Gerrit Cole, and that many a contender would come knocking with attractive offers if he made his way to the market, would make it seem pretty unlikely he’d match up with the Phils, let alone consider signing a long-term deal and forgo the chance to hit free agency at age 29.

The Phillies could obviously be very serious players for Cole’s services then (in the winter of 2019-20), when they’d surely hope to be contending again and beyond the finishing line of their rebuild. But the larger point here is they might not have to wait until that star-studded free agent class of 2018-19 (Harper, Machado, etc.) to add a legit difference-maker to their lineup or rotation. 

Take a quick glance at the standings and you’re likely to come across a seller with veteran pieces to move and a willingness to begin their own rebuild/stocking up on their farm system. We went into depth with McCutchen earlier, but what about another member of his ’18-19 free agent class, former MVP third baseman Josh Donaldson? The same logic works if you’re able to convince the player to sign an extension (which, while arguably a long shot, is still more feasible for a player in his early 30s than one in his 20s).

Again: not presenting this as a possible option but as an example of thinking beyond the norm. And we’re obviously using the bigger names here to make a point; the Phils could just as easily make a play for a younger, but still-already-proven big leaguer, too.

If you want to think of something that’s perhaps more likely (smaller and cheaper, too – which could translate to much better, if not as marketable from the outset), the suddenly-selling Marlins might be happy to dump Martin Prado’s contract ($28.5 million in the next two years) to whoever makes the best offer for power-hitting outfielder Marcell Ozuna. Miami apparently hasn’t made Ozuna available just yet, but they almost always fit the bill of a team looking to shed soon-to-be too expensive items from their roster in exchange for younger, cheaper, more controllable assets. 

If nothing else, the Phillies have those assets, both in the big leagues and at Triple-A. If the Phils brass isn’t in love with some of these assets, it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to consider selling high on some and playing buyer in addition to seller in the next month.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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