November 03, 2016
Congratulations to the Chicago Cubs. That was ridiculously fun. I don’t think anyone (outside of stressed-out fans of either team) would mind seeing Cleveland and Chicago continue playing against each other for two more weeks.
The highly entertaining World Series has reached an end, however, and that means the rest of baseball can go back to their regular scheduled programming. It’s November and the offseason is here.
Major League Baseball’s hot stove league officially gets underway next week at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Montelucia, the fancy pants-sounding venue that’s hosting the annual General Managers Meetings. Most of baseball’s top decision makers will be in Arizona next week and we could see some real activity, as the free agent market officially opens for business on Tuesday (five days after the conclusion of the World Series).
The Phillies will have to take care of one matter of business before then: getting the Jeremy Hellickson situation started.
But the starting point of baseball’s offseason is just that – the beginning. While the previous Phils administration wasn’t shy on striking quickly (Marlon Byrd, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jim Thome were all signed in the first week or so of free agency) it’s important to remember that teams aren’t reporting to spring training for three months, so there is plenty of time to get rosters in order.
And for a rebuilding team like the Phillies, it’s important to keep in mind that improvement isn’t always linear. As with last winter, it wouldn’t be surprising if the team’s biggest move looks like a step backward for 2017, but is actually a way to take a few more steps forward for 2018 and beyond.
Matt Klentak’s first big move as a major league general manager was to trade a 25-year-old rising closer – who wasn’t even arbitration-eligible yet – in exchange for five pitchers.
While on the surface it may have looked weird to trade Ken Giles, a potential building block for the rebuild, it was actually advantageous. The Phillies sold high on a young, strikeout-happy reliever and brought back pitching depth, most notably Vince Velasquez and former No.1-overall pick Mark Appel.
Similar thinking could be in play this winter, including trading Velasquez, who became a hot rumor just before the July trade deadline as talks between the Phillies and Texas Rangers reportedly grew pretty serious.
Could the Phillies and Rangers revisit those talks? We don’t see why not. The Phillies need offensive production and the Rangers have an embarrassment of riches in young position players and promising MLB-ready prospects.
Dealing Velasquez, the major league team’s only power-pitching starter would sound counterproductive to winning games in 2016. But if the Phillies still wonder about his ability to pitch a full season – Velasquez eclipsed 100 innings this summer for the first time since 2013 – they could similarly sell high on his promising big arm in order to reel in a bat or two that could be immediately injected into a lineup in need of increased, consistent production.
And when the time comes that the Phillies are ready to contend and need a pitching upgrade, they can follow the Chicago Cubs blueprint and add a proven veteran or two through free agency (Jon Lester, John Lackey) to their collection of home-grown kids and promising young hitters.
Also of note: those same Cubs once traded a promising young pitcher in the mold of a Velasquez (Andrew Cashner) in order to get a 22-year-old hitter named Anthony Rizzo from the San Diego Padres.
More thinking outside the box: consider your current roster and possible flexibility. Example: if you like free agent veteran infielder as an upgrade to your lineup, perhaps you can put him at third base and slide Maikel Franco to first.
This isn’t to say the Phillies would give up on a young hitter like Tommy Joseph, but in all likelihood, the team is going to want at least a couple of proven bats in their lineup in 2016 and beyond, and not just a collection of young hitters learning on the fly. No one ever said you couldn't package Joseph in a trade, either.
Remember last winter, when the Phillies signed just one major league free agent, veteran reliever David Hernandez? We’re not sure they’ll have a repeat performance this winter – especially with Pete Mackanin’s desire for a proven veteran hitter or two – but it is possible for a rebuilding team to largely ignore the free agent market and make its roster adjustments through trades.
Three-fifths of the 2016 Opening Day rotation came from trades Klentak and Co. made last winter: the aforementioned Velasquez-Giles trade and the two smaller deals that netted the Phillies staff two proven veterans in Hellickson and Charlie Morton.
Whether it’s on the major league roster or in their suddenly robust minor league inventory, the Phillies do not have untouchables. Mainly because no one in baseball is really an untouchable; wise team presidents and general managers listen on anyone because there’s no harm in listening.
“There are certain players I’d rather not trade,” Klentak said in September, “but I think keeping an open mind is one of the critical factors for any general manager.”
It’s usually a good idea to trade from a position of strength, which makes the Phillies catching situation an interesting one to watch this winter.
Although he was only around for a little more than six weeks, backup catcher A.J. Ellis drew rave reviews and the front office could look to bring him back to mentor both their young pitching staff and their rising catching prospects, including Jorge Alfaro and Andrew Knapp (and further down the line, Class A prospect Deivi Grullon). One potential scenario: re-sign Ellis, have him work in tandem with Alfaro or Knapp, and trade Cameron Rupp this winter.
The 28-year-old Rupp, who hit .252 with 16 home runs in 2016, ranked ninth among MLB catchers (min. 300 plate appearances) with a .750 OPS last season. Perhaps you could get a promising young pitcher in need of a change of scenery for Rupp in a trade?
Another thought: if you're unlikely to contend in the next year or two, wouldn’t strikeout-happy Hector Neris be a pretty attractive chip to deal to a contending team?
This is the step that generally takes place at the beginning of the offseason for non-contending teams, through organizational meetings in October. The Phillies have already held such meetings and likely have hashed out everything as a group, listening to their own coaches and scouts throughout the organization to get a proper assessment of all of their players, the ones on the 40-man roster and those in the lower levels of the minor leagues, too.
These honest evaluations are crucial; not every top prospect list matches up with the evaluations being made by the people that watch these players daily. And often there is information beyond the cold, hard numbers that are crucial in determining whether or not a player already has or has not tapped out his potential, or has the ability to reach his so-called ceiling.
For example, the Phillies may say that they don’t want to spend too much on Free Agent Player X because it may block Prospect Y from reaching the big leagues in the coming year or two. But you really need to know, with all of the intel you’ve assembled, whether or not it’s worth passing up on a proven big leaguer for Prospect Y.
If you're not sure he’ll reach that ceiling, perhaps it’s OK to block Prospect Y’s path to the big leagues, if only temporarily. And if he hits, then you could have a good problem that needs to be fixed: more commodities to sell off through trades.