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November 15, 2016

Phillies release Harrison, open up crucial spot on 40-man in prep for roster crunch

Ample room on their payroll the Phillies have, excess space on their 40-man roster they did not.

And so it was with that conundrum that the team made the decision on Tuesday to release veteran left-hander Matt Harrison.

The 31-year-old Harrison never appeared in a game with the Phillies after being acquired, along with five prospects, in the July 2015 trade that sent Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers. Harrison has appeared in just nine major league games since the 2012 season, the last coming four days before the trade that sent him to the Phillies.

But the Phillies understood what they were getting back in Harrison: a pitcher with chronic back issues that were putting his future career in real jeopardy. He was in the trade to help balance the dollars, as the Rangers were parting ways with five prospects but also taking on the remaining years and dollars on Hamels’ contract.

If Harrison remained on the 40-man roster in 2017, as he did in 2016, the Phillies could have collected a significant chunk of insurance money on the $13.2 million he is owed for the upcoming season. But with some difficult 40-man roster decisions looming later this week, the Phils front office obviously came to the conclusion that eating a large portion of the $15.2 million Harrison is still owed (the 2017 salary, plus a $2 million buyout for 2018) was worth it since the alternative is the likelihood of losing a prospect in next month’s Rule 5 draft.

But according to a report, the Phils will still recover some of the money after negotiating a lesser payout with the insurance company recently. But still, the ability to open an extra roster spot was paramount.

The Phillies must set their 40-man roster this Friday and have a bounty of prospects who must be added or they’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, held on the last day of the Winter Meetings. Among those players: outfielders Nick Williams, Dylan Cozens, Andrew Pullin, Carlos Tocci, and Jose Pujols, right-handers Mark Appel, Ricardo Pinto, Ben Lively, and Nick Pivetta, catcher Andrew Knapp, and infielder Malquin Canelo.

Per Rule 5 rules, players who were 18 or younger on June 5 preceding the signing of their first contract must be protected after four minor league seasons, and players 19 and older must be protected after three seasons.

The Phillies basically bought a 40-man roster spot on Tuesday. By releasing Harrison, the team has 32 players on the 40-man roster, meaning eight open spots for those aforementioned prospects.

It’s possible the Phils could make additional moves in the coming days to open up another spot or two, but a team also can’t have a large portion of their 40-man roster made up of players who aren’t ready for the major leagues. Flexibility is also important when trying to get through the course of a six-month season.

General manager Matt Klentak talked about the team’s upcoming roster crunch at the General Manager Meetings.

“I have a pretty good idea of what we would do if we had to make the decision today,” Klentak said last week. “But if we make a trade or sign a free agent and that creates depth or lack of depth in a certain area, that could change things for certain players who are on the bubble. I'm not projecting that we're going to make a ton of transactions between now and the 18th, but I'm going to wait until the 18th so I know exactly what we're operating with before I have to make those decisions.”

Acquiring veteran outfielder/infielder Howie Kendrick (for two players not likely to make the 40-man roster in Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeney) and tendering a qualifying offer to Jeremy Hellickson (who then accepted) chipped away at the Phillies roster flexibility. But it’s also clear they’re a better team today than they were a week ago.

Klentak preferred to look at the upcoming 40-man roster crunch as a good thing since it means the team has an excess of quality, near-big league ready prospects.

“It's a pretty positive sign for the organization,” Klentak said. “Not only do we have players that are worthy of being protected, but they are pretty close to reaching the big leagues. Most of the players are going to be Double-A, Triple-A type players, whether they're Opening Day contributors at the major-league level or sometime in the middle of next season or the following season.

“But there will come a point in the very near future where our first line defense, our depth at the Triple-A level is going to be young prospects. They're not going to be six-year free agents as much. They're not going to be 29-year-old waiver claims. That actually poses some challenges, in some respects. You might be in a position where you have to promote a young player to the big leagues sooner than you'd like just because of roster limitations. But it's also pretty exciting. Phillies fans are going to start to see more young players being called up in 2017.”

With less than $50 million (before arbitration) of guaranteed dollars on their current 2017 payroll, the Phillies brass figured they didn’t have to fret over Harrison’s insurance money. Of course, had Hellickson declined the qualifying offer on Monday, they may have tried to hold on to Harrison for a bit longer, too, and watched how the Rule 5 Draft played out before deciding to add a veteran pitcher to replace Hellickson.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21