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July 31, 2017

Winter is Coming: Why Phillies could make a play for an elite pitcher this offseason

There must have been something floating around in the cosmos this weekend that led to the idea of realizing one of the weak spots in the Phillies’ rebuild as the third year of the process moves closer to completion: there doesn’t appear to be a legit, future No.1 starter either on the 40-man roster or in the upper levels of the minor leagues either.

We should begin this by first apologizing to one Aaron Michael Nola.

It’s quite possible those scouting reports from when he was drafted two summers ago, saying he’d top out as a No.2 or No.3, were selling the 7th overall pick of the 2014 MLB Draft a bit short. After all, Nola, in just his second full season and less than two months removed from his 24th birthday, is one of 10 major league pitchers this season (min. 95 innings) with a sub-3.20 ERA and strikeout rate greater than 9.0 per-nine-innings.

And there are five no-doubt-about it No.1s among the other nine pitchers who fit that criteria this year: Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Zach Greinke (along with Robbie Ray, Luis Severino, James Paxton, and Alex Wood, too).

So perhaps what we’ve been watching in the last two months is Nola blossoming into the pitcher the Phillies hoped he could be: he has 20 wins, a 3.91 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, 3.39 FIP, and 3.79 K/BB rate in 49 career starts.

But, if the Phillies ever hope to graduate from rebuilding to contending, they’re going to need more than one consistent and reliable starter atop their rotation. (Even in 2008, the Phils didn’t have more than one truly special starter, but they did have reliable arms). Vince Velasquez threw his name into the hat with a superb outing on Sunday afternoon against the Braves (seven shutout innings), but it’s far too soon in his early inconsistent career for even the best of prognosticators to project that he’ll turn the corner and realize his full potential.

Back to that thing about something floating around in the cosmos on Saturday.

On Saturday, Sixto Sanchez celebrated his 19th birthday. The top prospect in the Phillies rich farm system (who can hit 102-MPH on the radar gun, who has Cliff Lee-like command of the strike zone as a teenager) is surely one to keep a close eye on, but he’s at least two years away, and that’s if we’re being very aggressive and if he stays healthy and hops on a Jose Fernandez-like track.

Also on Saturday, this tweet from MLB Network’s Jon Paul Morosi:

The tweet was more interesting for the fact that it was sent on the two-year anniversary of the trade that sent Hamels from Philadelphia to Texas. Quick: if both teams could make the same trade today, in reverse, who says no? (The Phillies, probably: if you believe Nick Williams can be an everyday player for the next half-dozen years. But don’t look at Jorge Alfaro’s numbers if you have a weak stomach).

We bring all of this up because the trade deadline just passed, a time when every team on both ends of the spectrum (contenders and rebuilders alike) get excited and the activity of moving players heats up.

And a question that’s come across on my twitter mentions from Phillies fans at least a half dozen times in recent weeks: will the Phillies make an offer for Sonny Gray?

Well, I can’t imagine they didn't. What harm would it do to place a phone call to the Oakland Athletics to see the current asking price? And we know the Phillies have a surplus of infielder and outfielders in the big leagues/at Triple-A, along with an arsenal of talented arms in A-ball, so coming up with a package isn't really all that difficult.

Now, the likelihood that the Phillies could play mystery team and swipe Gray off the market on trade deadline day wasn’t great. Why? The teams currently in the pennant race – like the Yankees (who acquired Gray), Dodgers (who acquired Yu Darvish), and Nationals, among others – are more highly motivated to part with prime prospects to acquire a top-of-the-rotation starter.

This doesn’t mean the Phillies won’t be as aggressive or as motivated as those teams this winter. They could be more so, for some of the same reasons we wrote about them being a possible trade deadline buyer a month ago.

Think about it logically: in the last four seasons, the Phillies have padded a rebuilding rotation with free agent deals or trades for veterans on one-year contracts. The returns have been, well, not great.

In 2014: Roberto Hernandez – one-year, $4.5 million

In 2015: Aaron Harang – one-year, $5 million; Jerome Williams – one year, $2.5 million

In 2016: Charlie Morton – one-year, $9 million; Jeremy Hellickson – one year, $7 million

In 2017: Hellickson – one-year, $17.2 million; Clay Buchholz – one year, $13.5 million

There is no such thing as a bad one-year contract, especially when you’re a big market team that can deal with sunk cost (even with guys like Morton and Buchholz, who made a combined six starts with the Phillies). The only player on the current roster under contract beyond 2017 is Odubel Herrera.

And you can understand why the Phillies went that route with starting pitchers at the beginning of the rebuild, spending what amounted to $58.7 million over four years on those six pitchers was money you would walk away from when you were ready to contend.

Still, do the math for 2017 alone: the Phillies spent $30.7 million on Hellickson and Buchholz. If they’re ready to contend, they will have no problem using that total on one, legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm.

The Phillies probably aren’t ready to contend in 2018, although they do have at least a couple of pieces on the big league roster (Nola, Herrera) and some promising Triple-A prospects who will be here soon (Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford) that could make the back end of ’18 more interesting.

Because of their timeline to contending, it probably doesn’t make much sense dipping their toes in the high-end starting pitcher free agents waters this season. Darvish and Jake Arrieta are serious upgrades, but each will be 31 this winter and if you’ve learned anything from the Phillies acquiring older aces in the last half decade or so, it’s that the mileage on their arm can be akin to a ticking time bomb.

Still, the Phillies can shop somewhere in between the Jerome Williamses and Yu Darvishes, younger than Darvish and better than Williams.

Wish List

Four young pitchers worth pursuing in a trade this winter, if they become available:

  AgeContract after '17 Can be kept under contract until...
 Chris Archer  28 Four years, $34 million* 2022
 Carlos Carrasco  30 Three years, $26.5 million**   2021
 Gerrit Cole  26 Arbitration eligible (in '18 and '19)   2020
Julio Teheran   26Three years, $31 million***  2021

* Archer guaranteed roughly $16 million through 2019, but contract includes club options in '20 ($9 million) and '21 ($11 million)

* Carrasco has just under $9.5 million guaranteed, but contract includes club options in 2019 ($9 million) and '20 ($9.5 million)

* Teheran has $20 million guaranteed, but contract includes club options for 2020 ($12 million)

Five years ago, two American League teams who weren’t especially great sort of went this route in the offseason.

The Blue Jays, 73-89 in 2012, saw a workable core in Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista developing. The Royals, 72-90 in 2012, saw the same with homegrown talents Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Michael Moustakas.

Toronto traded a few prospects (including Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud) for reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. That same winter, two years after trading away an ace in Zack Greinke, Kansas City dealt their own expensive prospect package (including Wil Myers, the No.3 prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America) to get James Shields (and Wade Davis, too) from the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Blue Jays, who also made that ridiculous trade with the Marlins that winter, finished a whole game better in 2013: 74-88. The Royals saw a 14-game swing in their record, going 86-76 in '13, making it to the World Series in ’14 (with Shields and Davis), and winning it all in ’15 (with Davis).

There are no guarantees, but we’re certain you’d agree with this: a 2018 (and 2019) Phillies team with, say, a 27-year-old Gerrit Cole next to Nola in the rotation, even if it costs a trio of top prospects, looks a bit more formidable than one with next year’s version of Jeremy Hellickson alongside Nola and company.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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