Phils Fight To Right The Ship For 2021

ALSO: SOME THOUGHTS ON THE NEW FREE-AGENT MARKET

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know ...

After leading the AL with 24 stolen bases in 59 games, KC shortstop Adalberto Mondesi will swipe 54, the only total above 30, predicts the 2021 Bill James Baseball Handbook . . .

Luis Tiant turned 80 this week. He looked that old when he was still pitching . . .

Zack Greinke will start 2021 as the only active pitcher with 200 wins (Astros teammate Justin Verlander is recuperating from Tommy John surgery).

Leading Off

Phillies enter a watershed 2020-21 off-season

By Matthew Veasey

The Philadelphia Phillies underwent a lengthy and frustrating rebuilding process over the better part of the last decade.

Beginning with the trades of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence late in 2012, that process took fans of the team through a half-dozen losing campaigns in which the Fightin' Phils were guided by four different managers and finished in last place three times.

Things were supposed to change beginning in 2019. In the previous season, the first under manager Gabe Kapler, the club had won 80 games and finished in third place. The Phillies had spent most of July and half of August on top of the National League East in 2018. So, in the off-season, ownership and management went all-in to become a playoff team.

During that 2018-19 off-season, the Phillies added Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, and David Robertson as free agents and swung trades for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto. It didn't work.

After spending most of the early season right through mid-June in first place, the 2019 Phillies improved by just one game at 81-81. The disappointing result cost Kapler his job.

In the just complete COVID-19 short season, Major League Baseball increased the number of playoff teams from five to eight in each league. Surely the Phillies, who hired Joe Girardi to guide the ship and added free-agent starting pitcher Zack Wheeler to the rotation, would be one of those teams.

As late as September 21, the Phils remained in control of a post-season slot. But a doubleheader sweep the following day at the hands of the NL East-rival Washington Nationals gave them a losing record and dropped the club out of that playoff berth. The Phillies would lose seven of their final eight games, finishing four below the .500 mark and out of post-season play for a ninth straight year.

This time around, the failure cost general manager Matt Klentak his job, with Ned Rice named to the post on an interim basis. Last Friday, club president Andy MacPhail signaled that he is no longer interested in his own job, virtually inviting principal owner John Middleton to replace him when he said "If John thinks he can land a big fish by moving me aside and getting somebody to become the president, I would happily do that.”

With the Phillies management group in shambles and such key players as J.T. Realmuto, Didi Gregorius, Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, Tommy Hunter, and Jose Alvarez now free agents, the current 2020-21 off-season will prove to be a watershed period for an organization now battling to overcome fan disenchantment as well as the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

When considering current contract obligations and likely arbitration figures, the Phillies are roughly $72.76 million below the Competitive Balance Tax threshold for 2021 per the Cot's Contracts service at Baseball Prospectus. In looking further ahead to 2022, the club should be in virtually the same position.

The Phillies are locked into a 2021 outfield that features McCutchen in left and Harper in right. They save money in center field with the combination of Roman Quinn and 2017 first-round pick Adam Haseley, neither of whom reaches arbitration until next off-season.

On the infield, Segura figures to return to the everyday shortstop role he filled in 2019 prior to the arrival of Gregorius. He and Scott Kingery, who is signed to a club-friendly deal that still has four years to run, are likely to make up the Phillies’ middle-infield pairing.

On the corners will be first baseman Rhys Hoskins, recovering from elbow surgery but likely to be ready at some point during spring training. Hoskins is arbitration-eligible for the first time and projected to earn $3 million by Cot's. Across the diamond, manning the hot corner, will be Alec Bohm, the 2018 first-rounder who slashed .338/.400/.881 over 44 games during his rookie season this year. Bohm should provide the club with inexpensive production for years to come as he is not even arbitration eligible until the second half of this decade.

Behind the plate is a huge question mark. Are the Phillies able to lure Realmuto back to the team with a lucrative long-term deal? They certainly can afford it, but will Middleton be willing to pay yet another big-money contract after the Harper and Wheeler deals of the last two off-seasons? It says here that they pretty much have to at this point. Realmuto is that good and is in his prime. The Phillies have no reasonable alternative, especially having paid the price of top prospect Sixto Sanchez to acquire the catcher.

The starting rotation in 2021 will be led by Wheeler and Aaron Nola. The former has a deal running through 2024 and Nola through 2023. Zach Eflin emerged as a reliable option this year and has two years of arbitration remaining. Cot's estimates he will get $4.8 million for next season. Another rotation spot should go to top pitching prospect Spencer Howard. The 2017 second-rounder doesn't reach arbitration for another four years.

That would leave one spot in the rotation open. The Phillies should be ready to give up on Vince Velasquez in that role, and the right-hander, who becomes a free agent after 2021, is a likely trade candidate at some point within the next nine months.

This could be where the Phillies look to the glut of veteran free-agent arms to find a healthy and productive option to fill the spot on a one-year deal. Someone like James Paxton, Mike Minor, Jose Quintana, Rick Porcello, and fan favorite Cole Hamels would be among the possibilities depending on health and contract demands. A name to watch is Mike Leake, a 32-year-old righty and extreme ground-ball pitcher and who could succeed in the Citizens Bank Park environment.

Perhaps the most challenging job for Girardi and management will be construction of the bullpen. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that this one area of the ball club cost the Phillies a playoff berth, and it's not much of a stretch to say a possible division crown, this past season.

If he is not dealt over the winter, Velasquez could be part of a reconstructed bullpen. So could Hector Neris, the erstwhile closer whose $7 million club option was declined but who remains on the 40-man roster and who may still be offered salary arbitration.

The bulk of the Phillies 2021 relief corps could very well be filled by giving increased opportunities to inexpensive internal options such as southpaws JoJo Romero and Ranger Suarez and righties Victor Arano, Connor Brogdon, and Ramon Rosso. We might even see prospect Adonis Medina in a bullpen role next year.

There are a ton of veteran free agent arms available on the market this off-season. Depending on how the Realmuto situation works out and their overall financial situation looks the Phillies might decide to spring for a veteran in the closer role on a one or two-year deal. In that case, arms like Liam Hendriks, Blake Treinen, Keone Kela, or Trevor May might be worth a look.

So much regarding the Phillies is nothing more than wild speculation at this point. Clearly the Realmuto situation is Job 1 for Middleton, MacPhail, Rice, or whomever else is making those types of decisions for the ball club. If the Phillies succeed in bringing back the top catcher in the game, then the club can look towards another shot at contending in 2021. If that effort fails, the questions will only become greater as the winter moves along.

Matt Veasey is Owner/Editor of the Philadelphia Phillies site PhilliesBell.com and a former lead writer with Phillies Nation and site expert with Fansided. He is now retired after serving three decades in Philadelphia law enforcement. You can find him on Twitter @MatthewVeasey and @PhilliesBell. His e.mail is matthew.veasey@verizon.net.

Cleaning Up

Random Thoughts On Free Agency

By Dan Schlossberg

Since Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina decided to package themselves into a free-agent battery, look for the Atlanta Braves to sign both – the pitcher is a Georgia native originally signed by the Braves and would mentor a promising young rotation, while Molina would shunt returning catcher Travis d’Arnaud to DH as Marcell Ozuna’s replacement . . .

Ozuna would be a great sign for an AL team with a short left-field, such as Houston, Boston, Texas, or Minnesota . . .

Pitcher Marcus Stroman, disappointed he was dealt to the Mets instead of the Yankees, can fix that flaw by signing with the pitching-poor Bronx Bombers . . .

If the budget-conscious Oakland A’s plan their plunge into free agency carefully, they could sign second baseman Kolton Wong and shortstop Andrelton Simmons to join returning first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Matt Chapman in the first all-Gold Glove infield . . .

Pablo Sandoval won’t have any takers but fellow DH Yoenis Cespedes might – despite his age (35) and injury history . . .

Guessing that Justin Turner’s defiance of MLB security after World Series Game 6 will lead to a fine, suspension, and tightening of the free-agent market for the 35-year-old third baseman . . .

If the Washington Nationals don’t bring back Ryan Zimmerman, they’ll bid for Carlos Santana, who has a lifetime on-base percentage of .366 . . .

Cole Hamels, the former World Series MVP who gave the 2020 Braves three innings for their $18 million, is virtually certain to turn up somewhere, with his native San Diego a logical landing spot for the lefty . . .

Not counting the always-available Bartolo Colon, the oldest man in the free-agent market is Nelson Cruz, a 40-year-old DH who hasn’t lost a smidgeon of bat speed . . .

With Andreton Simmons now persona non grata after jumping the Angels five days before the end of the season, the Halos hope to grab Marcus Semien, a better hitter who’s less gifted with the glove . . .

The Yankees could do worse than sign Simmons and shift Gleyber Torres back to second, where he played at an All-Star level previously . . .

Both New York teams covet the same players in pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, a career Yankee, and DJ LeMahieu, a versatile infielder coming off his second batting crown . .

Philadelphia intends to keep catcher J.T. Realmuto, widely regarded as the top receiver in the game and perhaps the top name on the 200-man market this winter . . .

Charlie Morton may be 37 but his reputation as a big-game pitcher (the only man to start four Game 7's) will earn him a solid two-year contract from a contender . . .

National League Cy Yound Award winner Trevor Bauer says he’s willing to sign a series of one-year deals but that philosophy could change if he’s offered a guaranteed multi-year pact with lots of zeroes – money the Los Angeles Dodgers can bestow . . .

Lefty Jon Lester, who eats innings, will join Zack Greinke as the only active 200-game winners next season (Justin Verlander will sit on the sidelines with 226 after Tommy John surgery) . . .

Don’t look for the Astros to sign Mike Fiers, who blew the whistle on their 2017 World Series sign-stealing scandal . . .

Neither Corey Kluber nor Jake Odorizzi won a game last year because of injury but both are big bargains in the current free-agent sweepstakes, as is Jake Arrieta.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is national baseball writer for forbes.com, weekend editor of HERE’S THE PITCH and author of The New Baseball Bible, a 480-page illustrated history published on March 17, 2020. His e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Giants manager Gabe Kapler managed in the minors for a year before returning to the bigs as an outfielder for three more seasons . . .

No-hitters were pitched in three different countries in 2018: April 21 at Oakland (Sean Manaea), May 4 in Monterrey (four Dodgers); and May 8 in Toronto (James Paxton) . . .

Jim Thome’s daughter Lila sang the National Anthem in Cooperstown before his Hall of Fame induction . . .

When 44-year-old Roger Clemens started for the Yankees on Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium in 2007, he was older than five of the old-timers.