Philadelphia Phillies

Offseason Outlook: Philadelphia Phillies

After a ninth consecutive playoff miss, Phillies owner John Middleton opted to move on from general manager Matt Klentak. Now, two years after Middleton’s infamous “stupid money” comments, the Phillies seem to be putting out signals cautioning against a splashy winter.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Bryce Harper, OF: $274MM through 2031
  • Zack Wheeler, RHP: $96.25MM through 2024
  • Aaron Nola, RHP: $31MM through 2022 (includes $4.25MM buyout of $16MM club option for 2023)
  • Jean Segura, INF: $29.5MM through 2022 (includes $1MM buyout of $17MM club option for 2023)
  • Andrew McCutchen, OF: $23MM through 2021 (includes $3MM buyout of $15MM club option for 2022)
  • Scott Kingery, INF/OF: $19MM through 2023 (includes $1MM buyout of $13MM club option for 2024; contract also contains club options in 2025-26)
  • Odubel Herrera, OF: $12.5MM through 2021 (includes $2.5MM buyout of 2022 club option; Herrera is no longer on the 40-man roster)

Arbitration-Eligible Players

Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.

Option Decisions

Free Agents

It’s been nearly two months since Matt Klentak stepped down as Phillies general manager and accepted a reassignment to another position within the organization, yet we still don’t have any clear indication as to who will take over the reins. President Andy MacPhail, a former general manager of the Twins and Orioles himself, held onto his title amid the team’s front office shuffling, and assistant GM Ned Rice stepped into the GM role on an interim basis.

That pair brings decades of baseball operations experience to the table, but it’s rather befuddling that the next steps remain so unclear. The Phils reportedly gauged interest from Theo Epstein but were rebuffed, as the now-former Cubs president instead prefers to take at least a year away from the game. Former D-backs and Padres GM Josh Byrnes has interviewed, but there’s no indication as to whether he’s being strongly considered by Middleton.

The Athletic’s Matt Gelb suggested in early October that the Phils might wait for MacPhail to retire at the end of the 2021 season before bringing in a hire, but that’s a puzzling approach in and of itself. If the end result of Klentak resigning is that he remains with the organization in a new role while his top lieutenant, Rice, continues to work alongside MacPhail — how much have things truly changed?

Klentak increasingly drew the ire of Phillies fans, with many voicing dissatisfaction regarding the team’s stalled extension talks with star catcher J.T. Realmuto, who is now a free agent after rejecting a qualifying offer. That seems like misplaced frustration, frankly, as the final say on whether to pay Realmuto on a long-term arrangement lands with ownership, not the general manager. Over the past several months, most reports out of Philadelphia have suggested that the team is not optimistic about its chances to retain Realmuto.

If Realmuto walks, that seems like a Middleton-driven decision that would have happened regardless of who is in the GM’s chair. Yet at the press conference announcing the changing of the guard in the front office, Middleton almost seemed to endeavor to take credit for approving the Realmuto swap without taking blame for the failure to extend him. “…[M]y position was, I’d be willing to trade Sixto as long as you extend J.T.,” Middleton said at the time. “And if you don’t extend J.T., I wouldn’t trade Sixto.”

There’s a disconnect in those comments, plain and simple. Middleton implies that he held considerable influence over the acquisition of Realmuto but left the matter of an extension solely to his baseball operations outfit. That seems unlikely, and if it’s in fact accurate, that type of inconsistency with regard to autonomy is a failing in and of itself. It’s hard not to wonder if an experienced GM would look on from the outside and be turned off by an owner trying to take credit for the good and shirk responsibility for the bad.

None of this is to say that there weren’t plenty of misfires during Klentak’s time as general manager, of course. The Phillies’ catastrophic bullpen implosion over the past two seasons is glaring, and it seemed no matter what moves the front office made to rectify the situation, the outcome was poor. The signing of Carlos Santana that pushed Rhys Hoskins into an ill-suited left field role clearly did not pay dividends. Jake Arrieta’s three-year deal didn’t work out, either. At the end of the day, a five-year span of no playoff appearances in a big market will be enough to doom any baseball operations leader, as we saw not only in Philadelphia but in Anaheim this winter.

Front office composition aside, however, the bottom line for the Phillies this winter is that they’re not sure who will be catching games for them in 2021. They also have holes at shortstop and, to a lesser extent, in center field. On the pitching side of things, from the back of the rotation to the entirety of the relief corps, questions abound. The Phillies’ ability to strengthen these flaws are dependent on Middleton’s willingness to spend in the wake of 2020 revenue losses, and indications put forth thus far by both the owner and MacPhail have not been encouraging.

At this time almost every club, honestly, it’s more about reduction of players than it is adding,” MacPhail said in late October (link via The Athletic’s Meghan Montemurro). “…But the likelihood of a significant add, I think, in the short term or even mid term is not very high.” There may be no better indication of the Phillies’ reluctance to spend than the fact that a team with a historically bad bullpen in 2020 allowed Brad Hand to pass through waivers unclaimed at $10MM. (Although, to be fair to the Phils, so did every other club in the game.)

To get a better handle on the Phillies’ outlook in the days and months to come, the payroll as a whole needs to be taken in. The Phils have seven players on guaranteed contracts in 2021 — counting Odubel Herrera, who was outrighted off the 40-man roster but is still owed this year’s salary. That group checks in at a weighty $108.5MM, and the remaining slate of arbitration-eligible players could push the Phils up to nearly $127MM. Add in pre-arbitration players to round out the roster, and the Phillies’ payroll could top $135MM before they make a single addition.

Vince Velasquez and Hector Neris stand out as potential non-tender candidates. Cutting bait on that duo would bring the Phils back into the $125MM range but would also create more holes; Neris has served as the team’s closer in recent seasons, while Velasquez has been a fifth starter despite (at best) inconsistent results.

The Phillies were set to open the 2020 season with a payroll upwards of $186MM, so there’s certainly some breathing room between that mark and this year’s current levels. However, the expectation is that Middleton plans to reduce payroll. There’s no set number that’s been floated, but the assumption clearly should not be that the Phillies will return to those heights in 2021.

For that reason, retaining Realmuto could be a long shot. He’s spoken in the past about advancing the market for catchers, and while it’s nearly impossible to see him topping Joe Mauer’s record eight-year, $184MM contract, he could set his sights on besting Mauer’s average annual value of $23MM. If that’s the case, Realmuto would be an exceptionally steep add for the Phils at this time, even if there’s some backloading of the deal to offset the hit in the early years. Of course, backloading the deal would come with its own complications; the Phils are already paying Harper and Zack Wheeler a combined $49.5MM in 2024, and Middleton may not be keen on locking in upwards of $75MM in salary to three players a whole four years down the road.

Should Realmuto land elsewhere — he’s been connected to the Mets, Blue Jays and Nationals, among other clubs — the market does present alternatives. James McCann and Yadier Molina bring two starting-caliber options to the free-agent pool, and the trade market could feature several names, including manager Joe Girardi’s former Yankees backstop, Gary Sanchez. The Phils are already reported to like McCann as a fallback to Realmuto.

The Phillies’ other question marks on the position-player side of the roster lie up the middle as well. Rookie of the Year finalist Alec Bohm has third base locked down now, and Rhys Hoskins will be back at first base once he’s sufficiently recovered from Tommy John surgery. Less clear, however, is the shortstop situation now that Didi Gregorius is back on the open market in search of a multi-year deal. Such a contract could come from the Phils, of course, but that again is dependent on Middleton’s tolerance for spending this winter. Jean Segura and Scott Kingery are on hand as potential options at second base and shortstop, although Segura doesn’t profile as a strong defensive option at the position at this point.

If the Phillies do bring in a shortstop — be it Gregorius, Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons or another option — they could play Segura at second base and pair Kingery in center field with Adam Haseley. The versatile Kingery struggled immensely at the plate in 2020, although he had a strong 2019 campaign and may have been severely impacted by a pre-season bout with Covid-19.

Kingery declined to make excuses for his poor showing on multiple occasions early in the year but eventually acknowledged that his overall energy level was not back to normal (link via the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Scott Lauber). As of mid-August, Kingery was still dealing with repeated shortness of breath and fatigue. It’s easy to imagine a healthier version of Kingery trending back toward 2019’s .258/.315/.474 output, and depending on the extent to which the Phillies plan to reduce payroll, a rebound from him could be one of the keys to their 2021 fate. Kingery was a league-average bat with plus baserunning and average or better glovework at three positions in 2019, after all. Being able to rely on him in center and/or at shortstop could prove pivotal.

If the Phils prefer Kingery/Segura in the middle infield and want to look outside the organization for some outfield help, there are affordable options to pair with Haseley’s lefty bat. Kevin Pillar, Jake Marisnick and Cameron Maybin are all free agents. Enrique Hernandez has a strong track record against southpaws and could provide cover both in center field and around the infield, making him a nice fit (particularly if Bohm needs to spend time at first base early in the year while Hoskins finishes mending).

In the rotation, the Phillies’ need isn’t so dire. Aaron Nola and Wheeler are a formidable one-two punch, with Zach Eflin serving as a reliable source of innings in the third or fourth spot. Top prospect Spencer Howard struggled in 2020 but is still highly regarded. He’ll get another look next year.

That quartet has the makings of a competitive group, but the trade of Nick Pivetta, the possible non-tender of Velasquez and some struggles from prospects elsewhere in the organization all suggest that the Phils could benefit from a low-cost veteran to round out the group. The best course of action could simply be to see which veterans are left standing and willing to accept a low-base deal late in the winter. If they’re willing to spend more for some mid-rotation innings, names like Masahiro Tanaka, Jake Odorizzi and Jose Quintana are all available.

Looking at the Philadelphia bullpen, there’s little sign of immediate help for a group that in 2020 was one of the least-effective units in recent history. Several names are already gone — Brandon Workman, David Phelps, Jose Alvarez and Tommy Hunter are free agents. Heath Hembree was outrighted.

While the early market for free-agent starters has been strong, the relief market increasingly looks like an area where the “bloodbath” feared by many agents could manifest. Not only did Hand go unclaimed on waivers, but several seemingly reasonable club options on relievers were instead bought out. The expected glut of non-tenders could add another couple dozen relievers to the market.

For a Phillies club that doesn’t want to spend money but badly needs to add multiple arms to the relief corps, that could prove to be an ideal situation. The Phils could opt to spend big on one reliever and add several cost-effective names to round out the group, or more evenly distribute whatever resources they’re allotted to diversify risk and add several steady, competent arms to the bullpen.

The Phillies have underachieved for years now, and with several glaring holes on the roster and signals that they don’t plan to aggressively fill said needs, they could be in for more of the same. That said, this is still a group with a very talented core. The combination of Harper, Nola, Bohm, Hoskins and Wheeler is a strong start to any roster. If the Phils can shed some salary in creative ways or if Middleton changes course with a more aggressive financial approach, it’s possible to see this team contending.

Flawed as they may have been over the past three seasons, the Phillies have only narrowly missed the postseason each year. The NL East is more competitive than ever now that a young Marlins club is on the rise, but there’s enough talent in the Phillies’ core group to fuel a competitive unit next year if MacPhail/Rice or a new general manager push the right buttons.

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