Friday, September 16, 2016

Phillies Should Avoid a Weak Free Agent Market

It has been a somewhat frustrating season for fans of the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies as the club suffers through another losing season down at Citizens Bank Park in South Philly.
However, if the progress of the organization is evaluated fairly and viewed through a common sense lens, this 2016 campaign has been everything that a fan of the Fightin’ Phils could have reasonably hoped.
The Phillies’ win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night to begin a nine-game homestand was the club’s 64th of the season, surpassing the victory total for the entire 2015 season with 18 games still remaining.
It is perfectly reasonable to expect these 2016 Phillies to finish with somewhere around 70-72 wins. While that is still a losing record, it would be nearly a 10-game improvement over last season’s worst-in-baseball finish.
Also during this season, the Phillies pushed their rebuilding program forward
with the introduction of a number of prospects into the lineup, starting pitching rotation and bullpen.
Over the last two days, center fielder Roman Quinn, catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitcherJoely Rodriguez each made their big league debut.
That trio joined first baseman Tommy Joseph, outfielder Tyler Goeddel, starting pitchers Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson, and relievers Edubray Ramos and Daniel Stumpf as first-time major leaguers.
A few more of the Phillies’ prospects, most specifically pitcher Ben Lively, shortstopJ.P. Crawford and outfielder Nick Williams, are far enough along in their developments that they should be expected to make their own debut early in the 2017 season.
Besides the first-timers, the rebuild goes even deeper with pivotal young players. This was the first full season for third baseman Maikel Franco, starting pitcher Jerad Eickhoff and reliever Hector Neris.
Starting pitcher Vincent Velasquez was shut down early, but was a full-time member of the rotation until last week during what was his own first full season.
And then there is the case of righty Aaron Nola, who was in his first full season as a member of the rotation before being disabled at the end of July with elbow troubles.
Most of these youngsters to debut in the last two seasons are key pieces to the Phillies’ rebuilding puzzle. Their introduction to the big leagues and some incremental improvement in the standings is exactly what the 2016 and 2017 seasons are supposed to be all about at this point.
There is a growing impatience among some Phillies fans. A number have begun expressing a desire to see GM Matt Klentak and ownership open up their wallets and spend on free agents this coming offseason to help push the rebuild forward more quickly.
However, spending any real money for any length of time on any member of the upcoming free agent class would be a mistake for the Phillies at this point in the rebuild process.
It’s not that there aren’t some talented players available this offseason; there certainly are some who could step in and start for the 2017 Phillies and improve the offensive attack.
The position players include 40+ homer right fielder Mark Trumbo, outfielder Ian Desmond, catchers Jonathan Lucroy and Wilson Ramos, and third baseman Justin Turner.
On the mound, Hisashi IwakumaDoug FisterIvan Nova and the Phillies’ ownJeremy Hellickson are among the proven veteran starters who might help eat up innings.
The relievers include arms such as Brad ZieglerCarlos TorresClayton RichardMike DunnFernando RodneyTravis WoodNeftali Feliz and the prize of Aroldis Chapman.
The problem with these players is three-fold. First, you would have to convince the player to come here at all. The players would be joining a team that has been losing for most of the last five years, and looks to be a couple away still.
The second problem is the contract equation question: how much money would you commit to any of these players, the vast majority of whom are 30 years of age or older, and for how long?
The Phillies have a number of young players and emerging prospects who must be given full shots in the big leagues. Signing a couple of big-ticket free agents is going to block someone.
The answer to that problem directly affects the third problem: what would commitments to 2017 free agents take away as far as opportunities for others?
Do you sign Trumbo or Desmond, likely committing multiple years in a contract and in dollars, and block Roman Quinn or Nick Williams? What about Odubel Herrera?
Do you sign one of the catchers and block Cameron Rupp, who has a nice breakout season, or the mega-talented Alfaro?
Do you sign Turner, bump Maikel Franco over to first base, and relegate Joseph to a bench role? And what about opportunities for other developing prospects that you sold to the fan base as legit?
I am talking here about players such as Paul Owens Award winners Dylan Cozens,Rhys Hoskins, and Andrew Knapp. Where is their opportunity going to come when they are ready later in 2017?
On the mound, signing a free agent starting pitcher is indeed likely. But doing so cannot block Thompson, Eickhoff or Velasquez. Also, what about Nola and Eflin, as well as Lively, who will get a long look in the spring?
Something short-term for reasonable money in the pen, sure. But unless the Phillies are willing to get into the obviously big bucks and long-term deal talks that it would take for Chapman, they would be better off passing on anything too big here.
As far as the relievers go, those types are the dumbest things to spend big money on as a free agent, as the Phillies learned with the Jonathan Papelbon fiasco.
Even if they were willing to get into a Chapman bidding war, it will be a war. There will be a number of big bucks teams involved here, a few of whom are likely to be much more attractive as further along in the competitive process.
For me, the Phillies would be making the smartest move by sitting out this year’s free agent hitter market. Give the developing kids another season to gain valuable big league playing experience in 2017.
Next season should be about getting prospects like Quinn, Alfaro, Crawford and Williams their first substantive playing time with the Phillies.
It should also be about allowing Franco, Joseph and Aaron Altherr to play full-time against all pitching, and letting the young pitchers further develop and sort themselves out as future options.
Am I averse to ever spending money? No way. Beginning in 2017, the Phillies will be in one of the most enviable financial positions among all of the teams in Major League Baseball.
The Phillies have just $24 million in payroll obligations for next season at this point, and just $2 million for the following 2018 season. Nothing beyond that point right now.
Beginning a year from now, after another full season of evaluating their own kids, they will be in as strong a position as any team to make two or three huge moves.
It is in the coming free agent classes, the anticipated free agent classes of 2018 and 2019, when the Phillies should be prepared to strike.
Bryce Harper and Manny Machado each become a free agent following the 2018 season. Mike Trout becomes a free agent following the 2020 season, but it is very likely that the Angels will shop him aggressively at the 2018 or 2019 trade deadlines.
Jay Bruce and Eric Hosmer will be a free agents following the 2018 season as well. In 2019, big hitters such as Josh DonaldsonYoenis CespedesAndrew McCutchen andAdam Jones join the party.
On the mound over those two offseasons, Jose FernandezChris TillmanAlex Cobband wild cards such as Dallas KeuchelMatt HarveyMichael PinedaPatrick Corbin and Drew Smyly are potential free agents if not signed prior.
The bottom line is this: Klentak and the Phillies should do the same thing in this coming offseason that they did last year. Find a couple of pitching bargains for short-term deals. That’s all, nothing else.
There is another way to go. But I believe that way both blocks youngsters from necessary development time, robs the organization of necessary evaluation time on those players, and wastes money that could be better spent over the subsequent two years.

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