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Monday, January 7, 2019

Matt Klentak has improved the Phillies, but club remains two big pieces away from contention

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Former NL MVP McCutchen becomes new Phillies left fielder

The Philadelphia Phillies have made some nice moves this off-season. But so have their top division rivals. Though the Phillies seem to be improved, enough has not yet been done to make the club a genuine contender in the coming 2019 season.
The defending National League East Division champion Atlanta Braves will field a lineup that includes veteran stars Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson on the infield corners.
Those two lead a group that also includes 2018 NL Rookie of the Year outfielder Ronald Acuna, a perennial Gold Glover in center fielder Ender Inciarte, and an exciting up-the-middle infield duo of second baseman Ozzie Albies and shortstop Dansby Swanson.
The Braves also brought back a Phillies-killer in veteran catcher Brian McCann, who should team with Tyler Flowers to give Atlanta a tough left-right catching tandem.
Combine the Braves lineup talent with one of the top young pitching staffs in baseball, and you have a formidable challenge to overcome.
The Washington Nationals bolted past the Phillies last September to finish in second place. Over the last seven seasons the Nats have won the division four times and finished as runners-up the other three, never ending more than 10 games off the pace.
You could make an argument that even if they fail to lure free agent Bryce Harper to return, the Nationals may be even better in the 2019 season. Washington will see two of the game’s more talented youngsters play a big role in their outfield for years to come in Juan Soto and Victor Robles.
The left side of the Washington infield is as good as any in the game, with third baseman Anthony Rendon and shortstop Trea Turner as two of baseball’s most underrated stars.
The Nationals also have a pitching rotation led by Max ScherzerStephen StrasburgPatrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez, with talented youngsters Joe Ross and Erick Fedde waiting in the wings.
Up in the Big Apple, the New York Mets have a new general manager intent on turning things around quickly for a franchise that has disappointed for years. The Mets began the month of September trailing the Phillies by 10 games in the standings but closed with an encouraging 18-10 month to finish just three games away from third place.
Brodie Van Wagenen has already brought in shutdown young closer Edwin Diaz to finish games that were begun by the likes of Jacob deGromNoah Syndergaard, and Zach Wheeler.
Added to the Mets position player mix was second baseman Robinson Cano. He’ll provide veteran experience to a group of talented youngsters that includes outfielders Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo, shortstop Amed Rosario, and first baseman Dominic Smith.



PHILLIES GETTING CLOSE

So where does that all leave the Phillies? They are close, for sure. Assuming health, the duo of Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta can compete at the top of the rotation. The bullpen, as pointed out here at Phillies Nation just yesterday, is now deep and talented. It may be the best relief pitching group in the division.
The lineup with McCutchen in left field, Segura at shortstop, and Rhys Hoskins at first base is better than a year ago, both offensively and defensively. Those defensive improvements cannot be understated. The Phillies were one of the worst fielding teams in all of Major League Baseball a year ago.
The Phillies do not have the starting pitching depth of talent that Washington or New York puts on the mound. They also don’t have the position player talent that the Braves or Nationals can field. But they are just two pieces away from being on a par with any of those top three divisional contenders.
One piece that the Phillies still need is a proven, impact, middle-of-the-order run producer for their batting order. We don’t need to go into it ad nauseum. Everyone knows the names. Harper and Manny Machado are both still out there. Either one would fit the bill.
Perhaps just as important as signing either Harper or Machado would be the effect on the rest of the lineup. If Harper is signed, he and McCutchen make at least one from among the holdover Odubel HerreraNick WilliamsAaron Altherr and Roman Quinn mix expendable.
If Machado is signed, where does he play? If third base, then Franco becomes expendable. If shortstop, with Segura moving to second base, then Cesar Hernandez becomes expendable.
The second piece that the Phillies still need is a more proven, veteran starting pitcher, preferably a left-hander. That pitcher remains available in free agent Dallas Keuchel.
This seems like a perfect fit. The problem right now is that Keuchel is holding out for a five-year contract offer, one that he has apparently not yet found. One fallback option could be a trade, with the Phillies previously linked to Arizona Diamondbacks lefty Robbie Ray.
For the Phillies, everything else is likely on hold right now as the club finishes off the Machado-Harper battles, both of which they remain involved in as front-runners. They need to win one of those big free agent prizes, then go after the southpaw rotation piece. Finish those off, and you have a true contender for the upcoming season.

Originally published at Phillies Nation as "Phillies two big pieces shy of true contention - but those remain available"

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