It has been almost a year since the words first appeared in print. As John Middleton left the owners’ meetings in Atlanta, a USA Today columnist asked if he could envision a scenario in which the Phillies didn’t sign either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper.

“We’re going into this expecting to spend money,” Middleton said. “And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.”

Within hours, the quote went viral. It also brought on a few headaches for club officials, who had to deal with being branded “Team Stupid Money” by derisive rivals and overeager agents. But it set the tone for the offseason, too. The Phillies planned to be aggressive about remaking the roster. Two trades and three significant free-agent signings later, they did just that.

In all, Middleton dropped nearly a half-billion dollars on player contracts last winter. Stupid money? Perhaps. But after an 81-81 season, the Phillies are expected keep spending to finish their rebuilding process, at least according to multiple rival executives, with a specific focus on the pitching staff.

Free-agent shopping season began Tuesday. Time for Middleton to get stupid again?

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— Scott Lauber (extrainnings@inquirer.com)

After opting out of the final four years of his contract, Stephen Strasburg became another marquee name on the free-agent pitching market.
Matt Slocum / AP
After opting out of the final four years of his contract, Stephen Strasburg became another marquee name on the free-agent pitching market.

Quality or quantity? In remaking the pitching staff, Phillies need both.

Every team’s internal rankings of free-agent starting pitchers begin with the same name.

Gerrit Cole.

A 29-year-old right-hander with four nasty pitches and impeccable timing, Cole hit the market after a Cy Young-worthy season and a postseason in which he went 4-1 with a 1.72 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings for the pennant-winning Astros. He almost surely will smash free-agent pitching records for average annual salary (Zack Greinke’s $34.4 million) and total value (David Price’s $217 million).

The Phillies would love to have Cole. So, too, would 29 other clubs, including the Los Angeles Angels, who have the cash and a potential geographic advantage to land the native Southern Californian.

But the Phillies will have alternatives. No sooner than he was named World Series MVP did Stephen Strasburg opt out of his contract. Scott Boras, who represents Cole and Strasburg, will tout them as Options 1 and 1A. He also knows he has a willing owner in Middleton after striking the Jake Arrieta and Bryce Harper deals with the Phillies in the last two offseasons.

If Cole and Strasburg wind up elsewhere, the Phillies could spread out their money and sign multiple pitchers from the second and third free-agent tiers. Considering they need more than one starter, it might even behoove them to go that route. If they can get, say, 29-year-old Zack Wheeler and nearly 36-year-old lefty Cole Hamels for the same total outlay as Strasburg, they probably have to consider it.

The Phillies could also dive back into the trade market, although they found the asking prices for Tigers lefty Matthew Boyd and others to be exorbitant before the July 31 deadline. There’s little that would indicate offseason sales.

Regardless, Aaron Nola is the only sure thing in the Phillies rotation. Arrieta will occupy a spot based on his $20 million salary, but after he had a bone spur removed from his elbow in August, it’s fair to wonder how the 33-year-old right-hander will bounce back. Zach Eflin looks like a back-end starter.

But after betting on inconsistent Vince Velasquez and disappointing Nick Pivetta this past season, the Phillies need to find upgrades and depth. Velasquez’s future might be in the bullpen; Pivetta, given his upside, could be a change-of-scenery candidate. Top prospect Spencer Howard figures to make his big-league debut at some point in 2020 but most likely will begin the season in triple A.

“There are starters here that I believe have a lot of ability,” new manager Joe Girardi said, “and it’s our job to get the most out of them.”

It will be general manager Matt Klentak’s job to add talent to that group.

The rundown

After the Phillies hired Bryan Price as pitching coach last week, I spoke with him about his philosophy.

Joe Girardi is a master of using a bullpen, as this fact unearthed by Bob Brookover in his column attests: “During Girardi’s decade as the Yankees’ manager, there was not a single season New York’s starters had a better earned run average than the team’s relievers.”

Want to know where Girardi gained his understanding of analytics? Ajit Tamhane recalled what it was like having the future manager in his statistics class at Northwestern University.

Not sure what a Gold Glove is worth in arbitration — or in multiyear contract negotiations — but either way, the Phillies can add it to catcher J.T. Realmuto’s tab after he won the award Sunday.

In case you missed it, the Phillies cleaned up the roster Monday, which included declining team options on Jason Vargas, Pat Neshek and Jared Hughes.

Important dates

Monday: General managers meetings begin in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Nov. 20: Teams must set their 40-man rosters for the Rule 5 draft.

Dec. 9-12: Winter meetings in San Diego.

Feb. 11: Phillies pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

Alec Bohm with the Reading Phillies.
Marc Narducci
Alec Bohm with the Reading Phillies.

Stat of the day

It’s been a busy offseason already for Phillies prospect Alec Bohm.

After going 1-for-10 with four strikeouts in double-A Reading’s postseason series loss to Trenton, the 23-year-old third baseman spent several weeks in the Arizona Fall League. In 19 games for Scottsdale, he batted .361 (26-for-72) with six doubles, two homers and a .925 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Bohm was in Mexico last weekend to play for Team USA in a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament. He went 3-for-4 with a double and a three-run homer Monday in a 10-8 victory over the Dominican Republic that enabled the U.S. to advance to the Super Round, which will begin next week in Tokyo.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Answer: Hey, Dan. Thanks for the question. If I had to bet, yes, I’d say the Phillies will non-tender (or trade) Cesar Hernandez. He made $7.75 million this year, and if he goes through arbitration again, he will get another raise. One projection, from the indispensable MLBTradeRumors.com, put his 2020 salary at $11.5 million. That’s a lot of moolah.

Besides, the Phillies have a younger, potentially more productive replacement in Scott Kingery, right?

Well, here’s where it gets interesting. Kingery is a natural second baseman, and it has been presumed that he will eventually take over that position when the Phillies finally move on from Hernandez. But a strong case can be made that Kingery is a better defensive shortstop than Segura, who played second base for Arizona in 2016, the best season of his career.

Kingery, of course, can play third base and center field, too, and the Phillies might have a need at both spots. At the very least, his versatility gives them flexibility to pursue players at multiple positions and pick the best alignment based on whoever they are able to acquire.