Nearly three weeks into free-agent season, the Atlanta Braves have brought back catcher Tyler Flowers and right fielder Nick Markakis, re-signed relievers Darren O’Day and Chris Martin, and signed reliever Will Smith to a three-year, $40 million contract.

The Phillies? Well, they’re getting closer to hiring a hitting coach.

OK, to be fair, the Braves are the outlier, a hare in a league of tortoises. Like everything about baseball, the offseason doesn’t have a clock. It plods along. Unless MLB and the players’ association ever agree to a signing deadline, free agency will always drag through the holidays and into the new year, often extending into spring training. Call it the new norm.

It’s still far too early, then, to fret over inaction at One Citizens Bank Way. Besides, many of the Phillies’ relatively swift signings over the last few years (Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter and Carlos Santana in the 2017-18 offseason, for instance) didn’t pan out. Maybe the Braves are getting a jump on everyone, but the hot stove is barely even warm yet.

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— Scott Lauber (extrainnings@inquirer.com)

Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, right, joking in the dugout during a Sept. 11 game in Anaheim.
Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP
Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, right, joking in the dugout during a Sept. 11 game in Anaheim.

Rising value of prospects makes trading for Lindor or Bryant improbable

Within a five-month span in 2009, the Phillies traded four prospects on Baseball America’s top-100 list to the Cleveland Indians for Cliff Lee and three more to the Toronto Blue Jays for Roy Halladay.

Those deals almost never happen today.

For as many changes as baseball has undergone over the last 10 years, few are as drastic as the rising value of elite minor-league talent. It used to be that teams, especially in big markets, groomed their top farmhands to be traded for established stars. Lee, for example, was acquired by Cleveland as part of a prospect-laden package for Bartolo Colon seven years before being shipped out on the opposite end of that spectrum.

More than ever, though, players are being appraised like cars, never so valuable as when they’re sitting in the showroom and depreciating as soon as they leave the lot. There’s no currency quite like a top prospect on the verge of a major-league call-up, making the major-league minimum salary and six years from free agency. Organizations are fiercely protective of such assets, with front offices talking more than ever about efficiency and sustainability.

It’s against that backdrop that Indians star shortstop Francisco Lindor has emerged as a potential trade candidate this winter. Lindor and Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant each could be on the move to the rare team willing to sacrifice multiple elite young players.

The Phillies should have interest in both. In addition to being close with fellow Las Vegas native Bryce Harper, Bryant would fill a glaring hole at third base and has at least one year (possibly two) of team control. Lindor, under control through 2021 before cashing in with a mega-contract, is an electric offensive player and a Gold Glove defender.

But acquiring either superstar would almost certainly require giving up power-hitting, 23-year-old Alec Bohm. The Indians or Cubs would want pitching, too, and after trading one prized young arm (Sixto Sanchez) for J.T. Realmuto last winter, the Phillies can’t afford to deal another (Spencer Howard). Young shortstops Bryson Stott and Luis Garcia would have to be on the table, too, all but wiping out a farm system that isn’t deep to begin with.

And since neither Cleveland nor Chicago is rebuilding, how about a major leaguer or two? Adam Haseley? Seranthony Dominguez (if he’s healthy)? Scott Kingery?

Ten years ago, we know what then-general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. would have done. But despite Matt Klentak’s recent statement that “it is time to win right now," the GM’s definition of “right now” extends beyond 2020 and maybe 2021. It’s doubtful the Phillies would part with two or three of their top five or six prospects to improve their odds of contending in such a narrow window.

And that makes them no different from most teams in 2019.

The rundown

Did you watch the playoffs and wonder why the Phillies can’t turn up young Latin American superstars like Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr.? Well, within this in-depth report about the club’s international scouting, Bob Brookover explored that very question. Brooky also highlighted nine international Phillies minor leaguers to watch.

David Price, anyone? How about Yu Darvish? If the Phillies want to avoid uncomfortably long deals for a free-agent pitcher, there might be another way.

The Phillies added four pitchers to their 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 draft next month.

Williamsport, the Phillies’ short-season Class A affiliate, is among the 42 teams on the chopping block as part of MLB’s proposal to reduce the number of minor-league clubs.

Important dates

Dec. 2: Deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players.

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

Jan. 21: Hall of Fame voting results announced.

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

March 26: Opening Day against the Marlins in Miami.

Former Phillies right fielder Bobby Abreu is making his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot this year.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Former Phillies right fielder Bobby Abreu is making his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot this year.

Stat of the day

Curt Schilling is the top returning vote-getter on the 2020 Hall of Fame ballot that was mailed to voters this week. But of the six ex-Phillies up for consideration, Bobby Abreu’s candidacy is most intriguing.

Abreu, eligible for the first time, batted .291 with 2,470 hits, 400 steals and a .395 on-base percentage in an 18-year career. He also was worth 60 wins above replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com, which ranks 19th among players who played at least 40% of their games in right field.

Candidates must get at least 75% of the more than 400 votes to gain enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Abreu probably won’t approach that level, but based on his credentials, he merits far more than the 5% needed to remain on the ballot.

Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee, Scott Rolen and Billy Wagner are the other ex-Phillies on the ballot.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

TWITTER

Answer: Thank you, Jason and Jeff. Your questions are somewhat related, so I thought I would take a swing at both.

Sure, the Phillies have a “shot” at signing Gerrit Cole. They’ve got the money, and as my colleague Matt Breen wrote last week, money almost always talks loudest in free agency. Many people think the Angels are the most likely destination for Cole because he’s from Southern California. Well, remember when folks assumed Harper preferred the West Coast? He had 330 million reasons to choose the Phillies over the Giants and Dodgers.

But there is more competition for Cole than there was for Harper and Manny Machado. Specifically, the Yankees are interested, and when the Yankees are interested in a big-ticket free agent, they usually get him. So, yes, I give the Phillies a shot in the Cole sweepstakes, but I hardly think they’re the favorite.

As for the most likely free-agent pitcher to sign with the Phillies, I’ll go with Zack Wheeler. He will turn 30 in May and has more upside than Madison Bumgarner. For all the talk of his injury history, he has thrown at least 180 innings in three of the last four seasons. He won’t get the Patrick Corbin contract (six years, $140 million), but might wind up with five years and $100 million.