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Machado-Harper verdict will affect other potential Phillies offseason deals

If the Phillies whiff on Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, the expectation is that they will compensate by taking other paths to improve the roster.

Left-hander Dallas Keuchel is still available in free agency, and would be a major upgrade to the Phillies' pitching staff.
Left-hander Dallas Keuchel is still available in free agency, and would be a major upgrade to the Phillies' pitching staff.Read moreCHARLES REX ARBOGAST / AP Photo

It’s the middle of January, four weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, and roughly 150 free agents remain unsigned. Clearly, nobody is in any hurry.

But, in many ways, the rest of the Phillies' offseason hinges on the outcome of the Manny Machado-Bryce Harper saga.

If the Phillies sign one of the 26-year-old megastars — and they remain optimistic that they will, according to multiple sources — they figure to be considered the early favorite to win the National League East. The presumption, then, within the sport, is that they will be galvanized to strengthen that status by adding other pieces, especially if the outlay for Machado or Harper isn’t as hefty as initially expected. And ESPN reported Wednesday that the Chicago White Sox have offered Machado $175 million over seven years, far below his initial asking price. However, agent Dan Lozano issued a strongly worded statement denying the report.

Similarly, if the Phillies whiff on both Machado and Harper, the expectation is that the team will compensate by taking other paths to improve the roster. In either case, that means the Phils will remain engaged in the market for starting pitching, specifically left-handers, and perhaps even consider another late-inning arm to further strengthen a deep bullpen.

The Phillies have had internal conversations about how best to upgrade the rotation. Right-handers Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin showed improvement last season, and because team officials believe those starters will continue to get better, the middle class of free-agent starters (such as Gio Gonzalez and Wade Miley) has been largely unappealing.

“Our group of five starters that pitched for us last year, plus [Jerad] Eickhoff and the ton of depth we have at triple A, is a pretty high floor for a starting pitching unit,” general manager Matt Klentak said recently. “We would need to move the needle, and if we find a deal that we think accomplishes that, then we’ll explore it. But we are not going to force it if it’s not there.”

One pitcher who would represent an upgrade: Dallas Keuchel. He’s left-handed and has a track record as a Cy Young Award winner in 2015 and a World Series champion with the Houston Astros two years later. But, the Phillies aren’t believed to be willing to make a five-year commitment to the 31-year-old. And given Keuchel’s extreme ground-ball tendencies, his effectiveness with the Phillies might hinge on the improvement of their infield defense.

Machado would help in that area. And if Keuchel’s free agency drags on, the asking price might drop. Think about what happened last year, when Jake Arrieta was still unsigned in March before finally receiving a three-year guarantee from the Phillies. Keuchel, like Arrieta (and Harper), is represented by agent Scott Boras.

The Phillies have discussed various trades, including a deal for Texas Rangers lefty Mike Minor. It’s unclear whether those talks are still alive, but it’s likely that any trade would hinge on whether the Phillies land Machado or Harper. If they sign Machado, it seemingly increases the chances that third baseman Maikel Franco will get traded. If they sign Harper, there’s a better chance that an outfielder could get moved.

It appeared the Phillies completed their bullpen with the signing of David Robertson this month, and perhaps they have. If anything, they possess a surplus of right-handed relievers, including veterans Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek.

But they’re continuing to monitor the status of prized free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel, whose market has been strangely slow to develop. Kimbrel hasn’t allowed a run at Citizens Bank Park in 18 innings, spanning 19 appearances, and has a 1.65 career ERA against the Nationals, Braves, Mets, and Marlins.

Those numbers are difficult to ignore, even more so for a team that wins the derby for Machado or Harper.

The winners might not emerge for a few weeks. The free-agent market is moving remarkably slowly for a second consecutive year. The Phillies didn’t host Machado at Citizens Bank Park until Dec. 20, and negotiations persist a month later. A contingent of Phillies officials, including owner John Middleton, met with Harper on Saturday in Las Vegas. It’s unknown whether an offer has been made, but it’s likely forthcoming.

Last year, marquee free agents Eric Hosmer (San Diego Padres) and J.D. Martinez (Boston Red Sox) didn’t sign until Feb. 19 and Feb. 26, respectively. It’s conceivable that the suspense over Machado and Harper will be similarly drawn out.