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Protecting Bryce Harper: Power hitter options for the Phillies this offseason

There should be plenty of power bats in play for the Phillies to choose from, starting with a Reds slugger who could be on the move.

The Cincinnati Reds' Nick Castellanos watching his two-run home run against the Atlanta Braves on June 24.
The Cincinnati Reds' Nick Castellanos watching his two-run home run against the Atlanta Braves on June 24.Read moreAaron Doster / AP

The Phillies front office will gather later this month in Clearwater, Fla., to chart the team’s offseason plan. They’ll narrow their list of free agents and start targeting teams who could be open to trading.

There are plenty of holes to fill after finishing with just 82 wins and missing the postseason for the 10th straight year, but Dave Dombrowski provided an indication of which one of those holes will be an offseason priority.

“We need someone in the middle of the lineup to be a middle of the lineup hitter other than Bryce. A guy who is a real threat to protect him,” said Dombrowski, the team’s president of baseball operations. “How do you go about doing that? Well, we’ll have to wait and see what ends up taking place.”

» READ MORE: Phillies hold off on committing to Joe Girardi beyond 2022

The Phillies, once they lost Rhys Hoskins in late August, received less than league-average production from the fourth and fifths spot in their lineup. Teams weren’t afraid in the season’s final weeks to pitch around Bryce Harper and try their luck with his supporting cast. And that — despite Harper’s MVP-worthy season — was not a recipe for reaching the postseason.

So the Phillies will try this winter to upgrade their lineup and insert a hitter behind Harper whom teams won’t be so eager to face. That player might come through a trade, but here’s a look at some of the hitters who could hit the free-agent market next month:

Nick Castellanos

The Phillies likely will drop their power hitter into the outfield, and Castellanos seems to be the best option.

All indications are that he will opt out of the final two years of his contract with the Reds, which means Castellanos will be looking for more than the $34 million he will make if he stays in Cincinnati. It also means that he will cost his new team a draft pick as the Reds are able to extend Castellanos a qualifying offer (which he would reject) after he opts out.

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Castellanos, who will be 30 on opening day, hit .309 with 34 homers and a .939 OPS this season, batting primarily from the three hole. The right-handed batter would hit fourth for the Phils and play left field, a position he should be able to handle despite spending the majority of the last four years in right.

His .576 slugging percentage was the fifth highest in the majors. That would be enough to protect Harper. Plus, he plays with an edge that could give the Phillies something they seemed to be missing the last few seasons.

Kris Bryant

Bryant’s bat is already in Philly as Harper, his childhood friend, was swinging his lumber this summer. This seems like a long shot as Bryant’s price likely will exceed what the Phillies can spend, but if you’re looking to protect Harper, you can’t ignore the player he grew up with. Bryant is a natural third baseman, which would push Alec Bohm to the designated hitter if the NL adopts the DH or have him share time at first base. But Bryant, 29, has spent a lot of time this year in the outfield and perhaps he’d be willing to do that in 2022.

Trevor Story or Corey Seager

Like Bryant, Story and Seager seem too expensive for the Phillies, but you can’t ignore them this early in the offseason. If the Phillies signed either shortstop, they’d have to do something with Didi Gregorius, who is being paid $14 million for 2022.

Over the last four seasons, Story, 28, has a .880 OPS, but his numbers at Coors Field (.313 average and .995 OPS) are much better than on the road, where he has hit just .248 with a .761 OPS since 2018. He has a .953 OPS in 12 games at Citizens Bank Park, which he might be able to treat like Coors Field if he made it his home.

» READ MORE: Phillies’ offseason to-do list: Help Bryce Harper, upgrade infield and go deep on pitching

Seager, 27, hit .306 with a .521 slugging percentage this season, and his OPS is 47% better than league average over the last two years. He missed two months this season after breaking his hand, returned on July 30, and finished the season with a 1.009 OPS in his final 240 plate appearances. He was the World Series MVP last year for the Dodgers, but it seems like they’ll let him get to free agency. And he could land the biggest contract, which could make it hard for the Phillies to be in play.

“Could we? We have ownership here that is amazing, it’s tremendous,” Dombrowski said about signing another superstar player after signing Harper, Zack Wheeler, and J.T. Realmuto in the last three offseasons. “They want to win, they’ll do anything they possibly can to win. So could we? Yes, I’d say we could. But is that the answer? We have star players, so the star player aspect of it, we probably match up with most organizations at the top. But you also need to get complementary pieces that fit together for you and do better jobs. And the combination of blending young players.

“We need to work and put pieces together that blend together because, to me, and just pick a number to work with, $20 million. Well, are you really better off getting one big ticket item or working with a bunch of other things that puts you together to make you better in different spots? I don’t have that answer today because we need to work on those things.”

Jorge Soler

He was hitting just .192 with a .658 OPS when Atlanta plucked him from Kansas City, but the 29-year-old revived himself in Atlanta while helping the Braves overcome the loss of Ronald Acuna Jr. and win their fourth straight division title. He had a .524 slugging percentage after joining the Braves in July with 14 homers in 55 games. He’ll be 30 on opening day and would play left field.

Starling Marte

Marte is coming off a career year as he posted a 131 OPS+ while splitting the season with Miami and Oakland. He loves hitting at Citizens Bank Park, where he has a .398 average and 1.091 OPS in 25 career games. He turns 33 this month but was able to start 117 games this season in center field. The Phillies could use him in either left or center while also sliding him into the designated hitter spot — assuming the National League adopts the DH — to keep him fresh.

Kyle Schwarber

Schwarber, 28, had to settle last winter for a one-year deal with the Nationals after hitting .188 with a .701 OPS in 2020 with the Cubs. A year later, he may have parlayed that deal into a nice payday. He split the season between Washington and Boston, finishing the season with a .928 OPS and 32 homers. It was the third time in the last five years that he hit 30 homers. The left fielder would be strong protection for Harper, but Boston will have plenty of motivation to keep him after his homer in the wild-card game helped sink the Yankees.

Michael Conforto

Conforto is likely to receive a qualifying offer from the Mets so he’ll also cost his new team a draft pick if he turns that down and signs elsewhere. He was slowed by a hamstring injury and had a down season (101 OPS+), but his production over the rest of his career should still allow him to find a market this winter.

Conforto’s slugging percentage in 2021 (.384) ranked 150th among the 188 hitters who had at least 400 plate appearances. But that was 111 points below what he slugged in the previous four seasons. A team would have to be confident that this season was an outlier. He’ll be 29 on opening day.

Avisaíl García

García reached enough plate appearances last month for his $12 million team option to vest into a mutual option, meaning he can enter free agency after a strong season. The 30-year-old had an .820 OPS this season for the Brewers, but he has struggled with consistency. His .885 OPS in 2017 was followed by a .719 OPS in 2018 and his .796 OPS in 2019 was followed in 2020 by a .659 OPS. It’s tough to count on a hitter who is that up-and-down.