Phillies’ offseason shopping strategy: Think Costco, not Gucci | Scott Lauber
Known for landing big names throughout his career, Dave Dombrowski seems more inclined to add quality players in bulk. Here are a few options.
Dave Dombrowski traded for Miguel Cabrera and signed Prince Fielder. He gave David Price $217 million and skimmed a farm system for Chris Sale. He landed Max Scherzer in a three-team blockbuster and swapped Fielder straight up for Ian Kinsler. He acquired Mike Piazza, then traded him away eight days later.
For more than 30 years, there isn’t a baseball executive who has done Big Things — capital B, uppercase T — more often than Dombrowski.
Dealer Dave will contemplate big moves now, too, as he begins his first full offseason in charge of the Phillies’ roster. Star-hunting is in his DNA. And if it makes sense to him to add another $20-million-per-year superstar to one of the largest payrolls in the sport, he claims he has the blessing of ownership, led by managing partner John Middleton, to keep pushing the competitive-balance tax.
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But even Dombrowski realizes lavish spending isn’t necessarily the wisest approach.
Despite All-Stars atop the roster, including the potential National League MVP (Bryce Harper) and Cy Young winner (Zack Wheeler) and catcher J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies aren’t one move from winning a World Series. By Dombrowski’s assessment, after an 82-80 season that resulted in a 10th consecutive year out of the playoffs, they need a middle-of-the-order bat, a leadoff hitter, a closer, and possibly a shortstop.
They also lack depth in the starting rotation and the back of the bullpen. And they aren’t stocked with double-A and triple-A blue chips ready to step in at the major-league level.
So although there will be a temptation to chase high-end free agents such as Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story, Dombrowski seems more inclined to buy quality players in bulk. Think Costco, not Gucci.
“The star-player aspect of it, we probably match up with most organizations at the top,” Dombrowski said. “But you also need to get complementary pieces that fit together for you. Are you better off getting one big-ticket item or working with a bunch of other things that make you better in different spots? To me, just going out and getting big-ticket items isn’t always the answer because we have some big-ticket items.”
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Dombrowski also concurred with Harper that the Phillies must graduate young players to meaningful roles in the majors. Given the state of the farm system and how long it can take to turn things around, that means pushing third baseman Alec Bohm and shortstop Bryson Stott and importing players on short-term deals as a bridge to other top prospects, most of whom are still in A-ball.
Later this month, Dombrowski will convene organizational meetings in Clearwater, Fla., and formulate a strategy. It won’t be easy, and not only because the offseason may be disrupted if a new collective bargaining agreement isn’t agreed upon by Dec. 1.
Hitting on a series of medium-size moves will be more difficult than pulling off one or two seismic ones because it will test the Phillies’ creativity in a way that, say, dishing out $330 million for Harper did not. It’s the reverse of how it usually happens. With the Boston Red Sox, for example, Dombrowski inherited a homegrown core and topped it off with Craig Kimbrel, Price, Sale, and J.D. Martinez. The Phillies’ roster is top-heavy and lacking in the middle.
“When I say ‘complementary players,’ they’re players that are maybe not stars that can go out there,” Dombrowski said. “Some of them will play every day. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a platoon player or a fifth starter to be a complementary player. They complement the star players that you already have.”
In that case, here’s a look at a few who might fit the description:
The wild-card game hero was intriguing long before his two-run home run propelled the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers into the division series.
Taylor, 31, has played at least 100 games at four positions, three of which (shortstop, center field, and left field) represent areas of need for the Phillies. He would be a defensive upgrade over Didi Gregorius at shortstop, but his best spot, based on defensive runs saved, is left field, where he made a catch on a sinking line drive in the eighth inning of the wild-card game.
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The Phillies may try to aim higher for a middle-of-the-order bat, especially after Taylor endured a brutal second-half slump. But he has been consistent over the last five seasons, posting an .804 on-base-plus-slugging percentage that ranks 25th among National League hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances.
A baseline contract for Taylor may be the four-year, $56 million deal signed by versatile Ben Zobrist after the 2015 season. Zobrist was older at the time (34) than Taylor is now. But even if Taylor costs slightly more than $14 million per year, his salary and skill level may align with the type of addition the Phillies are seeking.
Quick, who leads the majors in hits over the last five seasons?
Bet you didn’t guess Merrifield.
Since 2018, the Kansas City Royals’ leadoff man has 652 hits, 32 more than the next-closest player, Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman. He averaged 194 hits over the last three full seasons and just racked up his second year of 40 doubles and 40 steals. In short, he has been everything the Phillies hoped Scott Kingery would be.
Merrifield, who turns 33 in January, is also a bargain, with a $2.75 million base salary next year and a $10.5 million team option for 2023. He’s primarily a second baseman but has experience in the outfield.
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Why, then, would the Royals consider trading him? Their top prospect, shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., is on the verge of reaching the majors, which could push Nicky Lopez to second base. Lopez is six years younger than Merrifield, whose on-base percentage (.317) and OPS (.711) slid to career-low levels.
But Merrifield may help solve the Phillies’ leadoff problem. They could play him in center field or at second base and slide Jean Segura back to shortstop. Or Dombrowski could trade high on Segura, whom he labeled “one of the best second basemen in baseball,” and replace him with Merrifield.
In recasting their bullpen last winter, the Phillies added velocity by trading for José Alvarado and Sam Coonrod and experience by signing free agent Archie Bradley. But here’s what they didn’t do: acquire a closer.
The Phillies cycled through Héctor Neris, Alvarado, Bradley, and Ranger Suárez in the ninth inning before finally acquiring Ian Kennedy at the trade deadline. Kennedy went only 10-for-13 in save opportunities and posted a 4.13 ERA, but the bullpen was better down the stretch because he brought order to the ranks and allowed manager Joe Girardi to stick with set roles.
“We need to be better at closing games. There’s no question about that,” Dombrowski said. “That will be one of the answers we’ll be looking for as a priority. Who’s going to close games? I don’t think we have anyone right now on our staff that we would anoint as our closer next year.”
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There will be several free-agent options, including Kenley Jansen, Kendall Graveman, and Kimbrel if the Chicago White Sox don’t pick up his $16 million option. But Iglesias, 32, coming off a 2.57 ERA and 34 saves in 39 chances for the Los Angeles Angels, is likely the best of the bunch. Among 19 relievers with at least 75 saves since 2017, Iglesias ranks sixth with an 87.6% success rate.
By comparison, Neris, also a free agent, converted only 78.8% of his save chances since 2017. The Phillies would like to bring back their all-time leader in strikeouts by a reliever, but he’d fit much better as a setup man behind a closer with Iglesias’ track record.