CARLSBAD, Calif. — Let’s begin with the usual caveats that (a) it’s early in the offseason and (b) a lot will change between now and the start of spring training. Now, let’s add one other proviso: A potential lockout after the Dec. 1 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement would further muddle teams’ plans.
Still, there was much to be gleaned from this week’s general managers’ meetings about how the Phillies intend to fill their myriad needs.
After three days of roaming the grounds of the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa like Sherlock Holmes (or was it Inspector Clouseau?), we saw several clues emerge, including president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski’s high priority on acquiring an experienced closer. The Phillies made contact with several free agents, notably Starling Marte, who would fill their dual needs of a leadoff hitter and center fielder.
But finding a middle-of-the-order hitter may be the most intriguing pursuit because it figures to involve the biggest names.
There’s a quintet of heavy-hitting free-agent shortstops. Former National League MVP Kris Bryant, who just so happens to be Bryce Harper’s grade-school pal, is available, too. And Dombrowski, a notorious wheeler-dealer, never fails to be active in trade talks.
“Right now,” Dombrowski said, “it’s early enough that we’re just starting this process that we’re kind of open-minded to everything.”
But it’s never too early to put on a detective hat, follow the trail of bread crumbs, and try to make educated guesses about who the Phillies’ middle-of-the-order addition might look like. Ready ... set ... go.
Dombrowski said he isn’t tying the slugger search to a specific position, noting the flexibility that would arise if, as expected, the designated hitter comes to the National League. But he also gushed over top prospect Bryson Stott’s play in the Arizona Fall League, his ability to handle the defensive responsibilities at shortstop, and the potential of his being in the majors at some point next season.
It would be foolish to entirely rule out the Phillies as a suitor for a free-agent shortstop, though they don’t figure to be aggressive in that market. Dombrowski spotlighted left field and center field as “complete necessities,” and left field, in particular, is a classic power-hitter position.
Bryant would fit perfectly there, with the versatility to also play center field, third base, and first base. Free agents Nick Castellanos, Michael Conforto, and Avisaíl García have played mostly right field but likely could slide to left. Kyle Schwarber, Chris Taylor, and Mark Canha are other free-agent left-field options.
Draft picks coveted
It costs only money to sign the vast majority of free agents. But 14 players, notably Castellanos and Conforto among outfielders, received a qualifying offer from their most recent team, which means a club that signs them would lose a second-round draft pick and international bonus pool money.
Dombrowski said he “would prefer not to” give up a draft choice, although he doesn’t view it as a deal-breaker. It’s an opinion shared by most executives. But the Phillies need to add to a lean farm system, so the second-round pick probably means as much to them as any team.
Bryant, 29, isn’t attached to a qualifying offer but figures to be more expensive than the other left-field options. The Phillies have three players — Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Zack Wheeler — who will make at least $23 million against the competitive-balance tax and are under contract through at least 2024. Bryant would almost certainly be a fourth.
Schwarber, also not tethered to a draft pick, likely will cost less than $20 million per year. He’s regarded as a below-average defender, but the Boston Red Sox were willing to overlook his weakness when they traded for him at the deadline because of his power and personality in the clubhouse.
“We absolutely would love to have him back,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said while noting that the team has other players at left field, DH, and first base. “The quality of his at-bats, it really stands out.”
If the Phillies view Schwarber as relatively equal to 29-year-old Castellanos and 28-year-old Conforto, they might be more likely to turn his way.
It takes two to make a thing go right
The Phillies could take a cue from the champion Atlanta Braves and approach their middle-of-the-order/outfield needs in another manner.
“You could put two people in a position — somebody that’s really good vs. left-handed [pitching], somebody that’s really good vs. right-handed,” Dombrowski said. “You don’t have to necessarily be one person.”
The Braves just proved it. In recasting their decimated outfield in July, they traded for lefty-hitting Eddie Rosario and Joc Pederson and righty-swinging Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall, giving manager Brian Snitker options to match up against opposing pitching.
Pederson, Rosario, and Soler are free agents. The prices for the latter two may have risen after they were named MVP of the NL Championship Series and World Series, respectively, but they don’t figure to cost as much as the top free-agent outfielders.
Adding two lower-priced left fielders would potentially enable the Phillies to go bigger somewhere else, such as in center field with Marte.
Might vs. right
In contemplating the middle of the order, Dombrowski suggested the Phillies could target a left-handed hitter to pair with Harper and counterbalance righty-hitting Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins.
“Ideally we would like to find a left-handed guy, but I don’t think it’s a necessity,” Dombrowski said. “I think it’s just if a guy can hit and drive in runs for us in the middle.”
Bryant, Castellanos, García, and Taylor hit from the right side of the plate. Conforto, a left-handed hitter, typically mashes right-handed pitching (.873 career OPS) and has a .569 slugging percentage and .924 OPS in 222 plate appearances at Citizens Bank Park over the years as a visitor with the rival New York Mets.
Then there’s Schwarber, who also bats left-handed and dominated righties this season (.990 OPS) and throughout his career (.880). He had a good rapport with new hitting coach Kevin Long in Washington, even getting elevated to the leadoff spot before being peddled to Boston.
“Leading off a game he excelled because he was able to get fastballs and kind of set the tone for our offense,” Long said. “We didn’t really change anything about Kyle. That was just a spot in the order where he was able to fit in a little bit better.”
If the Phillies reserve their big expenditure for a middle-of-the-order left fielder, it may be Schwarber who checks the most boxes.