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Phillies offseason preview: Biggest needs, free-agent options, who returns, and more

A busy offseason gets going this week at the GM meetings. Here’s a look at the key questions facing the Phillies.

Nick Castellanos could be an offseason target of the Phillies, but the Reds made him a qualifying offer, which means any team that signs him will have to give up a draft pick.
Nick Castellanos could be an offseason target of the Phillies, but the Reds made him a qualifying offer, which means any team that signs him will have to give up a draft pick.Read moreJeff Dean / AP

Baseball’s offseason officially began Sunday as free agents were free to sign with other teams. You’re forgiven if you missed it.

Unlike other sports, which see a frenzy of player movement once the bidding can start, baseball’s market seems to move slower each winter. And this winter will be no exception as the expiring collective bargaining agreement looms over the industry.

The market could receive a jump-start this week, as baseball’s decision makers and player agents gather in Carlsbad, Calif., for the four-day general managers meetings, which opened Monday at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa. Team president Dave Dombrowski and his front-office lieutenants will be there as they set the foundation for what is lining up to be a busy offseason.

Here’s a look at what lies ahead this winter for the Phillies:

What is the team’s biggest need?

There are more than one. But Dombrowski started the offseason by saying the Phillies needed a closer, leadoff hitter, and middle-of-the-order bat to protect Bryce Harper. The Phils had the fifth-worst save percentage (51%) in baseball last season, third-worst production (88 WRC+) from their leadoff hitter, and just one hitter (Rhys Hoskins) other than Harper with an OPS better than .800.

Those three areas are a good place to start. But their needs also include two outfielders, as Andrew McCutchen and Odúbel Herrera are free agents; starting rotation depth, as Zach Eflin recovers from knee surgery; and some relievers to tackle the late-inning outs before the ninth inning.

Dombrowski has some heavy lifting to do this offseason. There are plenty of needs for the Phillies following an 82-win season. — Breen

What is the offseason budget?

Hard to say until the CBA is negotiated and the competitive-balance tax threshold (and penalties for going over it) is defined.

The Phillies have always treated the threshold, presently $210 million, as a salary cap, though they did come within a few million dollars this year. They have more than $45 million rolling off the books with 14 free agents, including McCutchen, Herrera, Archie Bradley, Héctor Neris, Brad Miller, Matt Moore, and Andrew Knapp.

» READ MORE: Inside Phillies’ offseason: Key dates for awards, free agency, roster moves and more

As long as the threshold isn’t lowered, the Phillies should be able to sign one big-ticket free agent (presumably a middle-of-the-order slugger) and address some, but not all, of their myriad other needs.

But with three $20 million-plus players on the roster (Harper, Zack Wheeler, and J.T. Realmuto) and so many holes to fill, it may be wiser to spread the money around among mid-market free agents. Dombrowski and Co. will need to turn up a few low-cost gems, too, and work with manager Joe Girardi to incorporate more minimum-salaried players from the farm system.

“We have star players,” Dombrowski said last month. “We probably match up with most organizations at the top [of the roster]. But you also need to get complementary pieces that fit together for you and do better jobs.” — Lauber

More players became free agents last week after options were declined. Should any of them interest the Phillies?

Yes. The relief-pitching market became stronger after high-leverage left-handers Andrew Chafin, Jake Diekman, and Chasen Shreve became free agents. None of them would be considered a closer, but all three could be late-inning options for the Phils. Chafin declined his $5.25 million option with Oakland, which also turned down Diekman’s $4 million option. Shreve elected free agency after being outrighted by Pittsburgh.

Chafin, 31, split last season between the Cubs and A’s and had the best eighth-inning ERA (0.27) among all pitchers who faced at least 100 batters in the eighth. Diekman, the 34-year-old former Phillie, has a 2.96 ERA over his 88 appearances in the last two seasons while averaging 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Shreve had a 3.20 ERA in 57 appearances last season, which was the best season of his career since 2015, when he was one of Girardi’s most-trusted relievers with the Yankees. He seems like a match.

» READ MORE: Is MLB headed for a work stoppage? Key questions before the CBA expires

More players than usual became available last winter, as teams non-tendered some players in obvious cost-cutting moves. That likely will happen again, as several teams are scaling back salary this winter. The non-tender deadline is Dec. 1, so the free-agent market could grow again. — Breen

Where might that middle-of-the-order hitter come from?

Given their payroll commitments, the Phillies probably can’t outbid the field for premium free agents Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, and Freddie Freeman. But they will monitor the market for them, as well as shortstops Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, and Javier Báez in the unlikely event that they wind up closer to $20 million per year than $30 million annually.

Left field may be a spot for a power bat. Nick Castellanos is at the high end of the market after opting out of the final two years and $34 million of his contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Could he land in the $20-million-per-year range? Maybe. But the Reds made him a qualifying offer, which means any team that signs him will have to give up a draft pick.

» READ MORE: Here’s how we’d address the Phillies’ three biggest offseason needs

Other possibilities include Kyle Schwarber, Avisaíl García, Jorge Soler, and Michael Conforto, who declined a qualifying offer from the New York Mets. It’s notable that Castellanos and García played for Dombrowski in Detroit; Schwarber clicked with new Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long in Washington.

It would be like Dombrowski to pull off a big trade. But there are limits to what he can do in that arena because of the lack of upper-level prospects in the Phillies’ farm system. — Lauber

Will any of the Phillies’ own free agents return?

Neris seems to be the best candidate to score a major-league deal from the Phils, who could use him again in the setup role he flourished in during the second half last season. Another team might see Neris, who has the 27th-highest saves total among active pitchers, as a closer. If so, his price likely will exceed what the Phillies are willing to spend.

Travis Jankowski and Ronald Torreyes signed minor-league deals last winter and spent extended stretches of the season as everyday players. They could return again on minor-league deals as depth options. Knapp, popular in the clubhouse and with the pitching staff, could also return on a deal that would pay him less than the roughly $1 million he was set to earn in arbitration. — Breen

» READ MORE: Who stays, who goes? Forecasting the 2022 outlook for every Phillies player.