On one side of Houston’s Minute Maid Park, the Washington Nationals sprayed each other with champagne late last month as they closed the baseball season by celebrating a World Series crown. On the other, Gerrit Cole -- one of baseball’s premier pitchers -- traded his Astros cap for a hat emblazoned with the logo of his agent and left the stadium.
“It was a pleasure to play in the city of Houston,” Cole said.
With that, the grand prize of the free agency hit the market. The offseason, which will gain some momentum this week at the general managers’ meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., was ready to begin. And a year after neglecting to add starting pitching, the Phillies have reset their priorities.
Cole headlines an enticing class of free-agent pitchers that will have the Phillies’ attention. GM Matt Klentak, according to a source, is heading to Scottsdale with an offseason plan that centers around pitching. The Phillies neglected their starting rotation last winter, only for it to finish with a 4.64 ERA and one starter -- Aaron Nola -- who made at least 10 starts and posted an ERA better than 4.00.
Nola and Jake Arrieta, who will earn $25 million in 2020 and is coming off elbow surgery, are the only locks in the rotation. One rotation spot could be reserved for Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, or Nick Pivetta while two other starters are acquired from a pool of free agents that is deeper than last winter’s. Cole, who could reap the largest free-agent contract in history for a pitcher, is at the top of the Phillies’ list.
A year after their starting pitching was their weakness, the Phillies have the ability to arrive at spring training emboldened by their rotation.
Cole is joined at the top of the pack by Stephen Strasburg, who was hoisting a World Series MVP trophy while Cole was wearing the Boras Corporation hat. Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Zack Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi, and Hyun-Jin Ryu have hit the market. Any of those would be welcomed upgrades. The Phillies, armed with a willingness to spend money and a desire to add pitching, will have their options.
They began last offseason by hosting Patrick Corbin at Citizens Bank Park, showing they at least had a desire to upgrade their rotation. But the Phillies walked away from negotiations after Washington offered the lefthanded starter a six-year contract. That desire is now much stronger, but their mindset on the length of starting-pitcher contracts must be altered as the 29-year-old Cole will certainly be offered a contract longer than Corbin’s.
Last season’s struggles were enough for the Phillies to understand that they must upgrade their pitching before they can reach October. Klentak has an offseason docket that includes rebuilding the bullpen, rectifying the situation at third base, and filling out a bench. But none of those needs is more pressing than fixing the starting rotation.
The general manager’s work to address his rotation begins this week. The Phillies might not add a pitcher before Klentak leaves on Thursday, but the foundation for the offseason will be laid. Scott Boras will be in Scottsdale, presenting his sales pitch to baseball’s decision makers to place their bids on Cole. The pitcher will soon swap his Boras Corporation hat for a new team. And the Phillies will make it their priority that it’s a red cap emblazoned with a “P.”