If you ask Dave Dombrowski to whisper insider information about how long Major League Baseball will remain paused by its first work stoppage in a quarter-century, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations will regretfully tell you that he has absolutely no idea.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Dombrowski said Wednesday, a few hours before the collective bargaining agreement expired and the owners locked out the players, whose pictures vanished from team web sites. “None of us know.”
The consensus within the industry is that it will be weeks, and likely months, before a new CBA is hammered out. Until then, rosters will remain frozen solid, leaving the Phillies short a left fielder, a center fielder, at least one late-inning reliever, and probably a back-end starter.
But Dombrowski insists he isn’t stressed. Because whenever the lockout ends, be it Dec. 15 or March 1 or some day in between, he expects to have opportunities to fill those positions — and more than 200 free agents to choose from. It may even be a buyers’ market, as one rival club official suggested this week, at least for mid-level players who didn’t cash in on the pre-shutdown free-agent signing binge that totaled roughly $1.7 billion.
The Phillies are known to have checked in last month with the representatives of outfielders Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos, Kris Bryant, Starling Marte, and scores of others, including reliever Mychal Givens, a league source said this week, confirming an NBC Sports Philadelphia report last month.
But few free agents who would have filled the team’s positional needs were ready to sign save for Marte (four years, $78 million with the Mets) and Héctor Neris (two years, $17 million with the Astros). And the Phillies weren’t giving up draft-pick compensation for versatile Chris Taylor or closer Raisel Iglesias, who stayed with the Dodgers and Angels, respectively.
So, the Phillies went into the lockout having signed one-year deals with potential closer Corey Knebel ($10 million) and utility infielder Johan Camargo ($1.4 million). They also attempted to add roster depth through minor trades or waiver claims, including relievers Nick Nelson from the Yankees and Ryan Sherriff from the Rays.
“It’s a situation where we had a lot of active talks but that was it,” Dombrowski said. “From our perspective, there was no sense of urgency. You could see by the moves that were made [by other teams], the pace was pretty strong. We were just as involved in it as anybody else, but we also didn’t want to do things that ... there’s still a long time in the winter.”
Schwarber will be hanging around when the hot stove gets re-lit, even if his market looks a bit different. If the designated hitter comes to the National League, as expected, he may hear from a few newly interested teams. And his most recent club, the Boston Red Sox, opened a corner-outfield spot late Wednesday night by trading Hunter Renfroe to Milwaukee.
But Schwarber fits the Phillies’ profile of a lefty-hitting middle-of-the-order bat who isn’t attached to the free-agent qualifying offer that is tied to draft-pick compensation. He won a World Series with the Chicago Cubs and has 128 career postseason plate appearances. (Didi Gregorius is the only Phillie with at least 100.) Schwarber also has a rapport with new hitting coach Kevin Long, who calls himself “a Kyle Schwarber fan,” recently told MLB Network that the 28-year-old “would fit the Phillies,” and has Dombrowski’s ear.
There are other left-field options, too, including Castellanos and Michael Conforto, both of whom come with qualifying offers. But the musical chairs in center field are disappearing now that Marte is off the board and Byron Buxton signed a $100 million contract extension with the Minnesota Twins.
It always seemed like the Phillies would have to find a center-field solution via a trade, and they have talked with Tampa Bay about Kevin Kiermaier, according to a league source. The low-budget Rays have signaled that they aren’t shopping Kiermaier, who will count $9.33 million against the competitive-balance tax in the final year of his contract. But they also have a less-expensive center fielder (Manuel Margot) and are facing a payroll crunch with 13 arbitration-eligible players.
Kiermaier, 31, has been more or less a league average hitter (98 OPS+) throughout his career. But he’s a three-time Gold Glove winner with 131 defensive runs saved since 2015, more than any major-league outfielder over the last seven seasons. The Phillies could compensate for Schwarber’s below-average defense in left field by putting Kiermaier in center. As one NL club official said this week, “He could cover two-thirds of that outfield.”
Dombrowski said the Phillies have “talked about a lot of different things” with regard to center field. Team employees aren’t permitted to contact players during the lockout, but general managers are free to speak with one another. It wouldn’t be surprising if trades are completed shortly after the lockout ends.
Knebel may represent the Phillies’ biggest bullpen expenditure. But they’ve expressed interest in Givens, whom they looked into acquiring midway through the shortened 2020 season. The 31-year-old right-hander could be in line for a contract similar to Neris’, considering their nearly identical career numbers (Givens has a 3.41 ERA and 28.6% strikeout rate; Neris’ ERA is 3.42 and strikeout rate is 30.4%).
Could the Phillies fit, say, Schwarber, Kiermaier, and Givens into their budget? It would be tight, unless the competitive-balance tax threshold rises or the penalties for exceeding it are softened in the next CBA. The payroll, as calculated for tax purposes, stands at $183 million, $27 million below this year’s threshold ($210 million). The Phillies approached tax territory this year and last but have never waded into it.
Regardless, Dombrowski sounds as if he’s ready to reach for a blowtorch, not an ice pick, whenever MLB gives teams the go-ahead to thaw their rosters.
“There’s still a lot of players that are out there, clubs will keep talking, so sure, we still have time to address the things that we need to do,” Dombrowski said. “Plenty of time.”