Phillies boss Dave Dombrowski intends to buy at the trade deadline. But can he pull off a big deal? | Scott Lauber
Pitching, specifically a back-end starter and late-inning reliever, is the Phillies' biggest need.
It’s trade deadline week, which means rumors will fly like homers, phone batteries will get recharged hourly, and everyone will be on alert for #HugWatch.
But mark this down as fact: The Phillies are buyers.
“The one thing I can safely say is -- because people have asked me -- we’re not in a position where we’re looking to move players. That is not where we are,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Saturday. “We’re looking to add players to our club.”
Never mind that the Phillies went into the weekend with a .500 record and deeply-rooted flaws that, by Dombrowski’s admission, won’t be fixed in a week. Or that they haven’t been more than four games above or below break-even through 96 games. Or that they are more than one player from winning the World Series. Backed by what he described as “ownership support,” Dombrowski sees an opening to win a division that might take only 85 to 87 wins to conquer and end a nine-year postseason absence, the longest active drought in the National League.
That’s enough for a chief baseball executive who has set “go for it” as his default instinct for many of the last 33 years to, well, go for it before 4 p.m. Friday.
But it is a bit of a balancing act. Although Dombrowski summed up his approach to the deadline by saying, “We’ll be aggressive,” he insists that he’s focused beyond this year, too.
“The way I would describe it is that, for a two-month rental player, I would not anticipate that we would give up premium prospects,” he said. “I don’t think we’re there. We want to try to win our division if we can. We’re within reach. But I still think you have to keep it in perspective.”
Here, then, are a few questions that will come into clearer focus over the next few days:
What’s the biggest need?
Then more pitching.
The Phillies haven’t hit as they expected after running back a lineup that averaged 5.1 runs per game last year. But they’ve been more productive since J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Didi Gregorius, and Bryce Harper returned from the injured list and MLB began enforcing an existing rule about pitchers using sticky substances.
Center field remains a weakness, prompting Dombrowski to nose around in the Starling Marte/Kris Bryant aisle. Two problems there: Marte and Bryant will both be free agents after the season, and neither is capable of pitching five quality innings or locking down a lead in the ninth.
Which is the higher priority: Bullpen or rotation?
It’s a good debate right now among Phillies officials. It’s also interrelated. And market-dependent, too.
Unless the Nationals sell Max Scherzer, who was scratched Saturday with triceps soreness, or the Twins give up trying to extend José Berríos, or the Reds shift from buyer to seller and make Luis Castillo available, the trade market lacks a difference-making starter. But the Phillies are shopping more for a back-end rotation piece anyway, at least as long as they remain confident that Zach Eflin (knee) won’t miss more than another start or two.
The biggest name on the pitching market is Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel, who was acquired by Dombrowski once before with the Red Sox. After two dreadful seasons, the 33-year-old All-Star is dominating again, so the Cubs will attempt to sell high. And because Kimbrel has a $16 million team option for next year, they can tout him as a controllable piece worthy of an elite-level prospect.
Think of the Cubs’ 2016 Aroldis Chapman-for-Gleyber Torres trade, only in reverse.
If the return gets too big for the Phillies, they could pivot to another closer, such as the Pirates’ Richard Rodríguez, the Angels’ Raisel Iglesias, or the Rangers’ Ian Kennedy. Or they could bring in a fourth- or fifth-starter (the Rockies’ Jon Gray or the Cubs’ Zach Davies, for example) if they deem any of them an upgrade over Vince Velasquez, Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, and Spencer Howard.
And Dombrowski wouldn’t rule out adding another bat, especially if the Phillies strike out on a high-impact pitching move. Marte, a free agent after the season, could play center field, bat leadoff, and make the offense more formidable. The Marlins are looking for their future center fielder and the Phillies have a few -- Adam Haseley, Johan Rojas, and Yhoswar Garcia -- in the minors.
“You have to be nimble on your feet at this time,” Dombrowski said. “You have to have a lot of alternatives, you have to have a lot of choices. Because if you can’t get this, what makes you better next?”
What do the Phillies have to give up?
Harper recently described the farm system as “kind of depleted,” which pretty much sums up how the rest of baseball feels. Dombrowski would seem, then, like an angler casting a bait-less rod.
Over the years, Dombrowski has gained a reputation for not being afraid to drain a farm system. But his allies often note that he excels at knowing which prospects to hold. In some cases, he will identify a positional surplus and trade from that stockpile. To acquire Kimbrel in 2015, for example, he swapped outfielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javy Guerra, prospects who were blocked in the big leagues by Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts.
Dombrowski doesn’t seem inclined to trade 19-year-old right-hander Mick Abel or double-A shortstop Bryson Stott. But with Realmuto under contract through 2025, would he be open to putting catching prospect Rafael Marchan in a deal that could help now?
What about Cole Hamels?
The Phillies were among the teams that attended Hamels’ July 16 showcase in Texas. One scout from a team that was there said Hamels was “just OK,” an unsurprising characterization considering he has made one start since the end of the 2019 season. But the scout also wouldn’t rule out that the 37-year-old lefty could help a contender this year after a month or so in the minors.
It seems likely, then, that teams may view Hamels as a fallback option after Friday if they come up empty in their pitching pursuit.
“If you sign him, you’re basically telling him you’re giving him a spot in the rotation,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t know right now if we’re in the spot I can 100 percent say that. In five days, six days, will I be able say that? Perhaps.”
Will ownership go over the luxury tax?
Almost any trade would involve taking on salary, and the Phillies are less than $5 million shy of the $210 million luxury-tax threshold. For first-time offenders, the penalty isn’t overly harsh: a 20% surcharge on every dollar over the bar.
Co-owner John Middleton has previously said he wouldn’t authorize paying the luxury tax for the first time in franchise history for merely a chance at a wild-card berth. But what about for a chance at a division title -- and the opportunity to start Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and Eflin in the first three games of a best-of-five series?
“I really wouldn’t get into that publicly,” Dombrowski said. “But I would tell you that ownership here is very supportive of trying to win. I can feel how badly they would like [the postseason drought] to end.”