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A $20 million free agent? Cheaper options to improve the Phillies in 2022

The smarter play for the Phillies might be multiple mid-range salary players rather than one big expensive splash. These are our suggestions.

Kyle Schwarber has worked with new Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long and could provide reasonably-priced power in the middle of the lineup.
Kyle Schwarber has worked with new Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long and could provide reasonably-priced power in the middle of the lineup.Read moreElise Amendola / AP

It’s an October baseball tradition that front offices of non-playoff teams study the clubs that advance deep in the postseason in search of adaptable roster-building strategies. Because it’s a copycat league, imitation is the best form of flattery, and all that stuff.

In that spirit, then, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski could take a few tips from his former team.

The Boston Red Sox, like the Phillies, have a trio of $20-million-plus players atop the payroll (Chris Sale, J.D. Martinez, and Xander Bogaerts). Chaim Bloom, Dombrowski’s replacement in Boston, bolstered the midsection of the roster last winter by adding versatile role player Kiké Hernández, Tampa Bay Rays castoff Hunter Renfroe, and others who didn’t move the needle for the marketing department.

Nobody crowned the Red Sox hot stove champions. But they wound up two victories from the World Series, after a 92-win season, with Hernández starring for 10 days this month as the hottest hitter on the planet.

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

The lesson: The smartest moves aren’t always the ones that make a Shamu-size splash.

Dombrowski has a well-earned reputation as a star-hunting chief executive. But the Phillies have numerous holes and three $20-million-plus stars on the books after landing Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler, and J.T. Realmuto in consecutive offseasons. Could they bid on a fourth, especially with five premium shortstops set to hit the market?

“Could we? Yes, I’d say we could,” Dombrowski said recently. “But is that the answer? We have star players. We probably match up with most organizations at the top. But you also need to get complementary pieces that fit together for you.”

A walkoff homer in the wild-card game and a three-homer Game 5 of the NL Championship Series blew Chris Taylor’s cover as a “complementary” player. The Los Angeles Dodgers may also make the $18.4 million qualifying offer that would tie the 31-year-old to draft-pick compensation, assuming the rules don’t change with the next collective bargaining agreement.

Taylor still represents an ideal fit for the Phillies because he plays three positions of need (shortstop, center field, left field). But let’s look at a few other players who may prove to be shrewd midlevel signings:

Mark Canha, OF

An underrated player on a perennially underrated team, Canha reached base at a .377 clip, including .364 out of the leadoff spot, for the Oakland A’s over the last three seasons. Phillies leadoff hitters over the same span: .316 on-base percentage, including .302 this season.

Canha, who turns 33 in February and made $6.92 million this year, also has right-handed pop, averaging 20 homers in each of the last three full seasons. He plays all three outfield positions.

But here’s the best part: Because the penny-pinching A’s must deal with raises for arbitration-eligible Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Sean Manaea, and Chris Bassitt, it’s doubtful they will make a qualifying offer to Canha, who could then be signed without the forfeiture of a draft pick. — Scott Lauber

Byron Buxton, OF

The only thing “under-the-radar” about Buxton is his salary. He’s projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn $7.3 million in his final year of arbitration before becoming a free agent after next season. A trade for Buxton would answer two of the Phillies’ needs this winter because they’re looking for a leadoff hitter and an upgrade in center field.

The Twins fielded offers in July for Buxton, but the price was steep. The Twins say they’re not rebuilding, but they won just 73 games last season and could be motivated to trade Buxton for prospects this winter after failing to sign him last summer to a contract extension.

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

The 27-year-old was limited last season by injuries. He strained his hip in May, missed five weeks, and then broke his hand three games after returning and missed two months.

He hit .306 with a 1.005 OPS in 61 games, 41 of which came at either the first or second spot in the lineup. Buxton is a premier defender and the type of everyday center fielder the Phillies hoped they were drafting in Mickey Moniak and Adam Haseley.

If the Twins are listening, the Phillies won’t be the only team in on Buxton. But this is the kind of trade that fits Dombrowski’s M.O. Keep an eye on him. — Matt Breen

David Peralta, OF

Peralta has one year left on his contract, making him a prime trade candidate for the rebuilding Arizona Diamondbacks, who would get a better return for him in the offseason than at the trade deadline.

The 34-year-old left fielder is coming off a down year, with a .728 on-base-plus-slugging and 96 OPS+. But he has been sneaky good for several years, posting a .340 on-base percentage, .799 OPS, and 111 OPS+ from the left side of the plate since 2018. He also plays solid defense in left field.

» READ MORE: The Phillies are flunking baseball’s economic game, and free-agent stars can’t save them

Other outfielders on the trade market may include the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier ($12.16 million in 2022) or Manuel Margot (projected $5 million salary in arbitration) and the Toronto Blue Jays’ Randal Grichuk ($10.33 million in 2022 and 2023).

The Phillies could also target a righty-mashing outfielder, such as Braves free agent Joc Pederson, to be the left-handed side of a left-field platoon with Matt Vierling. — Lauber

Kyle Schwarber, OF

Less than a week after signing last January with Washington, Schwarber received a phone call from Kevin Long — then the Nationals hitting coach — asking if he could come visit him in Florida to get a jump start before spring training.

Schwarber and Long, whom the Phillies hired this month as their hitting coach, worked out in Tampa and laid the foundation for a career year. And now Schwarber, who turns 29 during spring training, is slated to become a free agent who could fit with the Phillies.

» READ MORE: Protecting Bryce Harper: Power hitter options for the Phillies this offseason

He won’t come cheap, but Schwarber should cost less than fellow outfielder Nick Castellanos, who also lines up to be a Phils target. Schwarber, a left-handed hitter, hit 32 homers and posted a .928 OPS while splitting the season between Washington and Boston. He could be the middle-of-the-order hitter the Phillies are trying to land.

He was wildly popular in Boston during the postseason, and it’s safe to expect the Red Sox to be among his suitors if Schwarber declines his $11.5 million mutual option for next season. He’ll probably seek a multi-year deal worth around $15 million per year.

Schwarber’s defense is rough, but his offensive production was good enough last season that you can live with him in left field. He would fit even better as a designated hitter, which feels all but certain to be coming to the National League in 2022. A reunion with Long makes sense. — Breen

Tyler Anderson, LHP

The Phillies acquired Anderson before the trade deadline — or they thought they did. The Pittsburgh Pirates scuttled the deal over concerns about minor-league pitcher Cristian Hernandez’s medical report and flipped Anderson to Seattle instead.

Anderson, a lefty who turns 32 in December, went at least five innings in eight of his first 10 starts for the Mariners and had a 3.38 ERA in those games before stumbling in his last three starts.

Think of Anderson as a symbol of the depth starter that the Phillies lack. Given the possibility that Zach Eflin (knee surgery) may not be ready by opening day and the dearth of major-league-ready triple-A options, they could circle back to Anderson on a one-year deal similar to his $2.5 million contract with the Pirates. — Lauber

Andrew Chafin, LHP

The Phillies tied a major-league record with 34 blown saves last season, but 65% of those occurred before the ninth inning. So as the team charts a plan this winter to rebuild the bullpen, it’s imperative to remember that the outs leading to the ninth inning can be as important as the final three.

Chafin, who had a 1.83 ERA last season over 71 appearances, would be a perfect fit as a high-leverage left-hander if his $5.25 million mutual option with Oakland isn’t exercised. The Phillies had the fourth-highest eighth-inning ERA (4.34) in the NL last season, and Chafin had the lowest ERA (0.27) among any pitcher who faced at least 100 batters in the eighth inning.

» READ MORE: Phillies’ offseason shopping strategy: Think Costco, not Gucci

He was excellent as a set-up man for the Cubs before moving at the trade deadline to the A’s, who used him in that role while also asking him to close some games in the final weeks of a playoff chase.

The 31-year-old spiked his ground-ball rate last season (44.9%) by leaning heavily on his sinker, which he threw for 45.3% of his pitches. His velocity sits in the low 90s, but he still struck out 8.4 batters per nine innings last season while walking just 19 batters in 68⅔ innings.

Chafin would give manager Joe Girardi a left-handed reliever who handles right-handed (.196 batting average against) and left-handed hitters (.170 batting average against) while being in command of what he’s throwing. The Phillies would not sign Chafin to be their closer. But they were reminded last season of how important it is to lock down the outs that give the closer the chance. And that’s what he would do. — Breen