Pick a need, any need on the Phillies roster, and based on reporting and some educated guesswork, take a stab at how they might fill it over the next 3½ months.
That was the assignment, and it didn’t seem difficult. The Phillies have no shortage of holes. In his state-of-the-team news conference after the season, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski identified a middle-of-the-order bopper, a leadoff man, a closer, and back-of-the-rotation depth. There’s at least one, likely two openings in the outfield; two or three vacancies in the bullpen; and Didi Gregorius hasn’t been guaranteed he will be the opening-day shortstop.
But many of those issues are intertwined, and like the plot in those “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s books, the solution to one may hinge on a previous move to solve another. When it comes to piecing together the roster jigsaw, it’s rare that any free-agent signing or trade occurs in a vacuum.
Given that caveat, and after team officials held organizational meetings this past week in Clearwater, Fla., we — baseball writers Scott Lauber and Matt Breen and columnist David Murphy — are attempting to address three areas: shortstop, middle-of-the-order help for Bryce Harper, and closer. Here goes:
Shortstop: Move Didi, then get creative
A top Phillies priority is to tighten a defense that saved the fewest runs of any team this year. If Gregorius could be counted on to make even routine plays, it would be safer to bet on a bounce-back at the plate. But he has recorded the fewest outs above average and prevented the fewest runs of any shortstop in baseball since 2018, according to Statcast.
Trading Gregorius will test all of Dombrowski’s wheeler-dealer savvy. The 31-year-old will count $14 million against the luxury tax in the final year of his contract and is owed more than $20 million overall, including deferrals through 2026. And the free-agent market is flooded with star shortstops: Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Javier Báez, and Marcus Semien.
Let’s assume Gregorius is untradeable. Unless the Phillies release him and pay the rest of his salary, they could slide him to another position. One scenario: Sell high on Jean Segura (if he’d waive his no-trade clause), move Gregorius to second base, and acquire a shortstop. And if Gregorius can’t hack it at second, prospect Bryson Stott may be ready before the All-Star break.
(The Chicago White Sox need a second baseman and reportedly intend to pick up closer Craig Kimbrel’s option before trading him. Kimbrel, at $16 million, and Segura, at $15.25 million, represent similar financial commitments.)
Although Dombrowski warned that the Phillies can’t keep throwing money at their needs, he also didn’t rule out another big-ticket addition. But is the high-end shortstop market the best place for another $20-million-plus expenditure?
Semien is 31 and therefore less likely than Correa or Seager to land a deal longer than five years, but he put up MVP-worthy numbers in two of the last three years. He also would fill the leadoff-hitting void that has existed since Andrew McCutchen blew out his knee in 2019. The Phillies considered Semien last winter but worried about his defense at short. Those concerns are unanswered after he played second base this year in Toronto, but it isn’t difficult to clear the bar set by Gregorius.
If the Phillies prefer to spend big on a bat in the outfield, they may find a trade partner in Kansas City. Already deep at shortstop with emerging Nicky Lopez and speedy Adalberto Mondesi, the Royals must make room for elite prospect Bobby Witt Jr. Lopez, 26, had a .365 on-base percentage in 497 at-bats and led all shortstops with 24 outs above average this season. He’s projected to make $2 million next year after salary arbitration. -- Lauber
Left field: Sign Nick Castellanos
Dombrowski already swayed Nick Castellanos once. Now he should do it again.
Dombrowski was Detroit’s general manager when the Tigers drafted Castellanos 44th overall in 2010 and paid him $3.45 million to bypass his college commitment to North Carolina. Other teams doubted their ability to sign Castellanos, causing the 18-year-old infielder from Florida to drop in the draft. Dombrowski and the Tigers didn’t blink.
The Phillies, Dombrowski said earlier this month, are in the market this offseason for a “middle-of-the-order hitter.” It just so happens that Castellanos, now a 29-year-old outfielder, is likely to become a free agent and is a player who fits their needs.
Castellanos hit .309 this season in Cincinnati with 34 homers and a .939 OPS and has an OPS+ of 120 or better in three of the last four seasons. He spent most of last season batting in front of Joey Votto, but the Phils will want the right-handed Castellanos batting fourth behind the left-handed Bryce Harper. It’s the type of lineup protection Harper was missing in 2021.
The Phillies could have Rhys Hoskins, Harper, Castellanos, and J.T. Realmuto hitting two through five. In the last three seasons, those four players had a combined .875 OPS. That’s the production you need from the middle of your lineup. Add a leadoff hitter and the Phillies should easily bypass last season, when they finished around the league average in most offensive categories.
Castellanos would also give the Phillies a hitter to combat fastballs, which proved to be a challenge in 2020. The Phillies hit a major-league worst .244 this season against fastballs and slugged just .426 (ninth-worst) against them. Castellanos hit .372 against fastballs, which was the sixth-best mark in the majors, and slugged .669, which ranked 15th-best. With Castellanos, teams would not simply be able to mow down the Phils by throwing heat.
The majority of outfield experience is in right field. But Castellanos surely can move to left, where the Phils will have a vacancy once they decline Andrew McCutchen’s $15 million option.
Castellanos is expected next month to opt out of the two years and $34 million remaining on his contract with the Reds. That means he’ll be seeking more than $17 million per year, and the Phillies — even though they’ll be pushing again toward the luxury tax — can make it work. Dombrowski just needs to sway him again. — Breen
Closer: Improvement starts with bullpen depth
Here’s some good news for anybody who spent the last couple of years dreading the Phillies bullpen. It’s pretty much gone. The Phillies were one of six teams in the majors in 2021 to have six different players record at least two saves. Three of them will be free agents come November — Hector Neris, Ian Kennedy and Archie Bradley — while Ranger Suárez will enter 2022 with a spot in the rotation.
Given the circumstances, the identity of the Phillies’ next closer is far less important than the identity of the five or six arms that Dombrowski will need to find to fill out his bullpen.
You can pencil in Connor Brogdon, who finished 2021 with a 3.43 ERA and solid rate stats in 57⅔ innings. In an ideal world, Jose Alvarado’s penchant for putting runners on base would preclude him from occupying a high-leverage role. In 55⅔ innings last season, the 26-year-old lefty walked an astounding 47 batters and hit another seven with pitches. Still, Alvarado’s big arm figures to earn him another go-round somewhere in the bullpen.
At this point, the most intriguing candidate to hold down the ninth inning might be Seranthony Dominguez, who made his long-awaited return to the mound after two years of health problems, pitching a scoreless inning in late September and retiring all three batters he faced.
Back in 2018, Dominguez looked to be the Phillies closer of the future when he burst on to the scene as a rookie, saving 16 games with a 2.95 ERA and excellent strikeout numbers. The hard-throwing right-hander, who will be 27 next month, should have ample opportunity to pitch his way back to the ninth inning.
With Brogdon profiling as a middle reliever and Alvarado battling command problems throughout his career, Dombrowski will need to be efficient and creative as he looks to give himself options beyond Dominguez.
The free-agent market includes former Reds and Angels closer Raisel Iglesias, who is coming off a season in which he saved 34 games with a 2.57 ERA in 70 innings. Other options include the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen and former Nationals closer Brad Hand, along with Neris, Bradley, and Kennedy.
At this point, though, next year’s ninth-inning responsibilities are anybody’s guess. — Murphy