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Phillies’ options for improving starting rotation will extend beyond free agents | Scott Lauber

If the Phillies are squeamish about making a five-, six- or seven-year commitment to a free-agent pitcher, David Price, Yu Darvish and other pitchers might be available in salary-dumping trades.

General manager Matt Klentak, left, is exploring multiple ways of giving new Phillies manager Joe Girardi a better starting rotation next season.
General manager Matt Klentak, left, is exploring multiple ways of giving new Phillies manager Joe Girardi a better starting rotation next season.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Contrary to a popular narrative, the Phillies didn’t ignore their starting rotation last winter.

They simply chose not to invest in it.

Next week marks the one-year anniversary of Patrick Corbin’s free-agent tour, a three-city journey that included a stop at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies superimposed a red cap on the left-hander’s headshot and plastered it on Phanavision during his visit. They offered him five years, balked at his desire for a sixth, then watched him sign a six-year, $140 million contract with the Washington Nationals.

A year later, the Phillies aren’t any more comfortable with guaranteeing a half-dozen years to a pitcher — and likely seven or eight for prized right-hander Gerrit Cole. General manager Matt Klentak remarked the other day about the “pitfalls” inherent in such deals.

Injuries happen, more often to pitchers than position players. Drop-offs in performance are more common as players age. For every Max Scherzer who dominates for most of a long-term deal, there are scores of cautionary tales (Mike Hampton, Barry Zito, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto, and on and on).

But the Phillies can no longer afford to be so risk-averse. Not after Klentak’s proclamation that the organization has “reached a place where it’s time to win" and with considerable ground to be gained on the World Series-champion Nationals, division-winning Atlanta Braves, and even the New York Mets.

The Phillies are laser-focused on improving the rotation with more than one addition. They realize that win-now teams sometimes must swallow hard and spend big, even if it makes them queasy. So, they’re determined to last longer in the deep end of the pool than they did last year with Corbin.

But throwing money at Cole or fellow free agents Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, and Madison Bumgarner isn’t the only way to get better. Creative solutions abound.

Here, then, are a few pitchers who figure to be available over the next few months and represent potential upgrades over a shorter commitment.

David Price

Four years ago, Price signed a $217 million contract with the Red Sox that stands as the free-agent record for overall value for a pitcher — at least until Cole smashes it. He has a 3.84 ERA (3.74 FIP), 1.2 walks/hits per inning, and 609 strikeouts in 588 innings for the Red Sox. According to FanGraphs, the lefty has been worth 10.6 wins above replacement. In a more tangible context, Boston doesn’t win the 2018 World Series without him.

Now, though, Price is 34 and coming back from surgery to remove a cyst from his right wrist. Dumping the $96 million that he is owed over the next three seasons would make it considerably easier for the Red Sox to (a) reduce payroll below luxury-tax levels and (b) consider re-signing star right fielder Mookie Betts next winter.

Price’s sensitivity has caused more than a few headaches for the Red Sox and might not play well in Philadelphia. He almost certainly won’t be worth $32 million annually in his age 34-36 seasons, either.

But if he maintains his level from the last four years, a three-year commitment would fall within the Phillies’ comfort zone. Moreover, if the Phillies are willing to absorb the remaining money, the Red Sox would have to accept a return that doesn’t include Grade A prospects Spencer Howard and Alec Bohm.

Yu Darvish

The concept here is similar to the Price scenario. Darvish is 33 and has four years and $81 million left on his six-year, $126 million deal with the Cubs, who might soon be faced with the possibility of not being able to reach long-term agreements with young stars Kris Bryant and Javy Baez.

After an injury-marred first year in Chicago in 2018 and a dismal first half of last season, Darvish harnessed his often-erratic command and turned things around after the All-Star break. He posted a 2.76 ERA (2.83 FIP) and a 118-to-7 strikeouts-to-walk ratio in 81⅔ innings over 13 starts, including seven scoreless innings and 10 strikeouts Aug. 15 at Citizens Bank Park.

Darvish declined to opt out of his contract last month, a signal that he enjoys playing in Chicago. He also has limited no-trade protection. But if the Phillies believe he can still be a top-of-the-rotation stud in his mid-30s, he might represent a less squeamish investment than Wheeler and Bumgarner, second-tier free-agent pitchers who could be seeking five-year guarantees.

Corey Kluber or Mike Clevinger

If the Indians ever came close to trading Kluber last winter, they probably wish they had. Instead, they held the two-time Cy Young Award winner, who made only seven starts and posted a 5.80 ERA in an injury-marred 2019.

At this point, with Kluber's 34th birthday coming up in April, Cleveland might prefer to wait for the longtime ace to rebuild his value. He will make $17.5 million in 2020 and has an $18 million club option for 2021, sums that aren't overly unwieldy even for the Indians, who would stand to get more for him at the trade deadline if he bounces back next season.

It’s worth a phone call, though, especially because Kluber might not be the only available Indians pitcher. Clevinger, in particular, is intriguing. He will turn 29 next month and will be eligible for arbitration for the first time. After posting a 2.71 ERA in 21 starts last season, he figures to receive a sizable salary bump from $592,000.

If the Indians are unable to lock up Clevinger to a multiyear deal, they might be inclined to trade him. Few organizations have been better at developing pitchers, with emerging ace Shane Bieber and fellow controllable young starters Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale having already reached the big leagues after getting drafted in 2016. Besides, the Indians have other concerns, namely figuring a way to sign franchise shortstop Francisco Lindor to a long-term deal.

But teams don’t just give away inexpensive pitchers with a 2.96 ERA (3.32 FIP) and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings over the last three years, and the Phillies farm system is neither as talented nor as deep as those of some other teams that would figure to have interest in Clevinger.