CLEARWATER, Fla. — The biggest free-agent acquisition of Andy MacPhail's career as a general manager came in February of 1991 when he signed Jack Morris away from Detroit with a one-year deal to play for his hometown Twins. Morris would throw an iconic 10-inning complete game that season and help the Twins win the World Series.
MacPhail, the Phillies president, was reminded of the timing of the move on Friday morning as he pondered the current crop of pitchers that remain unsigned as camps across baseball finish their openings weeks. Player acquisition is a 12-month business, MacPhail said. And his best move came right around this time.
Those unclaimed pitchers will likely find teams by the end of the month as either the teams or players blink on their demands. Some of the lesser arms are finding their homes. The three at the top of the heap — Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb — will draw the most attention. But it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the Phillies, despite their need for a starter, will not be going after their Morris.
"You're always looking to improve. Money is not the issue. It's more about what makes sense for us now," MacPhail said. "You don't want to do anything impulsive because something may or may not be out there that you anticipate."
The Phillies have the lowest payroll in baseball, which obviously puts them in position to sign a pitcher like Arrieta. Money, like MacPhail said, is not an issue and they've backed up that notion by spending $94 million this winter. But the commitment of a long-term contract remains an issue and the Phillies are wary of entering a long-term deal with Arrieta, who turns 32 in March and saw a significant decrease in velocity last season.
Lynn and Cobb also have their warts. Both are solid but neither are elite. Both are a season removed from Tommy John Surgery. Cobb has never made 30 starts in a season and Lynn finished last year with a 3.43 ERA. The Phillies are not passing on Jack Morris. They will spend next winter and could even push to make a trade this summer. Perhaps they are better off waiting. They certainly seem content to enter the season with what they have.
"It's something that you don't necessary anticipate but you never quite let it all go. You never let go of it," MacPhail said of acquiring pitching. "You stay on top of it and see how other events unfold and maybe you jump in. But uncharacteristic of this time of year, Matt and not only Matt but out entire baseball operations department, are having a lot of conversations as are a lot of other teams this time of year."
Carlos Santana, the first baseman the Phillies committed $60 million this winter, reported Friday to spring training. He walked through the clubhouse door, checked out his locker at Spectrum Field and dropped off some belongings. Santana, the team's biggest splash in free agency, had arrived. It just seems unlikely that Jake Arrieta, the closest the Phillies can get this season to Jack Morris, will be walking through that door.