Phillies’ positional needs centered on, but not limited to, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado
By himself, neither Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado would turn the Phillies into instant World Series contenders. But their other offseason pursuits center around whether they can sign either generational superstar.
The oddsmakers at Bovada Sportsbook must be from Philadelphia.
Then again, maybe not.
To most Phillies fans, the thought of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado choosing to sign here is too good to be believed, especially when the Dodgers, Cubs, and Yankees figure to be interested. After all, where did the Sixers get by doing so much flirting with marquee free agents? At last check, neither LeBron James nor Paul George plays his home games in South Philly.
Yet, there was Bovada, one day after the World Series ended, installing the Phillies, of all teams, as the favorite to reel in Harper (even money) and Machado (3-2). Across baseball, rival officials tend to agree. Three years into a rebuild, Phillies billionaire owner John Middleton is perceived as highly motivated to obtain one of the 26-year-old megastars — generational talents who are expected to receive offers that could threaten Giancarlo Stanton's $325 million contract, the richest in the history of American team sports.
Individually, neither Harper nor Machado will turn the Phillies into an instant World Series contender. The roster must undergo a bigger facelift, with needs that include at least one more big bat and improved defense at nearly every position. And general manager Matt Klentak could go in more directions than one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" children's books.
"There's room at just about every spot on the field for us to improve," Klentak said late in the season. "We're going to need to explore everything. It's too simple to say that we need to fix the defense, we need to sign Free Agent X or Free Agent Y."
Ultimately, though, the Phillies' offseason course — with the free-agent signing period starting Saturday — will depend on whether they land Harper, Machado, or, gulp, neither. Here's a look at some of the paths they could take:
If the Phillies sign Harper
They likely will have outbid the Cubs and Nationals for a player who, by the sheer force of his exceeding talent and polarizing personality, will become what one American League executive termed "instantly the face of your franchise." But they also will have landed one of only 14 players to produce at least 180 home runs, a .900 OPS, and 25 Wins Above Replacement by age 26.
With Harper in right field, the Phillies could move Rhys Hoskins from left field to his natural first base and shift Carlos Santana across the infield to third. Or, they could trade enigmatic center fielder Odubel Herrera and acquire Royals super utilityman Whit Merrifield to platoon in the outfield with Roman Quinn and play multiple infield positions. Or they could prioritize defense at shortstop by signing free agent Jose Iglesias.
Harper would be a big draw at Citizens Bank Park. And he also would represent the ideal No. 2 hitter for manager Gabe Kapler, who could then bat Hoskins cleanup.
If the Phillies sign Machado
They will confirm what many rival scouts suspect, namely that they aren't scared off by his postseason antics or his habit of not always hustling. Kapler characterized clubhouse chemistry as a "huge" factor in choosing players, but while Machado might bring some baggage, he's also one of only 16 players to compile at least 175 homers and 30 WAR by age 26, a big reason the Yankees, Dodgers, and several other teams figure to pursue him.
With Machado at shortstop, the Phillies could move Scott Kingery to his natural second base and trade Cesar Hernandez for pitching or outfield help. Or they could trade third baseman Maikel Franco or infielder J.P. Crawford. They could still use Hoskins at first base and Santana at third when they have a fly-ball pitcher on the mound. But when ace Aaron Nola and fellow ground-ball pitcher Jake Arrieta start, Hoskins could go back to left field and Santana to first base.
Machado also would fit neatly into the No. 2 spot in the batting order. Machado prefers to play shortstop, even though he's a Gold Glove third baseman. But he would still stabilize the middle infield for the worst defensive team in the majors.
If the Phillies sign neither Harper nor Machado
It would rank as a colossal disappointment, no doubt. But there are ways the offseason could still be salvaged.
The Phillies could trade for catcher J.T. Realmuto, a pursuit they figure to explore even while Harper and Machado are on their radar. Jeff Berry, Realmuto's agent, told MLB Network Radio this week that the 27-year-old all-star would rather be traded than sign an extension with the Marlins. The Phillies are bullish on Jorge Alfaro, but they also have the prospects to make a strong offer for Realmuto, a considerable catching upgrade with a .279 career batting average.
Merrifield has piqued the Phillies' interest and offers the versatility that Kapler values so highly. The 29-year-old started at least one game at five positions (first and second base and all three outfield spots) last season, and he is a .293 hitter.
"I think that is the best way to win baseball games," Kapler said of having players with positional flexibility. "If the roster is constructed of guys who can play multiple positions and hit in multiple spots in the lineup, then we're going to be very creative about how we get those guys their reps and how we put them in the best positions to succeed."
In free agency, Marwin Gonzalez is similarly versatile, starting at five positions for the Astros last season. The Phillies also could aim for oft-injured outfielders A.J. Pollock and Michael Brantley or third baseman Josh Donaldson. Or they could decide to load up on pitching by making a big offer to lefty Patrick Corbin.
And there's always next winter's free-agent class, which could include Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rendon, and Xander Bogaerts.