LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time the Phillies signed a free-agent starting pitcher to a multiyear contract, they formed the Four Aces. Ruben Amaro Jr. was the general manager. Matt Klentak was a low-level baseball operations assistant in Baltimore. Cliff Lee was $120 million richer.
That was December 2010. The Phillies later locked up Cole Hamels to a six-year deal in 2012 before he reached free agency. They signed relievers Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams to multiyear deals after Lee's. Pat Neshek, who agreed this week to a two-year deal with the Phillies, has the first multiyear contract the club has awarded to a pitcher since the one to Adams before the 2013 season.
Klentak and his boss, team president Andy MacPhail, are reluctant to sign pitchers to long-term deals. They have restated that opinion at this week's winter meetings. The Phillies will not pursue a big-name veteran starter through free agency, at least not yet. Will they ever?
"I would suspect that, at some point, there will come a time," Klentak said.
The Phillies have operated this offseason on the principle that there is not one move — or two or three moves — that can morph them into contenders for the 2018 season. The circumstances should be different next winter when, coincidentally, a touted free-agent class will be available.
This offseason, they appear willing to add maybe one or two innings-eaters to the current group of young starters, whether it be through a trade or a one-year contract. A source said the Phillies were interested in righthander Tyler Chatwood and made a multiyear offer before he signed a three-year, $38 million contract with the Chicago Cubs last week. They will not spend on a Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. They question whether Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn represent enough of an upgrade to commit four or five years.
The free-agent rotation options next winter will be a little better but not overwhelming. They could include Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, Patrick Corbin, Gio Gonzalez, Drew Pomeranz and Garrett Richards. Ultimately, the Phillies could look to acquire a front-line starter through a trade.
"I understand the narrative about us adding starting pitching," Klentak said. "I do think we will make some effort this offseason to add to our starting-pitching group. But I just think we need to be conscious of what the realities of the starting pitching market are in free agency and not fall into the trap of, 'We have to do something in free agency.' I do believe we have to improve our run prevention. That is true. That is fair. But there are multiple ways to do that. It doesn't only have to be a free-agent starting pitcher."
Thus, the Neshek deal and the team's interest in another veteran reliever or two. The Phillies favor a 13-man pitching staff for 2018, which would provide an extra arm in the bullpen that could cover a compromised rotation. The Phillies received 890 1/3 innings from their starters in 2017. That ranked 14th in baseball. But it was the fewest innings pitched by a Phillies rotation during a non-strike season in the franchise's history.
The idea, Klentak said, is to protect the young starters with a better and deeper bullpen. The Phillies could follow a model espoused by the Los Angeles Dodgers — who just so happened to employ Phillies manager Gabe Kapler for the last three seasons — that would limit a starter's exposure to an opposing lineup for a third time.
Phillies starters last season faced a batter for a third plate appearance in a game 956 times. That was the 10th-highest figure in baseball. The opponents' OPS against the Phillies starters' first, second and third times through the order was .780, .785 and .872. The .872 OPS was the fourth worst in baseball.
More and more teams view five-inning starters as a reality of the current game. Count the Phillies as one.
"If we can run out a bullpen of seven or eight guys that are all high-leverage-type arms, then we can start matching up in the fifth or sixth inning," Klentak said. "If there are days when our young starters throw 100 pitches to get us through five or six innings, we shouldn't be in a position where that's taxing our bullpen because we have the ability to carry an eighth bullpen member next year."
A tighter leash on some of the younger pitchers not named Aaron Nola could improve the rotation's overall performance while sacrificing innings. That, for now, is a trade they would make.