CLEARWATER, Fla. — Even the teams with the highest payrolls tend to do their share of bargain shopping during the offseason, and the Phillies are not any different.
Once they decided that they would not exceed the $208 million luxury tax threshold, the Phillies turned their attention to an assortment of players who have come to camp as nonroster invitees on minor-league contracts. That’s how they got to the remarkable number of 71 players in manager Joe Girardi’s spring training.
We cannot offer any assurances that we will get to each and every one, but there are some intriguing players here who could enhance the team if they somehow recapture the form they have shown in the past. Two of the best examples are pitchers Bud Norris and Francisco Liriano, a couple of well-traveled veterans who were once quality starters before extending their careers by moving to the bullpen.
“These are guys we feel have an opportunity to help the bullpen,” Girardi said. “Obviously they have to go out and perform in spring training and they are going to get a long look and a good look because of their past and because of their pedigree.”
Norris, who turns 35 on March 2, is thrilled to be back in a big-league clubhouse after spending last summer on some elaborate newlywed vacations with his wife, Hayley.
“I traveled a bunch,” Norris said. “I did Hawaii a couple of times and then we did Maldives, Dubai, and Oman. It was a beautiful trip.”
Perhaps, but it wasn’t baseball, and Norris never stopped thinking about the game he loves after being released by Toronto in early April and sitting out an entire season for the first time since Houston selected him in the sixth round of the 2006 draft.
“The first couple months I felt like I was being punished when I was in school,” Norris said. “I didn’t want to be in that situation. I wanted to be out there with my peers and friends.”
Norris is just two seasons removed from posting a 3.59 ERA and converting 28 of 33 save opportunities with St. Louis in 2018. He averaged a career-high 94.6 mph on his fastball that season and probably thought he was in a good position to enter free agency after the season.
Instead, he had to wait until March 1 to sign a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays and upon arrival in Dunedin, Fla. things did not go well for Norris.
“Obviously getting signed late was difficult,” he said. “I showed up on March 8 and hurt my elbow in one of my outings and I tried to keep that close to the vest and that ended up backfiring on me.”
He was concerned his career might be over, but time off and time overseas motivated him to return this season.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for me in Toronto, but I needed to go home and get healthy and that’s what I made a priority," Norris said.
"I was in contact with the Phillies in December and then they came and saw me throw in January. We talked some things through and it made sense to sign here. This is a competitive place to play and I know they’re in a win-now mode and that’s what I’m all about. I’m chasing a dream because I don’t have a World Series ring and that means everything to me.”
Liriano, 36, said he also chose to sign a minor-league deal with the Phillies because he thinks this is a team with a chance to win and “that’s all you want when you’ve been in the league for a while.”
This will be Liriano’s 15th big-league season, but only the second time he has shown up at a camp as a reliever. The first time was a year ago with the Pirates. In his second tour of duty with Pittsburgh and after three straight difficult seasons as a starter, Liriano posted a 3.47 ERA in 69 relief appearances. He allowed just 60 hits and struck out 63.
“Oh, it’s way different,” Liriano said when asked about the transition from starter to reliever. “You have to be ready every game and every day and it was especially hard for me because I didn’t really have a role. I was pitching in any inning and any situation.”
He did so effectively.
“The first couple of months were hard, especially when I was pitching back-to-back games,” Liriano said. “After the first two months I got used to it and I found a way to get ready.”
Despite his good work, the rebuilding Pirates declined to re-sign Liriano for the 2020 season. He understood and he also refused to be upset about not getting signed to a big-league contract.
“It’s a business,” he said. “This is my seventh team, so it is what it is. That’s part of the game. I have great memories and I had good times in Pittsburgh, so I’m not disappointed at all.
"Baseball has changed so much over the last couple of years. I had almost the same deal last year that I have this year, so now I just have to do everything I can to make the team.”