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Phillies winter meetings takeaways: Working within a budget, Spencer Howard’s limits, and eyeing Kris Bryant

Given their intentions (for now) to stay beneath the luxury-tax threshold, the Phillies' heaviest offseason lifting appears to be over. But there are plenty of issues that still bear watching.

Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant is close friends with Phillies star Bryce Harper and could be traded before the offseason is over.
Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant is close friends with Phillies star Bryce Harper and could be traded before the offseason is over.Read moreJohn J. Kim / MCT

SAN DIEGO -- For four days this week, Phillies officials gathered in a sixth-floor hotel suite overlooking the marina district here and charted a course for the 2020 season.

The overarching topic: How to improve the roster while staying within a self-imposed budget?

It’s the second week of December. Opening day is still 3 1/2 months away. Managing partner John Middleton need not decide now whether to push the Phillies’ payroll beyond the luxury-tax threshold for the first time in franchise history. He can defer until the trade deadline in July, when he should have a clearer picture of the club’s chances to win a division title. Nothing is absolute.

For now, though, the Phillies intend to stay below the $208 million bar. And once this week’s agreement with free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius is finalized, they will be roughly $6 million short of that mark. Barring a surprise intervention from Middleton, then, the Phillies’ heaviest offseason lifting is finished.

But there were still a few conclusions to be drawn Thursday, as the winter meetings drew to a close. A few things we learned:

This time, the Phillies didn’t tango with Scott Boras

The star of these meetings? Boras, of course. On back-to-back-to-back days, he negotiated contracts for Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, and Anthony Rendon that totaled $814 million.

That's a lot of moolah -- and none came from the bank of Middleton.

After getting Middleton to spend big on Jake Arrieta and Bryce Harper the last two years, Boras said he sensed there was “no stop sign.” The Phillies met previously with Boras about his top clients but ultimately passed to help guarantee future payroll flexibility.

“There are going to be some years where we’re making some more high-profile acquisitions through free agency, but the hope is that we’re not doing that every year,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “To do that, you’re somewhat by definition paying full retail. It’s important that we maintain balance to our payroll, have money rolling off every year, so that we have the opportunity to add every offseason.”

Unlocking Zack Wheeler’s full abilities might require altering his pitch mix.

Two years ago, the Astros encouraged Cole to throw more fastballs at the top of the strike zone, lean on his curveball, and ditch his sinker. The strategy turned him from an All-Star into the game's highest-paid pitcher, if not the best one.

In handing out a five-year, $118 million to Wheeler, the Phillies believe he might benefit from similar changes.

"We have looked into a lot of that," Klentak said. "I think there's a lot of upside in his stuff and the way he does it and still think there's a possibility that he has another gear in him."

Wheeler’s breakout 2018 season came when the Mets convinced him to unleash the full power of his high-90s fastball, rather than pacing himself. Now, there’s a sense that he might benefit from using his curveball more than 10%, which he did over the last two years.

After getting burned by free-agent relievers, the Phillies are taking a scattershot approach to bullpen-building.

For a total of $27 million, David Robertson, Tommy Hunter, and Pat Neshek combined to work 30 innings and post a 4.20 ERA last season.

Not exactly great value.

So, while the rival Braves fished in the free-agent pond for relievers Will Smith and Chris Martin, the Phillies are hoping to derive quality from quantity. It’s one of the reasons they took fliers on Robert Stock, Trevor Kelley, and Cristopher Sanchez, and protected JoJo Romero, Mauricio Llovera, and Garrett Cleavinger from exposure to the Rule 5 draft.

Other under-the-radar additions are sure to follow, as well as crossed fingers for returns to health from Seranthony Dominguez, Adam Morgan, and Victor Arano.

"There is some risk there," Klentak said. "We've made choices before to prioritize bullpen or offense and been criticized for not prioritizing the rotation. We're always faced with the realities of making choices."

There may be limits to Spencer Howard’s impact next season.

The Phillies fully expect their top prospect to make his big-league debut in 2020, but they are also mindful that he threw 92 1/3 innings last season, including his stint in the Arizona Fall League.

It follows, then, that Howard’s workload will need to be watched.

“There are a few different routes we can go to make sure he’s in a position late in the season to be available,” Klentak said, spitballing ideas such as an early-season innings limit or a temporary move to the bullpen. “I’m not saying we’re going to do any one of those things. But that type of discussion, in collaboration with the player, is something we will do as we approach spring training.”

It would be helpful to add rotation depth, as the Mets did this week by signing Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello to one-year contracts. But the Phillies are constrained in such offseason pursuits by their avoidance of the luxury tax.

Kris Bryant trade rumors won’t fade.

Now that Rendon is an Angel, Josh Donaldson will soon sign with the Nationals ... or the Braves ... or the Rangers. Regardless, there’s about to be a loser in the game of musical third basemen.

That's where Bryant comes in.

The Cubs want to clear payroll space and appear unlikely to agree on an extension with the 2016 NL MVP. They surely will want a haul of prospects and big leaguers, and a ruling on whether Bryant is eligible for free agency after 2020 or the following year isn’t expected for weeks.

The Phillies have run from trade talks involving third-base prospect Alec Bohm. Getting Bryant also would push them into luxury-tax territory. But Middleton loves superstars, and Bryant is pals with Harper. So, until he’s dealt to another third base-needy team, Phillies fans might as well stay tuned.