Compared to the offseason of the NFL, NBA, and NHL, baseball feels like a drag. So little action over such a long period of time.
Where patience wanes anticipation grows for Phillies fans. The ebb and flow of the Harper and Machado “sweepstakes” have made this offseason as stressful as any—the ramifications of missing out on both stars cannot be understated.
Yet, the fan base remains optimistic as reports and rumors from ‘industry insiders’ continue to place the Phillies as the favorite for Bryce Harper, firmly in play for Machado, and still willing to spend big on other free agents on top of it.
Here’s how I predict the offseason playing out, and what the Phillies Opening Day lineup might look like:
According to multiple reports, the Phillies remain the favorites to land Bryce Harper.
There was no reason for this to waiver throughout the winter, the Phillies always had the most money to spend and the clearest need to spend.
Matt Klentak was wise to wait out the market. Expectations of a $400 million contract quickly disappeared, with the usual players—New York, Boston, LA, & Chicago—all full of young talent and a few big contracts on the books. While there was the possibility of a small market team backing up the trucks for Harper as a “final piece” it doesn’t look like any of those clubs are out there.
That leaves the Phillies and Scott Boras to continue playing the waiting game, but I think this is where he ultimately ends up. $350 million would make him the highest paid player in MLB history in both total guaranteed money and highest annual salary.
This may seem too rich for some people, but I think Harper’s camp is ready to hold out for that number. Sooner or later the pressure will flip back on Klentak with the fan base’s expectations as high as ever.
The Reds agreed to a trade and contract extension with Sonny Gray, who the Yankees were happy to get rid of. While both of those clubs and Gray stand to benefit from the deal, one clear cut loser is Dallas Kuechel.
While the market for Kuechel was already underwhelming, the addition of Gray assures that the Reds—one of Kuechel’s top suitors—are no longer in the market for a starting pitcher.
Outside of the Phillies and a return to Houston, there aren’t any clear cut destinations for him (although that could change).
Kuechel has been up front about his demands for a five-year contract, and so far every team, including the Phillies, have balked at that request. Kuechel turned down a 5-year $90 million extension in 2016, and that appears to have been a mistake that is guiding his high contract expectations.
Unless a team comes into the fray and is willing to commit five years into Kuechel I think this becomes a bidding war between Houston and Philly. Any tie goes to Houston, for obvious reasons, but the Phillies can comfortably offer more money than the Astros and I think that’ll be the difference—$16 million annually is probably too rich for an organization that only offered $18 million annually in 2016 when his value was considerably higher.
It’s possible that Kuechel also gets some sort of opt out clause, though it’s unlikely. If the Phillies and the rest of the league are unwilling to meet Kuechel’s desire for long term stability, then offering him the flexibility to re-test the market if he outperforms his contract would be a fair compromise for both sides.
Given the lack of obvious bidders for Kuechel the Phillies may not need to give up ground in negotiations, but if another team makes a hard run at the lefty then offering a few sweeteners would be the only way to sign him without committing to his desired fifth year—a year in which he would turn 35 years old.
I’m less confident in this move than the previous two, and I think that signing Harper is a precursor to a Kimbrel deal—he’s only going to join a team that he believes can compete at a high level. The popular thinking is that adding Harper would convince him of that for the Phillies.
Kimbrel has long been on fans’ wish lists, and recent reports from Bob Nightengale have been the first real link between the closer and the Phillies.
Overall, there hasn’t been a lot of chatter around Kimbrel other than that he wants a 6-year $100 million contract—something that appears unlikely to happen. The Red Sox continue be in play to re-sign him, and there’s a possibility for a reunion in Atlanta, but outside of that the market appears bare.
Similar to Kuechel, Kimbrel is searching for long term stability that he won’t get. The Phillies could be willing to overpay on a shorter contract (3 year/$60 mil.) or simply match his already high demands. It’s also possible that they chose to frontload his contract (the first $40 million over the first two years & the second $40 million over the final three) to make his contract more affordable as he moves into his mid-30’s.
If there’s a closer who deserves a pay day like this one it’s probably Kimbrel, the question is how much he prioritizes a longer deal and more guaranteed money over short term salary.
Adding Kimbrel on top of David Robertson to an already talented stable of arms would give the team the high-powered bullpen that most contenders covet. Kapler loves to get creative with his pen, and it’s clear that he needed more arms than what he had last season.
These three moves total roughly $67 million of additional salary on the books, leaving the Phillies with a cap number around $182 million.
This would leave the team with a loaded pitching staff and lineup led by a player who figures to be a perennial MVP candidate. With a promising farm system and some financial breathing room to spare, the front office would still have the ammo to add any ‘final pieces’ to the lineup at the trade deadline.
While the team may feel like the favorites for each of these players, that could change fast. But if Klentak and Kapler are able to make this a reality then the Phillies would be World Series contenders, make no mistake about it.
What Kapler would do with his lineup is anyone’s guess. He doesn’t follow traditional roles for his batting order, rather, he lets the numbers set his lineup each and every night. Here’s my guess:
Projected Batting Order:
Hernandez has filled the leadoff spot well for the better part of two seasons and he remains the team’s best option there. Kapler has stated in the past that his best hitters will be in the two and four-spots in the lineup, and with Harpers elite power and ability to get on base he makes more sense batting second than Hoskins, who figures to be in the cleanup spot.
I could see both of McCutchen and Herrera in the three spot, but for the sake of separating the lefties I think McCutchen makes more sense, with Herrera & Segura following Hoskins in some order.
Alfaro and Franco—assuming he isn’t traded—will likely bat 7 & 8.
Projected Starting Pitching Staff:
The starting pitching staff was one of the best in baseball last season, and the addition of Kuechel to go along with any step forward from Pivetta, Velasquez, or Eflin will allow this to be one of the best staffs once again.
Nola is a Cy Young candidate, Arietta and Kuechel are legit #2 starters according to every metric available, and Pivetta’s ability to miss bats without having control issues is why he’s being portrayed as a potential breakout candidate. This would be the best rotation the team has had since Halladay, Hamels, Lee, and Oswalt.
The bullpen’s inconsistency in 2018 can be chalked up to youth rather than a lack of talent. The Phillies have plenty of young arms with above average stuff, but they lack the experience that characterizes most high-end bullpens. Insert David Robertson and Craig Kimbrel and that problem is solved.
Kimbrel would become the team’s first bona fide closer since Ken Giles, although it’s unclear if Kapler would deploy him in such a traditional role. Instead, the troika of Seranthony Dominguez, Kimbrel, and Robertson will likely split the duties of fireman and closer.
While the team wasn’t necessarily low on arms heading into the offseason, Gabe Kapler’s heavy bullpen usage constitutes more arms than most managers would need. He’s not afraid to use his bullpen early in games, and he isn’t afraid to use someone for a single batter. This led to a season long feeling of over-usage in the pen despite having the requisite arms.
Kapler isn’t ignorant to the stress that his tactics add to the bullpen, and for that reason the team added Robertson and will likely pursue Kimbrel as well. Even without Kimbrel this would be a top-10 bullpen in baseball, and adding him could carry it over the top.