By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor
If the Philadelphia Phillies took their current lineup into the regular season, they, in theory, could be a competitive team. If they took their current starting rotation to the regular season, they could compete for the No. 1 pick. General manager Matt Klentak should begin work to change that at this week's general manager's meetings.
After Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, there's very little certainty in the Phillies rotation. Frankly, it still may be early to have complete certainty in Nola, and Eickhoff is coming off of a disappointing 2017 season. Vince Velasquez and Ben Lively are among the team's other rotation options in 2018, though of the other options, none of them are sure things.
The Phillies have money to spend, and managing partner John Middleton is motivated to do so. However, president Andy MacPhail told reporters last month that ownership had to be convinced that it was best for the team's long-term future *not* to drastically increase the team's payroll for 2018. Though there's a case to be made that some secondary free-agents like Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb could make sense for Klentak to pursue, the offseason's two top free-agent starters – Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish – don't make sense for the Phillies at this juncture.
There is, as Corey Seidman of NBC Sports Philadelphia said, a way to meet in the middle – by utilizing the trade market.
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Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reported in July that while the Phillies were going to sell at the non-waiver trade deadline, they had 'poked around' on controllable starting pitching. Though it's entirely possible that the team may have checked in on Sonny Gray, who was eventually traded to the New York Yankees, Klentak and company probably weren't making inquiries with the expectation that they would land a top-tier starting pitcher in July of 2017. They, instead, were probably trying to lay the groundwork for a trade this offseason.
For the next four days the league's general managers will convene in Orlando, Fla. for the annual general manager's meetings. These meetings aren't as sexy as the MLB Winter Meetings, which take place in Orlando from December 14-17, but they are often where trade inquires begin to turn into substanative trade talks.
The Phillies should be especially focused on trying to ignite talks for a controllable starter to pair with Nola at the top of their rotation.
As I wrote last month, the team should absolutely call the Toronto Blue Jays about 26-year-old Marcus Stroman, with the understanding that the Blue Jays may be headed for a rebuild. Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays had much better 2017 season, according to his peripherals, than his 4.07 ERA may have led you to believe. The 29-year-old has thrown over 200 innings in three consecutive seasons and is under team control through 2021. Pittsburgh Pirates RHP Gerrit Cole, who is still just 27, is another intriguing possibility. Two other controllable starters that would significantly upgrade the team's rotation are Luis Castillo of the Cincinnati Reds and Michael Fulmer of the Detroit Tigers, though it feels unlikely that either of the 24-year-olds will be moved.
None of the aforementioned starters will be cheap to acquire, but the Phillies have a ton of young pitching talent in their farm system. Franklyn Kilome, Adonis Medina, Ranger Suarez and JoJo Romero are among the pitching prospects that the Phillies could use in a deal to land a top pitcher. Sixto Sanchez, who is one of the 25 best prospects in the sport, feels extremely unlikely to be moved in any trade. The hope of acquiring a top starter would be that at the end of the decade, you would have said top starter, Nola and Sanchez at the top of your rotation. Being unwilling to include Sanchez in a trade could be a deal-breaker in some cases – especially for Castillo, Fulmer and Stroman – but the other quartet of pitching prospects is still very appealing.
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Additionally, the team has potentially expendable major league talent to add into the deal.
Cesar Hernandez has been the team's most consistent offensive player over the past two seasons, but it's evident that Scott Kingery will be the team's long-term second baseman. However, Hernandez is only 27, fields well and has untapped potential as a base-stealer. He obviously wouldn't headline a deal, but he has trade value, especially for a team that isn't looking to completely tear down their major league roster.
The Phillies have also spent three consecutive first-round draft picks on outfielders and will have plenty of money to spend next offseason, when a slew of top-tier outfielders will be free-agents. Even after a down-year, 2016 No. 1 overall pick Mickey Moniak doesn't seem likely to be part of a trade, and the same can be said for 2017 first-round pick Adam Haseley. However, prospects Cornelius Randolph and Jhailyn Ortiz could be of interest in a trade. Due to the team's strong organizational outfield depth, none of Nick Williams, Odubel Herrera or Aaron Altherr should be off limits either.
Klentak's front-office, of course, shouldn't put themselves in a box. While there should be a conscious effort made to ignite trade talks on a front-end starter at the general manager meetings, the same should be done with some secondary options. Reds RHP Anthony DeSclafani, Milwaukee Brewers RHP Chase Anderson and Oakland Athletics RHP Kendall Graveman are some other options that would improve the Phillies rotation, but at a much lower cost than some of the aformentioned options.
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Still, if the Phillies want to lure a top free-agent like Manny Machado or Bryce Harper next offseason, landing a front-line starter would seem to be pretty important. The amount of money the Phillies will be willing to spend will be nice, but may be cancelled out by other big market teams that have seemingly brighter futures, like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. Having the money to spend and a team that looks ready to compete would make the Phillies more attractive. That makes the idea of trying to land someone like Stroman seem all-the-more important.
Next offseason's free-agent class aside, when the Phillies decided to move on from Pete Mackanin at the end of the 2017 season, they did so because they believed that they were ready to move towards contention. To do that, they need to significantly improve the team's starting pitching for new manager Gabe Kapler.
So no pressure, Phillies. This week may "just" be the general manager's meetings, but it's not an unimportant week by any stretch.