Quick musings on roster strategy and speculation, draft history and the expectations game
First things first. I’m not here to speculate about whether the Jake Arrieta signing means the Phils bought low on a true ace, blew $75 mil for a gruesome and up-close look at a star’s decline phase, or paid stopper dollars for mid-rotation performance. I’m only a little here to ponder What It All Means in the context of the competitive life cycle, Eagles free agency, high tensions on the Korean peninsula or anything else.
But the Phillies’ biggest free agent addition since (squints)… Clifton Phifer Lee, in the misty days of #MysteryTeam, is worth some thought. So:
1) “Grow the Arms, Buy the Bats” is less of a rule than a guideline… if that. This is team president Andy MacPhail’s mantra, though you wouldn’t know it from a winter in which the club just spent $110 million on three veteran pitchers (and $60m on Carlos Santana, on the hitting side). Granted, this was a unique situation: other than the era of collusion more than 30 years ago, there’s probably never been a year when as many big-name free agent vets found such a cold market for so long. Adding that the MacPhail/Klentak regime has also spent two straight top-10 draft picks on bat-first outfielders, there’s a decent body of evidence that this is not a particularly powerful guiding approach. Let’s just hope they still buy it enough to hold onto Sixto Sanchez come hell or high water.
2) The Phillies will be loaded for the trade deadline. Beyond the ability to absorb pretty much any salary without cap concerns, the Phils have ridiculous inventory of the coveted “near major-league ready” type. They have four starting quality outfielders on the active roster, plus Roman Quinn and (for any remaining tools-besotted GMs out there) Dylan Cozens; two potential top-15 cost-controlled second basemen with Cesar Hernandez and Scott Kingery; and, with Arrieta meaning four of five rotation slots are locked down, a half-dozen or so excess plausible major league starters who could be nice supplemental pieces if the team sees fit to go get A Guy.
3) Even a league-average Arrieta makes it less likely or necessary that the team will carry eight relief pitchers. When you’re rolling with Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and three guys who aren’t great bets to give you six innings per start, the idea of eight relievers makes a certain ugly sense: you’ll definitely need a long man, and you might want to play matchups when you’re down (or up) 4-3 in the fourth inning but the starter is already on fumes. Arrieta went six or more in 19 of his 30 starts in 2017, so that should ease some pressure. Especially given some encouragingly viable options at the end of the bench, five positional reserves could be the way to go. If Arrieta starts in extended ST and the team goes without a fifth starter for awhile, Gabe Kapler can have both the full bench and the jumbo ‘pen, putting off the decision.
4) The lost draft pick is not worth mourning. The Phillies cede their third-round pick, 79th overall, to sign Arrieta, having already lost their second-rounder to bring Santana in. To be fair, there have been some solid players selected at #79, especially if infielders are your thing: from 2007 through 2009, Zack Cozart, Jordy Mercer and DJ LeMahieu were plucked, respectively. But they’re three of just four players ever selected there to put up more than six WAR in their career. (The fourth, John Olerud, had 58 WAR, far more than the other 52 selectees at #79 combined.) The loss of $500k from the team’s international bonus pool is a bit more of a bummer, but that doesn’t seem an unreasonable price for taking yourself seriously as a postseason aspirant.
5) Expectations are now appropriately calibrated. The pecking order in the National League is pretty clear: the Cubs/Dodgers/Nationals troika at the top, then about six to eight teams with reasonable hopes in the middle, a few long-shot hopefuls, and then the Marlins. The Phils were in the second tier on Saturday, and they remain there on Tuesday—but with a second premium arm in the rotation, the path to contention is considerably clearer. I wonder if this was part of the point: to see how players like Rhys Hoskins, Vince Velasquez, Hector Neris and J.P. Crawford respond to somewhat higher expectations. These young Phillies are going to have more attention on them and be playing for higher stakes than they’ve seen before. Likewise for the manager. It’s not unbearable pressure, but the ratchet now has been turned, and the decision-makers will get a deeper understanding of players who have shown great promise in low-stakes action.