It feels as if the last four years have built up to Monday morning, when the Phillies’ front office will awaken in Las Vegas with a huge bankroll and a seat at the high-stakes poker table. The winter meetings will begin Monday in Vegas, and the Phillies will begin their full-court press to land Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. There will be more moves to make during the four days out west, but the main focus will be on how Matt Klentak plays his hand.
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Madison Bumgarner has some fastball concerns
A night before Patrick Corbin signed with a division rival, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said the team was open to adding a starting pitcher “particularly in the form of a left-hander.” So as the left-handed Corbin moved to the Nationals, the Phillies’ quest for a lefty continued.
J.A. Happ and Dallas Keuchel are free agents. Yusei Kikuchi was posted this week in Japan. Robbie Ray is available as the Diamondbacks continue to unload players. The Phillies have options to balance their rotation. But none of those options has the name recognition of Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco left-hander who was connected to the Phillies this week in a report by MLB.com.
Bumgarner was once a World Series hero and one of baseball’s elite pitchers. He is 29 and has just one year left on his contract. But the price, perhaps a pitching prospect such as Adonis Medina, could still be high. And Bumgarner brings some concern.
Bumgarner recorded the worst whiff percentage of his career last season as he threw his four-seam fastball 15 percent less often than he did in 2016, his last truly dominant season. The pitch’s velocity, 91.47 mph, is similar enough to 2016, but it lacked both the vertical and horizontal movement of seasons prior. His fastball lacked life and batters teed off, batting 60 points higher against it compared to 2016 and slugging 130 points higher.
As last season progressed, Bumgarner relied more on his signature cutter and his curveball, which he threw more than ever before. He finished the season with a 3.26 ERA in 21 starts, which was better than any Phillies starter not named Aaron Nola. But his strikeout rate per nine innings dropped from 10.0 in 2016 to 7.6 last season and his walk rate nearly doubled from 2017 to 2018.
Bumgarner is a different pitcher from the one who four years ago valiantly came out of the bullpen to pitch the final five innings of Game 7 of the World Series. He has since missed significant time with injures. A dirt-bike accident cost him three months in 2017. A fractured pinky delayed last season by three months. Perhaps Bumgarner is still working his way back. And the Phillies will have to decide this winter if the asking price is low enough to find out if Bumgarner can still be an elite pitcher. They also know there is some concern.
Before missing out on Patrick Corbin, the Phillies began the week by trading for Seattle shortstop Jean Segura. Bob Brookover wrote that the trade, which sent J.P. Crawford and Carlos Santana to the Mariners, “creates a clearer focus about where Klentak and the Phillies will go from here.”
And not all was lost after Corbin signed with the Nationals. Scott Lauber wrote that perhaps the money saved by not signing Corbin to a megadeal can now be used to overspend on Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. “They need a game-changing hitter, and Machado and Harper happen to be among the elite players in the sport.”
No matter what happens between now and opening day, the Nationals will be the team to beat in 2019, Brooky writes. Corbin joins a Nationals rotation headed by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. “Now the Nationals have a formidable rotation and enough young talent to scare the rest of the division.”
Monday: Winter meetings begin in Las Vegas.
Thursday: The Rule 5 draft ends the winter meetings, noon.
Feb. 22: The Phillies play their first spring training game, 1:05 p.m.
March 28: The Phillies open the 2019 season, 3:05 p.m.
If the Phillies sign J.A. Happ, much will be made about his age. The lefthander turned 36 in October, and the Phillies will have to hope he’s better than their previous aging free agents. In the last 30 years, the Phillies have signed just three starting pitchers in the offseason who are as old as Happ. Those three — Jon Lieber, A.J. Burnett, and Aaron Harang — combined for a 4.77 ERA in 104 forgettable starts. Harang started 29 games for the 2015 Phillies. How many do you remember?
Question: The Phillies have the owner, the money, and the desire to make a Big Move this “Hot Stove” Season, to fill the holes and make the upgrades needed to win. Where do you start? Is the first priority pitching, or improvement in offense, and defense ? – Fred S, email
Answer: Fred’s question came before the Phillies landed Jean Segura, so it’s easy to say the Phillies started by acquiring a hitter — emphasis on hitter as Segura had the sixth-most hits last season in the American League. But the priorities entering the offseason were this: Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, followed by a starting pitcher, upgrading the infield, and some bullpen help.
It’s hard to take care of your priorities in order, as the Phillies couldn’t afford to wait for Harper or Machado to sign before taking care of the rest. But as the Phillies prepare for the winter meetings, I see them focusing on trying to land one of those superstars while also looking for a lefthanded starter and a premier relief pitcher. It should be a busy week in Vegas.