The Philadelphia Phillies have missed the playoffs in each of the last eight seasons and have been rigorously spending in an attempt to get back on the map. They’ve continued that mentality this offseason, but their premier transactions do little to improve their 2020 outlook.
The Phillies’ two big moves this offseason are signing former New York Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million deal and former New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14 million deal.
Wheeler and Gregorius are proven commodities with the upside to perform at a higher level with the Phillies than they did with their respective teams in 2019.
There have been two versions of Wheeler over the last two seasons. From opening day to the midway point of the regular season, he has struggled with his command, surrendered a lot of baserunners, and pitched to a high ERA. On the other hand, he has pitched at an All-Star caliber level in the second half of both seasons.
Wheeler posted a 4.85 ERA across his first 14 starts and a 2.26 ERA across his ensuing 16 starts in 2018. Last season he posted a 4.94 ERA across his first 15 starts and a 3.04 ERA across his ensuing 16 starts.
At his best, Wheeler has control of a high 90s fastball and gets considerable movement on his off-speed pitches. When he’s rolling, he pitches deep into games and overpowers opposing lineups. Now under financial security — and highly unlikely to be traded in the near future — he doesn’t have to dread the future.
A $118 million deal for a pitcher with Wheeler’s inconsistency and injury history (Wheeler didn’t make an appearance at the big-league level from 2015-16 and made just 17 starts in 2017 due to injury) is an enormous risk. The Phillies are paying for what they project him to become, not what he has been. With that said, Wheeler needs a coaching staff that can fine-tune and improve his pitching repertoire. Are the Phillies the right team for the task?
The talent and offerings are there with Wheeler; he can be great. Based on their struggles to groom young pitchers such as Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Zach Eflin, there’s reason to doubt the Phillies’ ability to take Wheeler’s game to the next level. While most, if not every team looks deep into the analytics for decision-making and coaching, the Phillies don’t come off as a team that’s savvy with the numbers and adept at turning around players.
Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee were acquired by the Phillies when they were already ace-caliber pitchers; Cole Hamels pitched for the Phillies before the analytical revolution; Jake Arrieta, who signed a three-year, $75 million deal with the Phillies two years ago, has taken a step back in production in Philadelphia.
Signing Wheeler to a $118 million reeks of desperation and may have been the Phillies creating a security blanket in the scenario they didn’t ink an elite pitcher such as Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg.
Concerning Gregorius, his contract is fair. It’s a hefty one-year, prove-it deal after he missed the first half of 2019 due to an elbow injury.
Health prevailing, Gregorius is one of the best shortstops in baseball. He’s a vacuum at his position, fields groundballs in the hole with ease, ropes line drives, and is a power hitter who can produce in any part of a lineup.
At the same time, Gregorius’ presence is forcing new manager Joe Girardi to alter his infield. Jean Segura, a primary shortstop, is likely moving to second base, and Scott Kingery, who has mostly played shortstop, is likely moving to third base.
A bit of a puzzling decision by Philadelphia brain trust was non-tendering second baseman Cesar Hernandez. Last season he was one of the steady forces in a rollercoaster season. Hernandez appeared in 161 games, hit .279, and totaled a career-best 71 RBIs. While it wasn’t shocking, they also non-tendered Maikel Franco, who had been a fixture at the hot corner for the better part of the previous four seasons.
The Phillies are essentially swapping Hernandez and Franco for Gregorius. How much of an upgrade is that, if any?
In terms of the core pieces in place, the Phillies are an extremely talented ballclub. They have a handful of power hitters and some of the preeminent players at their respective positions such as Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Rhys Hoskins, as well as savvy veterans like Segura and Andrew McCutchen. Although he had a bit of a discouraging season, right-hander Aaron Nola is still one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball.
On the other hand, outside of Nola, their starting rotation was sluggish last season, their bullpen was shaky in crunch time, and their high-profile offense underwhelmed, from a production standpoint.
Last season the Phillies spent $403 million on Harper (who cost $330 million), McCutchen, and David Robertson. They also acquired Realmuto, which costed a handful of highly regarded young players and prospects, and Segura. It manufactured an 81-81 record, one win better than their 2018 total and good for fourth place in the National League East.
The biggest obstacle in their way, however, isn’t themselves: it’s the teams they have to overcome in their division.
The Washington Nationals are the defending World Series champions. Although Anthony Rendon‘s departure is devastating, the Nationals did a crafty job re-assorting their infield, re-signing Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera and bringing Eric Thames and Starlin Castro into the fold. They also beefed up their bullpen, re-signing Daniel Hudson and adding Will Harris to complement the best starting rotation in baseball in Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez.
They’ve been bounced out of the playoffs in the first round in back-to-back seasons and lost Josh Donaldson to free agency, but the Atlanta Braves are still a potent force. They have a relentless offseason, spearheaded by Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., and Ozzie Albies and budding starting pitchers such as Mike Soroka and Mike Foltynewicz. This offseason Atlanta bolstered its bullpen, re-signing Darren O’Day and Chris Martin while adding Will Smith.
The Mets had a chaotic 2019 season, but it still accumulated 86 wins. They have one of the best starting rotations in baseball headlined by Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Marcus Stroman, as well as relievers capable of bounce-back seasons such as Edwin Diaz and free agent signee Dellin Betances. The Mets are also loaded around the diamond with Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Amed Rosario, Michael Conforto, and Robinson Cano, among others.
If they were in a different division, perhaps the Phillies are a playoff dark horse. But in the NL East, they’re a competitive team that will hover around .500 and are, at best, the third-best team in their division; they’ve marginally improved their ballclub this offseason.
They like to spend “stupid money,” but that coin isn’t going to produce the desired results.