daniel robertson

11 Free Agent Starters The Phillies Could Pursue This Off-Season

Despite an abysmal second-half performance, the Phillies head into this long-awaited off-season with optimism. The team over-performed expectations for much of the season and finished just two games under .500 at 80-82. Collapse aside, the Phillies have already been linked to several big names in the early days of free agency. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Craig Kimbrel are just three super stars rumored to be on the team’s radar.

Bryce Harper in particular is reportedly looking like a strong possibility. The Phillies have buckets of money to spend and offensive upgrades are sure to be top priority. After all, Phillies hitters ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of batting average and even top performers like Rhys Hoskins struggled with consistency. This club undeniably needs one or multiple hitters that can drive in runs. All that aside, I would personally still love to see Matt Klentak go out and get another starting pitcher.

Of course, the argument could be made that the starting pitching situation is fine as is. On the surface, numbers for the rotation look fantastic. Not one of the main five starters made less than 24 starts, Nola put up Cy Young caliber numbers, and Pivetta had one of the highest strikeout rates in the league. The rotation also racked up plenty of quality starts, particularly in the first half.  Andy MacPhail highlighted this during his end of the season presser.

But in that same press conference, MacPhail went on to mention inconsistency. He particularly singled out Zach Eflin and Vince Velaasquez, both of whom got shelled down the stretch. While Eflin showed signs of promise, he really collapsed when it counted and is a contact pitcher. As for Vince, last year went largely how his career has gone to date. Stretches of great production, stretches of misery, and an inability to go deep into games.

I mean don’t get me wrong, the Phillies could easily do worse than Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez. Jerad Eickhoff and Enyel De Los Santos are two additional serviceable rotation options. All that said, serviceable doesn’t win divisions. Vince and Eflin are good depth pieces but help would be welcome. The club has downplayed their interest in rotation upgrades, but here are eleven potential free agent upgrades in case that’s a bluff.

Top Of The Rotation Starters

Patrick Corbin, LHP, Age 29 (30 in July)

Perhaps the most sought-after name on this list, Patrick Corbin had as good a contract year as he could’ve hoped for. The lefty was dominant in 200 innings this past season, finishing with an ERA 3.15 (2.47 FIP), 11.1 K/9 and a WHIP of 1.050. This was by far Corbin’s best season since his breakout campaign in 2013 and the sharpest he’s looked since coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Even though Corbin would be a huge upgrade, he will likely prove too expensive . This is especially true if the team really does intend to sign one of Machado/Harper. Corbin is likely to get at least 5-6 years and north of $100 million. The front office has expressed caution about signing free agent pitchers to this type of contract in the past, and this concern has merit given Corbin’s injury history and lack of overall career consistency.

Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Age 30 (31 in January)

Another top of the line lefty in this year’s free agent class is former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel. A world champion the year prior, Keuchel put up largely solid numbers in 2018 with a 3.74 ERA (3.69 FIP) in 34 starts. Never much of a strikeout guy, Keuchel has thrived by keeping the ball on the ground and is among the league’s best in that department.

Like Corbin, Keuchel will almost certainly be out of the team’s price range. The lefty will likely command 4+ years and close to $20 million per. At his age, a ground ball pitcher at this rate is probably worth staying clear of but he remains a possibility.

Photo by: Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

Solid Veteran Options

Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, Age 31 (32 in March)

Hyun-Jin Ryu has had an interesting career to date. He was excellent in his rookie season back in 2013, posting an ERA of 3.00 in 30 starts. Ryu’s deal with the Dodgers was of course historic as he became the most high profile pitcher to make the jump from the KBO. His success continued in his second season despite nagging injuries. Then, Ryu made only one start between 2015 and 16 due to shoulder and elbow surgeries.

After returning for solid numbers in 2017, Ryu again dealt with injuries last season but pitched very well in the 15 starts he did make. The lefty posted a 1.97 ERA (FIP of 3.00) and a great 9.7 K/9 rate but also got shelled in the post-season.

Given his extensive injury history, Ryu is unlikely to receive a high investment. Also, he has been extended a qualifying offer and is rumored to be considering it. If he does take it, he will be paid $17.9 million in 2019.

It is tough to call Ryu reliable given his durability issues, but he could prove a steal at the right price. If he doesn’t return to the Dodgers, it is entirely plausible that his market could stall. If that happens, he could prove a bargain on say, a two year deal. It is possible given the relative depth of this year’s class.

Nate Eovaldi, RHP, Age 29 (30 in February)

Eovaldi was a name linked to the Phillies at the deadline. Ultimately, the team decided not to pursue a starter so he wound up with the Red Sox. Eovaldi pitched well down the stretch with Boston, ending up with a 3.81 ERA (FIP of 3.60) in 111 innings. But what really raised Eovaldi’s profile was his post-season performance. The righty appeared in six games, two of which he started, and pitched very well. All told, Eovaldi put in 22 post-season innings for an ERA of 1.61 and a WHIP of 0.806. He also picked up two playoff victories.

Nate Eovaldi was good when it counted and would certainly be an upgrade over Eflin or Velasquez. While he isn’t a lefty, Eovaldi could prove intriguing for a team that hopes to just be starting their span of contention. A four-year deal seems likely, so the team’s interest will depend on whether or not they see him as worth the commitment.
J.A. Happ, LHP, Age 36 (37 in October)

J.A. Happ will be 37 come season’s end and that makes me feel old. The former Phillie was once a league average starter but really stepped his game up after a mid-season trade to Pittsburgh in 2015. Happ dominated in his half-season with the Pirates, posting an ERA of just 1.85 with 7 wins in 63.1 innings.

Ever since that immaculate run, J.A. Happ has been excellent. Last season was arguably the most productive of his career. Happ earned his first All-Star nod and once again dominated after being traded to the Yankees at the deadline. With New York, he went 63.2 innings for an ERA of 2.69 and a perfect 7-0. However, he got lit up in his lone post-season start and his FIP with the Yankees was 4.21. This suggests that he may have been over-performing.

But at the end of the day, Happ is a name I will be keeping an eye on. The age factor is certainly a risk; but his experience in Philly coupled with the fact that he’s left-handed could make Happ a worthwhile signing.

Photo by: Paul J. Bereswill

Gio Gonzalez, LHP, Age 33 (34 in September)

The longtime National saw himself traded to Milwaukee at the deadline where he contributed to an NLCS run. He has averaged at least 30 starts for much of his career and has logged multiple seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA. Like the previous two names, Gio pitched well down the stretch and finished with a season ERA of 4.21 (FIP of 4.16) and a WHIP of 1.444. The veteran is also just one season removed from an excellent season that saw him finish with an ERA of 2.96 in 201 innings pitched.

While the production is still above average, Gonzalez has seen his fastball velocity diminish and his K/9 rate fall. That said, Gonzalez might still be an interesting option. Three years is the max he will get but ultimately he will likely get two. The minimal commitment required might force the Phillies to lure Gonzalez back to the NL East.

Charlie Morton, RHP,  Age 35 (today actually)

Charlie Morton’s Phillies tenure ended when he went down with a torn hamstring after just four starts in 2016. Matt Klentak had picked Morton up for a minor-leaguer and hoped he could provide solid innings on a rebuilding team.

As for his Astros tenure? Completely different story. His $14 million, two-year deal proved to be one of the best bargains in baseball. He finished with K/9 rates of 10 and 10.8 and ERA’s of 3.62 and 3.13 in 2017 and 18 respectively. Morton also racked up 29 victories in that span.

Overall, a Morton reunion makes sense for both sides. His age will likely limit him to a two-year deal in the $30 million range. With a World Series win under his belt, Charlie Morton would prove a significant upgrade over Eflin/Vince if he could replicate anything close to his Houston numbers. That is certainly a big if, however. Houston’s rotation put up historically dominant strikeout numbers last year which lead to cheating accusations from Trevor Bauer.

Wild Cards/Depth Options

Aníbal Sánchez, RHP, Age 34 (35 in February)

After a dreadful final three seasons of a lucrative contract with the Tigers, Sanchez bounced back in 2018 after signing a minor league deal with Atlanta. Injuries to other starters kept him in the rotation for much of the season that saw him put up an ERA of 2.83 (3.62 FIP), a K/9 of 8.9 and a WHIP of 1.083.

One of the biggest surprises of 2018, Sánchez could be in line for a two-year deal. His age and lack of production from 2015-17 could make him risky, however. Still though, the veteran from Venezuela would be an upgrade if he could replicate.

Derek Holland, LHP, Age 32 (33 in October)

Injuries plagued Holland with the Rangers, forcing them to decline his option at the end of 2016. He then signed a one year deal with the White Sox where he pitched poorly. After signing a minor league deal with the Giants, injuries forced him into the rotation early and he stayed there for the entire year.

Perhaps surprisingly, Holland was solid in 2018. He worked to a 3.57 ERA (3.87 FIP), a resurgent K/9 of 8.9 and logged 171 innings. Holland finished with his biggest workload since 2013 and turned it into solid production. He will likely be in line for a two-year deal.

While certainly a possibility, the problem with Holland is that last year could easily have been a fluke. San Francisco is a friendly pitching environment and he doesn’t seem like much more than a fourth/fifth starter. The team’s supposed preference for a lefty is what landed him on this list over other options.

Lance Lynn, RHP, Age 31 (32 in May)

After a solid career to date with St. Louis, Lynn was one of the biggest victims of last year’s slow free agent market. Initially thought of as a lock for at least three years, Lynn ultimately had to settle for a one-year deal worth $12 million. He found himself traded to the Yankees at the deadline and finished the year with an ERA of 4.77 (3.84 FIP), the worst ERA mark of his career.

His poor performance coupled with a stronger starting pitching market means that Lynn will likely once again have to settle for less. Two years seems to be the best he could hope for.

Down year aside, there is certainly potential for Lynn. His FIP suggests he was getting unlucky last year and a return to the NL could be exactly what he needs.

Drew Pomeranz, LHP, Age 29 (30 next week)

Pomeranz was traded to Boston midway through 2016 after putting up the best numbers of his career. He was great in 2017, but fell off hard this past season. After starting off 1-3 with a 6.81 ERA through May, Pomeranz again went to the disabled list. By the time he returned, the former top prospect was relegated to the bullpen and was initially left off Boston’s post-season roster.

Pomeranz couldn’t have had such a bad season at a worse time. While the upside is still there, the lefty will likely be looking for a team that can give him innings in order to recoup some of his value. This likely leaves out the Phillies, but his name is worth mentioning.

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