With the 2019 Winter Meetings officially in the books, the two marquee free agent starters on the market have already agreed to new contracts. Gerrit Cole signed a record setting nine-year, $324MM contract that will pay him late into his 30’s. Cole’s payday smashed what was, briefly, another record setting contract signed by Stephen Straburg only a week before. Strasburg opted to stay with the Nationals for a whopping $245MM over seven years. In addition to Strasburg and Cole coming off the board, Anthony Rendon signed with the Angels for $245MM over seven years.
This flurry of activity is a stark contrast to the end of last year’s winter meetings; a time when both Machado and Harper remained unsigned.
As for the Phillies, they of course made the aggressive move to land Zack Wheeler for five years, $118MM. Wheeler was seen as the best available starter behind the two mega free agents so his addition has largely been well received. Though not always consistent, Wheeler has had stretches of high quality MLB pitching and is someone who is trending up. The team also added Didi Gregorious on a one year deal, which is another move that could pay dividends. Gregorious is coming off a down, injury-riddled campaign and will be hoping to rebuild his value. A stacked Phillies lineup that will include a healthy McCutchen, the launching pad that is Citizens Bank Park and an opportunity to re-unite with Joe Girardi proved to be a tantalizing combo for Didi.
All that said, the Phillies still have work to do if they want to be favorites for the NL East in 2019. Nola-Wheeler is a solid 1-2 but a back-end of Arrieta, Eflin and one of Cole Irvin, Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta is still a very, very weak rotation. John Middleton has stated that the goal for the club is to remain under the luxury tax, which is a shame because there were, and still are, starters who would significantly bolster the rotation on the market. Jordan Lyles, Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha and Tanner Roark have all agreed to terms already and it’s hard not to say that any of those guys would have represented an upgrade.
There are still names available, but affordable options for the Phillies are drying up as the market becomes dominated by Dallas Keuchel, Madison Bumgarner and Ryu. Julio Teheran, Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, and Alex Wood also remain available but come with varying degrees of age factors, injury risk and in the case of Miley and Teheran, ineffectiveness. Still, each one of those names would be an upgrade over what the Phillies have now, and the odds of the market coming down from the heights we’re seeing now are high, at least once Bumgarner signs. If the asking price on any of the aforementioned names is right, Middleton should pay the luxury tax.
This year’s market for starters is also quite deep in the way of reclamation projects and/or buy low candidates. With the game trending towards younger players all around, veteran pitchers who would have had no problem landing a contract two years ago are now settling for minor league deals. This is on full display this year, and several once promising starters found themselves non-tendered this off-season. With a highly touted pitching coach in Bryan Price, it makes no sense for the Phillies not to explore this route. Depth – especially in regards to pitching – was a fatal flaw of the Phillies last season and they simply need to have better options than Cole Irvin right out of the gate.
Here are seven names the Phillies could take a look at for potential low AAV or minor league contracts.
Drew Smyly: LHP, 30 years old
Bringing back Drew Smyly on a minor league contract makes plenty of sense. Last season was the lefty’s first taste of big league action since 2016 after multiple injuries and surgeries. While the results were less than ideal in 2019, Smyly’s fastball velocity still sits around 90 MPH, essentially the same as it was pre-injury. Smyly also turned in a K/9 rate of 9.5 on the season (9.8 with the Phillies) and had multiple solid outings.
Smyly could very well be a shell of the once promising pitcher he was, but the Phillies could do far worse than taking a flier on him. If Drew Smyly can’t find a major league deal, which he probably won’t, he would be a great depth option. Low risk, high reward.
Jeremy Hellickson: RHP, 32 years old
Another familiar name available is Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson had a fairly decent 2016 with the Phillies but dropped off significantly the following year between the Orioles and Phillies. As a result, the former ROY signed a minor league contract with the Nationals in 2018. He ended up contributing as of April 16th of that season though, ultimately producing a modest FIP of 4.22.
2019 was another step back for Hellickson, however, as he found himself off to a rough start before being shut down for the rest of the season.
While 2019 was definitely a lost campaign for Hellickson, if he can produce his 2018 FIP – which is sort of the standard for his career – the Phillies could do far worse for a minor league signing. Klentak has long been high on Hellickson, so this signing would make plenty of sense.
Aaron Sanchez: RHP, 27 years old
Sanchez was recently non-tendered by the Astros following a string of injury riddled and unsuccessful seasons. Prior to 2017, Sanchez looked like one of the game’s promising young pitchers. He was selected to the AL All Star team in 2016, a season in which he started 30 games. Sanchez ultimately finished 2016 with an ERA of 3.00 (3.55 FIP), a 1.167 WHIP and a BB/9 rate of 3. He then suffered multiple finger injuries in 2017.
Since 2016, Sanchez has yet to log an FIP below 4.70; most seasons ending with FIP’s above 5. The righty has also struggled with command, making his 2016 BB/9 rate look like more of an aberration than the norm. His average BB/9 since his All Star campaign is 4.7, a stark contrast.
Still, given his age and past success, Sanchez seems likely to command a low AAV, one-year MLB deal. The former Blue Jay would hypothetically be a good option for a rebuilding club looking for someone with upside to eat innings and perhaps turn into a potential trade chip. Given the circumstances, it’s easy to see Sanchez doing just that. Still, he possesses decent upside for the price tag and is worth mentioning.
Matt Harvey: RHP, 30 years old
Harvey – who will be 31 by the start of the season – is a free agent following a stint in Oakland’s minor league system. Harvey turned in a decent 2018, spent primarily with the Reds following a trade from the Mets in April. Harvey started 24 games with Cincinnati, turning in an FIP of 4.33 with a BB/9 rate of 2.
He turned that decent campaign into a a one-year, $11MM contract with the Angels that turned out to be an absolute train wreck. Harvey allowed 47 earned runs in 59 innings before being placed on the IL with a back injury. He was then DFA’d shortly after returning in July.
While Harvey’s All Star days are long behind him, a healthy Harvey is certainly worth taking a gamble on. Though he didn’t crack the big leagues with the A’s in 2019, he might just be able to work out a low AAV major league contract for one year. He could also sign a minor league deal. Either way, Harvey is an intriguing name.
Ivan Nova: RHP, 32 years old
Ivan Nova has been a fairly reliable 4-4.5 FIP pitcher in his career, which isn’t saying much. Nova essentially saved his career when he became one of the many Ray Searage reclamation projects in Pittsburgh. He worked to an FIP of 2.62 in the latter half of 2016 and turned that into an extension with the Pirates, which produced modest results. Nova was then traded to the White Sox prior to the 2019 season and ultimately ended up leading the American League in batting average against.
Still, Nova represents an interesting buy low candidate given his past success. A move back to the National League could do him some good after getting battered to the tune of 225 hits allowed across 187 innings. If he takes a minor league deal, however, then suddenly Ivan Nova has utility.
Jimmy Nelson: RHP, 30 years old
Jimmy Nelson had been largely producing solid, early career results with the Brewers before an injury caused by a slide into first derailed his career. Nelson was diagnosed with a partial anterior labrum tear and missed all of 2018. In limited action last season, the righty was ineffective.
Still, Nelson is just two seasons removed from a 3.05 FIP campaign in which he turned in a K/9 rate of 10.2. Jimmy Nelson on a minor league deal presents plenty of upside and he could also be flexed to a reliever if need be. Nelson has Bryan Price reclamation project written all over him.
Taijuan Walker: RHP, 27 years old
Walker was once one of the game’s top prospects and showed flashes of reaching his potential before an elbow injury shut him down early in 2018. Walker is attempting to come back from the injury and if healthy, the upside is obviously there. Walker was clocking in with a mid 90’s fastball before going down and turned in an FIP of 3.93 in 2017.
Like Sanchez, Walker makes the most sense for a rebuilding club. Still, the Phillies could bank on the upside and give him a major league deal anyways.