Thursday, December 18, 2014

Are the Phillies gearing up for another run at a top-of-the-market starting pitcher?

There are a couple of indications that the Phillies are considering a bid for a top-dollar starting pitcher.

Are the Phillies gearing up for another run at a top-of-the-market starting pitcher?

Ervin Santana is one of the top available free agent starting pitchers. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
Ervin Santana is one of the top available free agent starting pitchers. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

We haven't heard much in the way of buzz on the starting pitching market, probably because many of the likely power brokers are in a holding pattern waiting for a resolution on the Masahiro Tanaka situation, which Joel Sherman recaps here in the New York Post.

Long story short, officials from Major League Baseball and their Japanese counterparts need to finalize a new posting system, which requires teams to pay Tanaka's club in Japan for the right to negotiate with him. Every team bids, and the highest bids get exclusive negotiating rights. The Rangers paid $51.7 million to negotiate with Yu Darvish, although, according to Sherman, MLB has proposed a system where the max bid would be $20 million. In that case, a huge number of teams, including the Phillies, would likely meet that figure.

What would happen at that point has yet to be determined. Perhaps the player would get to pick which team he would like to negotiate with. Japanese teams obviously prefer the old system, where they would stand to make more money. The posting fee does not count against the luxury tax.

Even if the Phillies do not end up winning the chance to negotiate with Tanaka -- all of the big market clubs are expected to be involved -- the resolution to that situation will have a major impact on current MLB free agents like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez. If Tanaka is not posted this year, that means there will be more suitors for guys like Santana, Garza and Jimenez.

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Either way, there are a couple of indications -- tenuous, admittedly -- that the Phillies are considering a bid for one of these potentially top-dollar pitchers.

The first is the lack of chatter we've heard connecting the Phillies to some of the free agent starters who have already signed. There has been some passing mention of interest in Bronson Arroyo and Ricky Nolasco, but Nolasco has already signed. Arroyo said the Phillies have contacted him, so he is a possibility. But a slew of mid-to-lower tier pitchers are already off the board: Phil Hughes, Jason Vargas, Tim Hudson, Ryan Vogelsong, etc. The Phillies absolutely need to acquire a starter before spring training, so the lack of serious movement on that front would seem to suggest that they are one of those teams who is waiting to see what happens with Tanaka.

The second indication is a composite of factors, starting with Ruben Amaro Jr.'s history of coveting top-of-the-rotation starters (Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee II), and ending with the fact that he has left himself with the payroll space to make a play for such a starter.

Right now, I project the Phillies to have an "official" payroll (for luxury tax purposes) of about $158 million, which includes $10 million for player benefits and projected salaries of $7.0 million for Kyle Kendrick, $1.5 million for Ben Revere, $1.5 million for John Mayberry Jr., $2.0 million for Antonio Bastardo, and $1.0 million for Brad Lincoln, as well as $500,000 salaries for Jake Deikman, Ethan Martin, a third reliever and Freddy Galvis as the utility man and an $800,000 salary for back-up catcher Wil Nieves. Factor in another $5 million for in-season spending on bonuses and call-ups and that leaves them with roughly $26 million to spend before reaching the $189 million luxury tax threshold.

There is no guarantee that they will push their payroll that high. But if they did, they would appear to have more than enough money to spend on Tanaka, Santana, Garza or Jimenez, plus a veteran reliever. And that's before you consider the possibility of trading Kendrick and his $7 million salary to clear more payroll space.

Tanaka still feels like a longshot since he will attract attention from teams with bigger coffers (Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers) and more payroll flexibility (Mets, Cubs) and more experience navigating the compicated Japanese market (pretty much everybody). But by saving money in right field and on their bench, the Phillies certainly seem like they could be positioning themselves for something.

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