Dominoes might need to fall. Prices definitely will. But one thing is clear about the Phillies’ offseason strategy now that Carlos Santana is in the fold: Starting pitching is at the top of the priority list.
After introducing his new $20-million-a-year first baseman at a press conference at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday afternoon, general manager Matt Klentak reiterated that the team’s focus will now shift toward fortifying a rotation that, by last season’s end, had become a near-untenable weakness.
“We’re going to continue looking into it, we’re going to try to add the best pitcher we can,” said Klentak, who entered last week’s winter meetings with the position playing a central role in his agenda. “I will tell you the same thing I told you last week: that the trade market is very expensive for young, controllable starters. The free agent market for the better starters is expensive in its own way.”
As such, he continued, “we just have to make sure that we find the right balance, find the right fit. But we would still like to add a starter if possible.”
The Phillies have spent plenty of time this winter doing their due diligence on a host of starters whom they believe could be fits in a rotation that last season featured budding star Aaron Nola and little else.
Among potential targets they have investigated is Rays ace Chris Archer. A two-time All-Star who finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting in 2015, he has averaged 202 innings with a 3.66 ERA and excellent strikeout and walk numbers over the last four seasons.
Other names include the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman and the Royals’ Danny Duffy, although nobody should read too much into such mentions. If a starter is young and talented, chances are good the Phillies have inquired as to his availability.
Archer, who has averaged 10.1 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 with a middle-of-the-pack ground ball rate during that stretch, probably has the best pedigree of any young pitcher who could potentially move — though the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole also has been rumored to be available.
Klentak insisted that any deal for a pitcher would have to abide by the same wisdom that led the team to finalize a three-year, $60 million with Santana: The price must be right.
On Wednesday, Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler joined Santana on the dais for the traditional jersey-and-cap donning in front of the assembled media.
The Phillies reached out to the first baseman’s representatives shortly after the start of the free-agent signing period last month, but they made it clear that they were only interested in a contract of three years. Over the last couple of weeks, Santana’s camp reached back out, and Klentak said a deal came together quickly.
Some other takeaways:
— Kapler said he has yet to decide where Santana fits into his lineup. Kapler noted that Santana spent some time batting leadoff while in Cleveland, but could fit just as well in the No. 2 or No. 3 hole with the Phillies.
— Klentak downplayed the notion that the move of Rhys Hoskins from first base to left field necessitated a trade of Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr or Nick Williams.
— While Santana likely will get most of his at-bats at first base, Kapler would not commit to playing him exclusively at the position, even floating the possibility that Santana spends some time in the outfield.
Whatever happens at first base, the Phillies seem to understand that any hope of a dramatic improvement in 2018 is contingent upon adding at least one more arm to a rotation that has few defined roles after Nola.
No other pitcher logged more than 133 innings in 2017. Nick Pivetta (6.02 ERA) and Jerad Eickhoff (4.71 ERA) nearly cleared that bar; Jeremy Hellickson had a 4.73 ERA in 112 1/3 innings before a midseason trade.
Additional starter candidates include Ben Lively, Vince Velasquez, and a handful of minor leaguers. In short, a bunch of players who thus far have shown themselves to be nothing more than replacement level.
“There’s a balancing act here,” Klentak said. “If you look at our rosters, not only at the big league level but also at Triple A and Double A, we have a lot of starting pitching players and prospects who are close to big-league ready, and we need to make sure those players continue to get those reps and innings that they need to develop at this level. But at the same time, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to win Week 1 of the regular season next year.”