This winter, every Monday through Friday, Nick Williams has found sanctuary at Onnit Gym in Austin, Texas. The gym is a few years old, run by a former University of Texas running back, and has attracted several high-profile clients. It is where, one day, Williams realized he shared space with one of baseball’s most prominent free agents.
The Phillies rookie outfielder had someone take his picture with Jake Arrieta. He posted it to Instagram a week ago. There are 41 comments and at least 20 of them are some version of “Tell him to come to Philly.”
“I don’t even need to recruit him,” Williams said Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park. “He loves this place. He said, ‘I like working with young guys.’”
The young outfielder smiled.
“But I don’t have the money to give him,” he said. “I don’t have one-twentieth of what to give him.”
Pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater, Fla., in less than a month for the first Phillies spring workout, and it is not yet clear who will be there. The free-agent market has moved slower than ever, leaving four of the best available pitchers — Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn — unemployed. Scores of other arms have not signed. It is a stare down between a data-conscious collection of general managers and seasoned players who crave their pay days.
The Phillies, of course, are a team in the market for another starting pitcher. They have pursued one through a trade or signing all winter but have deemed the cost for the premier arms to be too prohibitive. They have balked at the prospect price in potential trades — think: Sixto Sanchez and Scott Kingery — or the idea of guaranteeing a free-agent pitcher four or five years.
Those sticking points could change between now and Feb. 14. A team could ask for lesser prospects in a trade. Arrieta, the former Chicago Cubs ace who has connections to many within the Phillies’ front office from their shared time in Baltimore, could reduce his demands to a three-year deal. Even then, the Phillies could still decide to delay their quest for a significant rotation upgrade.
Instead, sources have said, the likelier scenario is the Phillies add a veteran arm with lower upside and on more palatable terms for the club. Lefties like Jaime Garcia and Jason Vargas are still available to sign. (The Phillies went the entire 2017 season without a game started by a lefthander.) Someone in the mold of Jason Hammel, made available all winter by Kansas City in a trade, could be the solution.
Either way, the Phillies could begin camp with a rotation option not on the current roster. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said Tuesday he has no expectation other than his boss, general manager Matt Klentak, “is busting his [butt] every single day looking for every possible opportunity to upgrade our team.”
Does Kapler have a hunch?
“The hunch is that the pursuit is very real,” the new manager said. “Openly, I trust we’ll either go in with a new toy or we will pass on the opportunity because we’re better off giving this collection of pitchers a really healthy look. [Maybe] we think we could go acquire that piece a little bit later on in this season or in the offseason next year.”
Right now, Kapler is hesitant to say anything of substance about his roster because he is not comfortable to issue robust evaluations. Spring training is a chance for the overhauled coaching staff to learn more about their inherited players. Asked Tuesday how many open spots exist in his rotation, Kapler said: “I’m not sure there’s an answer to that right now.”
Well, Aaron Nola is one lock. The club remains high on Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez. They are hopeful Jerad Eickhoff can resemble the pitcher from 2016 and not 2017. But no one is guaranteed much beyond Nola. There are others, many others — Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr., Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Tom Eshelman, Jose Taveras and Drew Anderson, to name a few.
“Across the board,” Kapler said, “we have a lot of ‘What are we going to see?’ rather than, ‘What we can depend on.’ ”
Hence, the pleas on Williams’ Instagram account. Williams said he has not pried into Arrieta’s specific contract demands; that is his business, the 24-year-old outfielder said. But the prized pitcher has bought him a few protein shakes. And, whether they are future teammates or not, they have found common ground this winter.
“We challenge each other,” Williams said. “He’s a great guy. Just working with him, I feel like we challenge each other. He’s like 21 years old. I’m serious. It’s amazing.”