The Phillies entered last offseason in a mood to spend money. The resulting movement rattled the industry, as the procession of stars to Citizens Bank Park -- culminating with Bryce Harper -- defined the winter of 2018-2019 in Major League Baseball.
Now the midseason trade market is upon us, and there is little surprise as to which team is poised to dictate the pace of action once again.
The Phillies will be “in on everything,” as one source put it Tuesday evening, following the news that former National League MVP Award winner Andrew McCutchen has been lost for the season with an ACL tear in his left knee.
“Everything” includes free agent reliever Craig Kimbrel, as multiple sources said the Phillies still were involved in the free agent closer’s marketplace as of Tuesday.
Somewhat counterintuitively, the loss of McCutchen could make the Phillies more likely to sign Kimbrel. Why? With David Robertson, Pat Neshek, Adam Morgan and Tommy Hunter on the injured list, their desire to upgrade the bullpen is undeniable. And since they need to preserve some prospect capital to pursue a replacement for McCutchen via trade, the Phillies are best served using money alone to address the closer’s role.
By the way, the Phillies could allocate $10 million or more to Kimbrel over the rest of the season and still remain comfortably under the luxury tax threshold of $206 million.
Multiple team executives have said recently that they expect significant trades well in advance of this year’s July 31 Trade Deadline. The elimination of Major League waiver trades in August is one reason, but the team officials believe the sharper distinction between buyers and sellers is perhaps an even more important factor.
And the Phillies, atop the division and desperate to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011, are one of the most obvious deadline buyers in the sport. Whether the Braves -- who trail Philadelphia by a half-game in the NL East -- are prepared to answer with big moves of their own remains to be seen, but calls for them to do so are certain to amplify in the coming weeks.
McCutchen will be difficult for the Phillies to replace with a single move, because a relatively small number of plausibly available outfielders can bat leadoff as effectively as he has for Philadelphia this season. McCutchen was atop the Phils’ order in all but one of their first 60 games this year. He is one of only four Major League hitters this season with an OPS better than .800 over more than 190 at-bats in the leadoff spot.
But as one rival executive noted Tuesday, the Phillies’ financial resources and mandate to win could create opportunities that typically aren’t viable at this early stage of the trading season. Philadelphia general manager Matt Klentak already made one deal last weekend, acquiring Jay Bruce from Seattle. The Bruce trade addressed an outfield need that arose when Odubel Herrera was placed on administrative leave; Bruce homered twice, including a grand slam, in his first start with the Phillies in Tuesday’s 9-6 win over San Diego.
The D-backs are one potential trade partner for the Phillies, with World Series-winning veteran Jarrod Dyson posting a .723 OPS while batting leadoff frequently in Arizona. Dyson, 34, is earning $3.5 million this year and eligible for free agency after the season.
Pittsburgh center fielder Starling Marte is less likely than Dyson to be moved -- in a deal with the Phillies or anyone else -- because the Pirates hold club affordable club options on Marte for 2020 and ‘21. While the Phils’ apparent ability to assume Marte’s full contract could appeal to the Pirates, Pittsburgh may be reluctant to move another outfielder so soon after dealing Austin Meadows to Tampa Bay. Meadows has a 1.087 OPS and is becoming an American League MVP Award candidate in his first full season with the Rays.
For now, the Phils have called up outfielder Adam Haseley from Triple-A to take McCutchen’s roster spot. Haseley started in center field and went 0-for-4 on Tuesday in his MLB debut. Team officials likely will take time to assess how prepared Haseley is to play center on a regular basis, with Bruce in left field. The versatile Scott Kingery, who played all nine innings at third base on Tuesday, is another option to start in center.
That said, it would be a significant departure from the Phillies’ track record if they fail to add another outfielder between now and July 31. They followed through on bold pronouncements during the offseason. The Phils are likely to do so once again.