CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Bryce Harper is not the only prominent free agent remaining on the market, but he might be the only one the Phillies are wholeheartedly pursuing before Opening Day.
The two most notable free agents other than Harper are left-hander Dallas Keuchel and closer Craig Kimbrel. They would fit into the Phillies’ rotation and bullpen, respectively, which is one reason why the club has continued to be connected to them. The other reason is that everybody expects the Phillies to spend money, even if they sign Harper to a record-setting contract.
It is not to say the Phillies won't change their mind. They could, but the idea the Phillies will immediately pivot and sign both pitchers if they fail to sign Harper is a leap. Remember the way Phillies general manager Matt Klentak described the club's pursuit of Manny Machado, who officially agreed to a 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres on Thursday.
“This contract will exceed our valuation and sometimes you have to be willing to walk away,” Klentak said.
If the Phillies evaluated Machado that way, they certainly assess Keuchel and Kimbrel the same. The Phillies front office, like most around the game, considers projected future performance, not past performance, when engaging agents about multi-year contracts.
Keuchel, 31, went 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA in 34 starts last season. He won the 2015 American League Cy Young Award and helped the Astros win the 2017 World Series. The Phillies pursued left-handers Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ earlier this offseason, so clearly they see a need to provide balance and stability to the rotation.
But the Phillies have their concerns about a long-term deal with Keuchel. He is a pitcher that induces weak contact and keeps the ball on the ground, which are very good things, but those numbers dipped last season. Keuchel’s ground-ball rate dropped from 68.0 percent in 2017 (best among regular starters) to 54.9 percent (seventh). The 54.9 ground-ball rate remains elite, but the 13.1 percent decrease from 2017 was the biggest among all starters.
Everybody knows the Phillies love pitchers who generate swings and misses. Keuchel is not that type of player. His whiff rate dropped from 27.1 percent in 2017 to 19.8 percent last season, a 7.3 percent decrease.
It is a risk -- some might argue a significant one -- but the Phillies seem to believe Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez could be more productive than Keuchel in the future. Maybe not this year, but in the future. Even then, they believe the trio will be better than last season because of an additional year of experience and an improved defense.
That is why it is difficult seeing the Phillies signing Keuchel to anything but a short-term deal.
Kimbrel, 30, went 5-1 with a 2.74 ERA and 42 saves last season with the Red Sox, who won the World Series. He remains an elite closer, although he probably is not the best closer in baseball. Kimbrel’s velocity and percentage of pitches in the strike zone also dipped.
His average fastball velocity dropped from 98.3 mph in 2017 to 97.1 mph. His pitches in the strike zone fell from 51 percent in 2017 to 42.3 percent, which was one of the lowest in-zone rates in the game. Kimbrel on a short-term contract might make sense for the Phillies, but even then they already are bullish on their bullpen. In fact, they think they might have one of the betters ones with Seranthony Dominguez, David Robertson and Hector Neris slated to pitch in the late innings.
So despite the assumptions because of the club’s financial resources, it is difficult to imagine Keuchel or Kimbrel in a Phillies uniform this season, unless the front office gets an offer it cannot refuse. They want Harper. They are optimistic they will get him. If they get him, it might be enough.