The narrative for Philadelphia's 2018-19 offseason is clear, and has been for some time now. The Phillies' rebuilding years are done, they're ready to contend now and they have lots and lots of money to spend in order to do so. That being the case, they're favored to come away with at least one of this winter's major available superstars -- either Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
Maybe the Phils will get both, though. They probably won't sign both, but what if they do? Why shouldn't the Phillies go for both? They can afford them. They have the need, and 2018 proved the Nationals are no longer the obvious top team in the National League East. If there's ever a time to make a splash, it's when there are a pair of historic free agents available.
Before we figure out how to go forward, we ought to figure out where we're coming from.
1. Yes, the Phillies need help.
Philadelphia's only notable free agents are in-season veteran acquisitions Wilson Ramos, Jose Bautista and Asdrubal Cabrera. So, for the most part, the 2018 core is still around for '19. That group put up these hitting and defensive rankings:
• 21st in runs scored (677)
• 18th in on-base percentage (.314)
• 23rd in slugging (.393)
• 28th in strikeout rate (24.8 percent)
• 24th in OPS+ (89, where 100 is league average)
• 30th in nearly any defensive metric you can think of
That's ... not great. For some of this, you might hope for natural improvement. You would think Scott Kingery is far more talented than the miserable .226/.267/.338 rookie season he just put up, and Odubel Herrera's disappointing .255/.310/.420 was out of character -- given the three good seasons he'd put together before.
Some of it was self-inflicted: Rhys Hoskins was asked to move from first base to left field to make room for Carlos Santana -- and in the field, it didn't go well, as he was the weakest defensive outfielder in the NL. It wasn't just him, though, because the Phillies allowed the sixth-highest average against on ground balls. Jacob Arrieta famously was unhappy with the team's use of shifts. But the shift wasn't the problem, or at least not the main problem. The defense was simply poor.
Right now, at FanGraphs, the 2019 Phillies are projected to be a 78-84 team and finish fourth in the NL East. While they won 80 games last season, the fact they were outscored by 51 runs argues this was more like a 76-win team anyway.
With all that being the case, there's obviously a need for lineup improvement here. The Phillies need to fix their defense, make more contact and add more slugging -- which isn't easy to do all at once. Of the teams in the Top 11 in slugging percentage in 2018, nine made the postseason.
2. Yes, Harper and Machado are good.
It feels weird that we need to point this out, but ... it sort of feels like we need to point this out, right? Yes, Harper's batting average was low, but he spent the second half mashing and his .496 slugging percentage would have tied with Hoskins for best on the Phillies. In a "down year," he still slugged nearly .500. Yes, we spent all of October talking about Machado's hustle, but he crushed 37 homers while slugging .538. Among qualified hitters, he was a Top 10 bat this season -- and his 14.7-percent strikeout rate was far better than the MLB average of 22.3.
It's not hyperbole to say they're each on Hall of Fame tracks. Dating back to the end of World War II, both Harper and Machado rank in the Top 20 of most WAR accumulated through age 25. Of the 18 others on the list with them, only four are eligible for the Hall of Fame and haven't made it yet. They aren't without their flaws -- and each might frustrate you at times -- but they are both elite young talents, and they'll each have earned the record-setting contracts they're sure to command.
For teams looking to improve -- like the Phillies -- the idea of passing up in-their-prime talent like Harper and Machado because of perceived image issues would be lunacy.
Since only Kingery and Herrera are signed past the 2020 season, Philadelphia really can afford to sign both Harper and Machado -- while still having enough room left over to add some needed pitching upgrades, too. Again, the Phils probably won't sign both. But they could, partially because there's only a limited number of teams who are likely going to be in the market for either. But's lets say they do. How close would that get them to becoming a playoff team?
3. The path to 90 wins
Here's the thing about all of this: There are just so many moving parts here. Reviews of Machado's defense at shortstop varied widely; Harper had more of a good year when we know he's capable of a great one; and hey, if you're going to put Hoskins back at first base, what in the world do you do with Santana and Justin Bour? We would like to think Kingery will get better, but development isn't a linear process. So what if he doesn't improve?
Looking at FanGraphs WAR, Machado (6.2) and Harper (3.5, thanks to some poor defense of his own) were worth about 10 wins between the two of them in 2018. You'd like to say you can plug their playing time in place of Kingery (-0.1), Nick Williams (0.3), Aaron Altherr (-0.4), and Cabrera (0.4) -- who combined had about as many plate appearances as Machado and Harper -- and say you made a massive upgrade. Maybe you have. Maybe that 80-82 record just became 90-72, though that's not exactly how WAR works, of course.
It's not that simple, obviously, in addition to the fact you can't simply assume any player will duplicate his 2018 season. To solve that problem, we'll look at '19 projections from the respected Steamer projection system. We'll start with that 78-win projection, and it tells you the Phillies have a long way to go. Their offense is projected to score the seventh-fewest runs per game, and the defense is still an issue. You can see the Phillies' expected depth chart here.
Let's assume the Phils need to get to 90 wins -- which would have tied them for the NL East title in 2018 and at least gets them into the NL Wild Card conversation in most years.
You can get part of the way there with two moves.
1. Replace J.P. Crawford (1.3 projected WAR) at shortstop with Machado (5.1 WAR).
2. Replace Williams (0.4 WAR) in right field with Harper (4.6 WAR).
You've just added about eight wins, with the upside for far more, given what we've seen from Machado and Harper at their best. Call it 86 wins, now projected for second best in the East. That's immediately a postseason contender.
Now, Williams and Crawford may yet have successful careers ahead of them, but they would also make interesting trade pieces -- and Harper is less than a year older than Williams anyway. Again: We're just having some fun brainstorming here. In reality, you can't just count up the WAR figures and assume it will play out like that in reality.
But you can see where the dominoes may go. Hoskins is projected for a solid enough 3 WAR, but by removing him from left field, you both boost his value slightly and allow a better fielder to play left -- though you would give some of that back if Santana is traded or forced to play third base. You could see rebuilding teams like Miami or Detroit being thrilled to give Crawford or Williams time to grow. You could also see any of Santana, Bour, Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez or Herrera being traded, as well.
Plus, we know the Phillies couldn't stop with these two, either. They badly need at least one reliever, and they could probably use another arm in the rotation, too.
If the Phils don't sign Harper, it's possible another NL competitor such as the Nationals, Cubs or Dodgers will. Philadelphia could also sign one of the Big Two and add A.J. Pollock instead -- or trade for Whit Merrifield, or sign a shortstop or Josh Donaldson. In all likelihood, it will be interested in a starting pitcher, as well -- perhaps Patrick Corbin or Charlie Morton. The Phillies could also hold off and gamble on Michael Trout being available in two years, though waiting seems inadvisable. There are just so many ways this could go.
It all comes back to the same premise, however: Machado and Harper are the two best free agents available, as well as two of the best at their age on the market in many years. The Phillies are a team looking to win now, not later, and they have a lot of holes. They have the will, the need and the money. They'll almost certainly be heavily involved in getting one of the two. It says here they shouldn't stop there.