Ahead of this offseason, the Philadelphia Phillies were known to be huge players. A lengthy, well-executed rebuild saw improvement last season to the point where for much of the season a first NL East division title since 2011 appeared to be there for the taking, and young players such as team ace Aaron Nola and Home Run Derby participant Rhys Hoskins came through and showed they have true Major League quality.
The next step appeared to be heavy investment in order to transfer their team into win-now mode. With high-profile free agents such as Manny Machado and Bryce Harper being linked with lengthy, big money moves to Philadelphia, the baseball world has been waiting in anticipation for such moves to be made. Imagine the surprise when it was announced that the Phillies had managed to get involved in the Black Friday-style sale in the Pacific Northwest by trading JP Crawford and Carlos Santana to the Mariners, obtaining All-Star infielder Jean Segura and relief pitchers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos.
When analysed, this trade brings nothing but positives for the Phillies, and shows there is both substance and brains underneath the blind ‘we’re prepared to be a bit stupid with money’ comments which preceded this offseason. In Segura, they have obtained a SS, who also has experience at 2B, who will provide a solid batting average (.304 in 2018, .300 in 2017) and some above average defence at the position. It also gets Santana’s contract off the books ($35m over the next 2 years), frees up space at 1B for Rhys Hoskins to return to a position where he is far more defensively comfortable, and perhaps most significantly of all, frees up space in the OF for a potentially blockbuster free agent signing to revolutionise their offence further.
The moving of Santana is a fascinating detail. As it stands, the Phillies project to have an infield from right to left of Hoskins, Cesar Hernandez, Segura and Maikel Franco. Now, for all the talk that Machado could still be signed and Segura switch to 2B, can the Phillies throw a good enough contract at Machado for him to play 3B? There is no doubt that, for all the baggage that comes with him, the Phillies would be adding both one of the best defensive 3B and one of the most productive hitters at the position, as opposed to a SS providing less defensive value than the player they have just traded for at the position! There is no guarantee that Machado will agree to sign and play 3B, but this is without question an option that should be explored.
Away from Machado, the prospect of signing Harper remains, and this trade does no harm to the chances of this either. With Hoskins moving from LF to his more favoured defensive position of 1B, there is a vacancy in an outfield from which greater offensive production is needed if the Phillies are to make a sustained postseason push.
To come back to an earlier point, simply assuming the Phillies will blindly pay Harper and/or Machado has proven to be perhaps, up to now, a foolish assumption. Yes, they are in win now mode, and yes they are keen to strengthen their roster, which we mustn’t forget didn’t serve them badly last year. But they are looking to be creative rather than reckless with their inflated budget, and the shift away from bumper, long-term contracts is a trend that cannot be ignored, even when the talent is clearly there. They have other needs, and look at this stage to be attempting to be building the best possible team they can giving them the best possible chance of winning in 2019, regardless of whether stellar big names are involved or otherwise.
At the start of the 2018 season, I could not shake the feeling that the Phillies would have a good season. With the experience of Santana and Jake Arrieta complementing the dynamic youth and talent of the likes of Nola and Hoskins, I had them as serious outside contenders for a wildcard spot in the NL, and potential candidates to usurp the Nationals. As we all know, they fell short to a very strong, youthful Atlanta Braves outfit. Yet what’s impressive about the Phillies this time around is that they have identified where the problems were last season, the reasons they fell short, and are trying to rectify these issues. The rest of this offseason will be fascinating to see where their front office go but one thing is for sure; the Phillies mean business.