As I write this, it is 7:15 in the morning, and the MLB trade deadline is a little less than nine hours away, so I'm going to write quickly, with the hopes that these 11 thoughts remain relevant.
1) Every year at this time, I write some version of the same lesson I've learned since my first trade deadline back in 2008: Assessing the veracity and eventuality of an individual trade rumor is often a fool's errand. You consider the source first, the wording second, and then your own common sense third, but even then you are often left only with a clear understanding of which tidbits are complete bunk.
The problem isn't so much #FakeNews but #Semantics and #UnrepresentativeSamples, at least when the tidbit in question involves some form of the word "interest," or anything about "phone calls." There's a huge difference between fact-finding and target-identifying, and another huge difference between target-pursuing and offer-making, and then one final line of demarcation between offer-making and substantive negotiating.
My experience suggests that the vast amount of reporting you read about the trade deadline involves those first two processes, when assistant GMs and other lieutenants in every big-league front office make contact with their counterparts in every other big-league front office to compile a preliminary price list of potential targets. So, somebody from Team X calls somebody from Team Y and says, "What would your asking price be for Z," and then Team X enters that information into its database (or writes it on its white board), and Team Y logs Team X's interest into its database, and both move on to the next team to continue their assessment of the market, one from a demand side, one from a supply side.
In other words, a report that the Phillies have "expressed interest" in a certain player is, on its own, virtually meaningless without some indication of what "expressing interest" means in this particular situation.
2) The thing that isn't always a fool's errand is to consider the totality of what has been reported about a specific team. Back in 2008, 2009 and 2010, there were enough reports out there about the Phillies' having interest in various starting pitchers that it became a pretty good bet that they were at least seriously interested in acquiring some sort of starting pitcher. Same goes with the righthanded bat in 2011 (which they never should have entered the season without, but that's another story).
3) It's this sort of macro-level trend evaluation that leaves me here on the morning of July 31 with a raised eyebrow, because over the last couple of weeks, the Phillies have been connected to virtually every outfielder who could be available before today's 4 p.m. deadline. Among the names we've heard mentioned by the Transaction Industrial Complex are Curtis Granderson, Joey Gallo, Adam Jones, Jose Bautista and, most recently, Andrew McCutchen. Given the variety of names and the variety of sources reporting those names, I don't think it is a mistake to assume that the Phillies really are determined to add some sort of outfield bat to their roster. That doesn't mean it will happen. But there's an awful lot of smoke on the horizon to suggest that there is a fire burning somewhere.
4) The raised eyebrow comes when you really start to delve into the names that have been mentioned. There's an obvious need on this team for a righthanded bat capable of both coming off the bench and starting the occasional game, such as last night's, when Gabe Kapler decided that his best option to face lefty David Price was the recently called-up Roman Quinn. The curious thing is that some, if not all, of these names are guys who do not fit the classic profile of a bench bat.
Take McCutchen, for instance. While the Giants outfielder is having his least productive season since breaking into the majors 10 years ago, he isn't the sort of player who is an obvious candidate to spend the final two months of the season coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter and starting a game or two a week. Overall, he has a .348 on-base percentage and a 107 OPS+, meaning he is still providing league-average production while playing every day for the Giants. Since May 1, he is hitting .273/.357/.422 with seven home runs in one of the least hitter-friendly divisions in baseball, as well as the least hitter-friendly home ballpark in baseball. He is one season removed from hitting 28 home runs with an .849 OPS, and, most significantly, he is still owed about $4.7 million of his $14.8 million salary over the rest of the season. That's an expensive bench bat.
Or, take Bautista. Since joining the Mets, the 37-year-old has reached base at a .382 clip and slugged a respectable, though hardly Bautistian, .421. He isn't expensive as far as his salary goes, but that could also inflate demand for his services, which would mean a higher price tag in the form of prospect(s).
In a vacuum, both McCutchen and Bautista would give the Phillies a valuable righthanded bat to come off the bench and mix into their outfield rotation. But that's assuming they would be comfortable with that role, which neither has filled before.
5) There's another person's comfort level that is worth considering. Since moving into the starting lineup full time, Nick Williams has been the best hitter on the Phillies not named Rhys Hoskins. In his last 38 games, he is hitting .308/.389/.511 with seven home runs. That's a .901 OPS and a 30-home-runs-per-162-games pace. There's a strong argument to be made that the Phillies rotation in right field should consist of one man, with or without McCutchen or Bautista. Against lefties, Williams is hitting .281/.349/.404, which is pretty much exactly what McCutchen is hitting overall. Granted, both McCutchen and Bautista have mashed lefties over their careers, and McCutchen's struggles against southpaws this year can easily be chalked up to a small sample size that does not provide evidence that Williams is the better bet against them.
The big question is what psychological impact the acquisition of a borderline Hall of Famer who is used to getting his ABs would have on Williams. That's not to say that Williams is in a position to be dictating roster moves, but psychology is an important part of player performance. From both a long- and short-term perspective, is it really beneficial for the Phillies to give Williams a reason to look over his shoulder?
6) That question becomes even more of curiosity when you consider two of the other names that have been connected to the Phillies. Granderson and Gallo are both lefthanded hitters, and while both might be better suited for a bench role than McCutchen and Bautista, neither one would seem to warrant many starts, given how far the lefthanded Williams' production has exceeded theirs. Gallo, in particular, would be a confusing player for the Phillies to consider, in that the Rangers have very little motivation to move him for a package of slappies. He is 24 years old, won't be a free agent until 2023, and is making $560,000 with his first arbitration season not arriving until 2020.
7) All these things considered, it's impossible to discount a scenario in which the Phillies aren't just looking for a pinch-hitter, once-a-week starter. If we assume that Carlos Santana isn't going anywhere, and, thus, Hoskins is staying in left field, and Odubel Herrera in center, then they would be looking at that new addition(s) for right field. And, given that, one scenario that would make sense is one in which the Phillies have some irons in the fire where Williams could be moved to acquire a substantial upgrade at another position.
8) I've long been of the opinion that the thing this team needs most before it can consider itself a legitimate contender is a third dependable starting pitcher to group with Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta at the top of the rotation. Think about it in terms of a playoff series: Who starts Game 3? Nick Pivetta? Vince Velasquez? Zach Eflin? A better question: If a team is asking itself that question, can it really consider itself a legitimate pennant contender?
Earlier this week, I suggested that a package of Williams, Maikel Franco, and perhaps a low-minors prospect would be the kind of deal that could at least make a team like Tampa Bay take interest. On paper, such a move might seem counterintuitive, since Franco and Williams have been two of the hotter hitters on a team that has spent most of the season in sore need of such a thing. But Chris Archer is a legit top-of-the-rotation starter, signed to a extremely team-friendly contract, and the Phillies are headed into an offseason in which there probably won't be a better pitcher available.
9) Yes, subtracting Williams would make the Phillies a worse offense (subtracting Franco, who might not even appeal to the Rays, given that he is in his arbitration years, would be mitigated by the addition of Asdrubal Cabrera, who, it should be noted, is not considered by scouts to be an ideal fit at shortstop). But adding a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation potential, be it Archer or someone such as the Mets' Jacob DeGrom or someone we haven't even considered, would improve two areas of need, with the combined gain more than offsetting whatever would be lost by downgrading in right field from Williams to one (or two) of the aforementioned veterans.
10) The second area that a big-time SP addition would improve is the bullpen, where I think Pivetta has the potential to become a very, very good closer or multiple-innings set-up man. I think this based on the eye test alone, because nothing in Pivetta's production numbers offers hard evidence of such a capability (his production in the first inning, or in his first time through the order, or in his first 25 pitches of an outing). It's that fastball, which has been sitting at 95-96 even in starts, and a slider/curveball that is deadly in short stretches but inconsistent over a full start.
11) Circling back to our first point, it would be dishonest not to point out that the national rumorsphere has yet to name the Phillies as serious suitors for Archer or deGrom, with some casual interest noted in Mets righty Zack Wheeler (of whom I am also a big proponent). There's a chance that the Phillies really do think Williams needs a running mate in right field, and that providing Kapler with that option is worth whatever price a veteran rental would cost, whether that cost is measured in dollars, prospects or frustration on the part of Williams.
One of the more interesting moments of last night's loss to the Red Sox came when Kapler left Roman Quinn in the game to face a hard-throwing righty with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game. This seemed like an obvious moment to bring Williams and his game-ending power potential off the bench. Instead, Quinn slapped a single to right field and expired shortly thereafter on first base. Maybe that is just Williams' lot in life and the Phillies are searching for somebody they trust more in that sort of situation.