Matt Klentak called Clay Buchholz last week, when the veteran pitcher opted for surgery on his right arm that could sideline him for the season. The second-year Phillies general manager wagered $13.5 million in a trade for Buchholz's services. Buchholz apologized to his boss.
"I wanted to pitch," Buchholz later said. "I wanted to be good. I guess it's a good thing they have a good farm system here because they've been able to step up and fill in. That's what it takes to win championships because you're not going to stay with the same five guys all year long."
The specter of the failed Buchholz acquisition, combined with the $9 million spent on four Charlie Morton starts a season ago, creates an intriguing dynamic. Both Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail have pointed to those two failed investments as reinforcement of their larger philosophy.
"When you're dealing with essentially free-agent-type, older pitching," MacPhail said, "it's a reminder that it's fragile and it's expensive."
But a peek at the upcoming winter's free-agent class reveals a bunch of older and adept arms atop the market. Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Johnny Cueto, and Masahiro Tanaka could all be available, provided Cueto and Tanaka exercise out clauses in their contracts.
Co-owner John Middleton has indicated he does not want to field a low-payroll team; the Phillies added almost $70 million in salary for players on one-year commitments prior to 2017. The Phillies have guaranteed money to one player, Odubel Herrera, beyond 2017. They are viewed as potential suitors for just about every major free agent, especially in the robust class that could hit the market following the 2018 season. The quality of that class should exceed the one that appears this winter.
So, what's the play? There are months to strategize. But if the Phillies are to spend Middleton's money this winter, it may have to be a long-term deal for one of those older pitchers.
MacPhail, at every chance, has expressed his distaste for a long-term contract for a pitcher. The Buchholz injury reinforced that apprehension.
"It's just a living reminder of the risks you take when you get into this world," MacPhail said. "I think I've articulated in the past. I know there's time we're going to have to get involved in it but . . . I think there's going to be a lot more opportunities to add free-agent position players. Pitching is just something that should give you pause for concern."
Klentak echoed that.
"Sometimes this happens with pitching," he said, referring to Buchholz. "Once again, it underscores the importance of starting pitching depth and developing it from within."
Arrieta, Darvish, Cueto, and Tanaka are pitchers on a tier well above Buchholz's. Arrieta will be 32 next season. Darvish will be 31, Cueto 32. Tanaka is the youngest at 29 in 2018. If Cueto and Tanaka leave their current contracts, they would pursue an average annual salary of more than $20 million. So will Arrieta and Darvish.
The money is less of an issue for the Phillies. It's more about the timing. Long-term contracts, especially to pitchers, are most fruitful in the first two or three seasons. If the Phillies do not expect to contend in 2018, would they want to "waste" one of those more valuable seasons of the expensive contract, with the hopes that the second and third years of those deals still provide a sizable return? It's a good debate, one the high-ranking officials inside the Phillies front office will have.
Arrieta, who remade himself with the Chicago Cubs, is familiar to those with the Phillies. Joe Jordan, the Phillies' director of player development, was the scouting director in Baltimore when the Orioles selected Arrieta in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. MacPhail, soon after that draft, became Baltimore's president of baseball operations. They have extensive information on Arrieta's background, which could make them more comfortable to extend a long-term offer. Or not.
That is not to suggest the Phillies are limited to those four free-agent arms. They, like every team in baseball, have some level of interest in Japanese wunderkind Shohei Otani - although it is unclear when he will be permitted to sign with a major-league team and what the process for that will entail.
The Phillies have upgraded the talent in their farm system, talent that could graduate with the Phillies or be used as trade chips to procure important pieces that are in or closer to the majors. Given the depth in the minors, it is reasonable to assume trades will play a huge role in the rebuilding process.
But Middleton's money is one competitive advantage the Phillies will seek to deploy, at some point. If it's not on a pitcher this winter, would they spend for long-term deals on corner bats like Mike Moustakas, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, or Eric Hosmer? Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, younger and more talented, will reach free agency after 2018. Do the Phillies wait for one of them?
These are questions that loom in the background as the 2017 season unfolds.
1. Matt Stairs: Yeah, it's been only three weeks of baseball. Yeah, a hitting coach has a limited effect on a lineup. Yeah, he's made a difference.
2. Tommy Joseph: No one will press the panic button yet. But Rhys Hoskins' power has translated to triple A. Even more impressive: The first baseman has improved his plate discipline. He could push Joseph in a few weeks if the situation has not changed.
3. Jeanmar Gomez: He pitched once in a 12-day span from April 15 to 27. He will be used only with the Phillies trailing. At some point, the team could decide his spot is best filled by someone else, the $4.2 million he's owed notwithstanding.