SAN DEIGO - On Day 1 of the winter meetings, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak reiterated his team's need to add a starting infielder.
"That's been the focus," Klentak said Monday afternoon. "Today is Day 1, but technically we've been here for almost two full days. It feels like that is what we have mostly been working on since we've been here. We're just trying to explore all different avenues. Single-year and multi-year fits. Trade and free-agent fits. In the way that the pitching market has really come together quickly, this one doesn't seem to be coming together quite as quickly. But not because there aren't options."
The free-agent pitching market is indeed moving quickly. Stephen Strasburg returned to the Washington Nationals on a staggering seven-year, $245 million deal on Monday and Gerrit Cole is expected to blow past that deal in the coming days. The Phillies made some (sort of) news Monday when their signing of Zack Wheeler became official after the right-hander passed his physical exam.
"We felt it was important to add someone to our rotation that could pair with Aaron Nola at the top and give us a chance to win any series against the best pitchers in baseball," Klentak said. "I think those are as good a twosome as you'll find in the league."
New manager Joe Girardi concurred.
"We have 1 and 1-A," he said.
Now, the question is: Who will play second base, third base and shortstop behind Wheeler and Nola?
Scott Kingery and Jean Segura are likely to hold down two of the spots. We say "likely" because there's always the chance that Kingery could play center field (right now it looks like Adam Haseley will be the guy there) and Segura could be traded if the Phils could find someone to take on the three years and $45 million that remain on his contract. That won't be easy, even if the Phils eat some salary.
Ideally, the Phillies would land a shortstop like free-agent Didi Gregorius on a one-year or manageable multi-year deal and move Segura from shortstop to second base and play Kingery at third. The Phillies have had serious talks with Gregorius, but have to be ready to pivot if they can't lock him up. As Klentak said, there are options in the infield. Most of them, however, are not shortstops. A free-agent second baseman like Jonathan Schoop could be a good fallback if the Phils can't sign Gregorius. He had 23 doubles and 23 homers in 433 at-bats for the Twins last season. Signing Schoop would mean that Segura would have to stay at shortstop or move to third with Kingery playing shortstop.
There are plenty of options at third base, from veteran Todd Frazier to top-of-the-market superstars Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson. There are also versatile veterans like Starlin Castro and even Brock Holt who could be used in mix-and-match, platoon scenarios.
"There's a bunch of different ways we can go," Klentak said. "We can go a shorter-term variety, we can look at a longer-term solution, we can look at the trade market, we can look at the free-agent market and we can look into piecing it together with multiple players potentially, which not only would help the starting infield, but would improve the bench. That's where a lot of our focus this week is being turned."
All right, let's address those top-of-the-market names: The Phils have had contract with the representatives for Rendon and Donaldson and they have not tapped out of those markets, but signing one of those big-money players remains a longshot. The Phils signed Bryce Harper for $330 million last winter, Wheeler for $118 million this winter and still have to budget for a potential $100 million contract extension for J.T. Realmuto. Rendon is expected to command well over $200 million and Donaldson should get more than $25 million per season when he lands. The Phils are creeping up on the luxury-tax threshold of $208 million in total payroll. Managing partner John Middleton would go over the tax for the right opportunity. There's a lot of never-say-never here, but …
"Ownership has always encouraged us to stay engaged on everything," Klentak said. "If there's an opportunity to bring something to them we will. I think the most notable example was signing Jake Arrieta two years ago. That was not necessarily on our radar. It came together late and the owners jumped on it. I'm not going to sit here today and declare that we are or are not in on certain players or that we will or will not exceed the tax threshold. Our job is to keep an open mind and continue to pursue all avenues and see what makes sense for us. There is an element of this from a management perspective in making sure we apply the proper balance to roster building and not get too top-heavy. We need to be responsible about it, but we're not going to shy away from pursuing or at least exploring opportunities, whether we bring them to the finish line or not."
With Wheeler on board, an infielder on the way, the return to good health of some key players and the projected improvement of others, Klentak is confident of this:
"We are definitely building a team that we expect will contend in 2020," he said.
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