While most of Major League Baseball's free agent activity generally doesn't occur until after Thanksgiving or even until the winter meetings, which start on December 9, the Philadelphia Phillies have been active nonetheless in the open market thus far. They've inked outfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract and also re-signed catcher Carlos Ruiz to a three-year, $26 million deal.
Where does that leave the Phillies? At the moment, their starting lineup is practically set, barring any other moves yet to come. Byrd is likely to start in right field, and the only way that changes is if the Phillies felt comfortable that Byrd could start in center and they sign another right fielder, or if a center fielder himself is signed. Regardless, that could potentially bode poorly for incumbent center fielder Ben Revere.
As it stands, the Phillies are likely not playoff contenders, and the signings they've made will not bring them any closer to the promised land that is October baseball. But they still need a veteran reliever or two and possibly a starting pitcher as well. Simply put, pitching is now the priority.
But who's out there? The starting pitching market is flush with options, but this being free agency, said options won't come cheap. And when the best starting pitcher available isn't even found stateside yet, you know you're dealing with a weak market.
Concerning the relievers, one of the top options in Joe Smith recently signed a three-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels, while Lynn Henning of The Detroit News reported that the Detroit Tigers were moving closer to a deal with reliever and former closer Brian Wilson.
If the Phillies still believe that delving into free agency is their best fit, their options are limited at best. Most of the starting pitchers left require the surrender of a draft pick. For the Phillies, the good news is that their first-round pick is protected, so they would only lose their second-rounder should they sign someone attached to draft pick compensation.
However, Matt Garza lacks the qualifying offer attached to the aforementioned compensation, so in that regard he could be attractive to the Phillies. And if the Phillies are willing to spend a little extra, Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka could be posted for and signed at some point. Going the route of relievers, Edward Mujica, Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour remain as the top setup men, though all three closed last year and could be seeking closer roles and corresponding money.
Considering that the Phillies have already handed out $42 million to two players this offseason and just over $16 million per season for luxury tax purposes, their payroll remains sky-high without a full roster to complement it. This scenario may force the Phillies to dip their toes into the trade market, which is much more flush with talent but also has a higher premium to obtain it.
That doesn't mean that there are some options out there for the Phillies, though. If the Phillies want to go all-in, they could try to acquire left-handed ace David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays, though it would require the Phillies to trade their top two or three prospects and then some. That means that Maikel Franco, Jesse Biddle and possibly J.P. Crawford would be on the move in addition to some of the Phillies' other top prospects.
Chances are that other teams can best the Phillies' prospect package for Price, meaning that the Phillies should and would likely look a little further down the ladder. But who might that include?
From a rotation standpoint, names like Brett Anderson of the Oakland A's, Brandon McCarthy of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Chicago Cubs' Carlos Villanueva could all make sense. Each would come at different prices and the most expensive would likely be Anderson, who's younger than the other two and also has a club option for 2015. The other two would be free agents after 2014, which would give the Phillies some rotation flexibility in the future as their prospects get closer to reaching the majors.
Yovani Gallardo could also be a possibility, though his reputation might be more valuable than his production at this stage of his career. Although he'll turn just 28 years old in February, he could require a hefty prospect package in return for his services. Especially considering that the team trading him away is the Milwaukee Brewers, who lack a deep farm system, the return could be even higher.
Is the Phillies' best route to fix the rotation and bullpen through free agency or the trade market?
From a reliever standpoint, Matt Belisle of the Colorado Rockies and Luke Gregerson of the San Diego Padres could make sense from the right side, while Joe Thatcher could be a solid southpaw option. All would also be free agents after 2015, though, so while that aspect would appeal to the Phillies from a rotation standpoint due to prospect depth, the same can't be said for the bullpen. The Phillies need more plausible depth since most of the younger relievers have not panned out.
Thus, relievers like Casey Fien of the Minnesota Twins and Mike Dunn of the Miami Marlins could make more sense. Both are under team control for at least three years, with Fien under team control through 2018. Their returns could be slightly costly, but neither should command anything inconceivable.
In brief, the trade market is in flux and more will be clear at and after the winter meetings. For now, we can only speculate, but the above options all would make sense in some regards if the Phillies don't make any moves in free agency. As we've seen in the past with general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., though, we just don't know what he'll do, good or bad.