The Phillies Need to Acquire Another Starting Pitcher

Yu Darvish just received a 6 year contract from the Cubs. Darvish is the first of the major free agent starting pitchers to sign, leaving Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn all currently unsigned. All three of them rejected their qualifying offers and with Darvish getting below anticipated market, but not dramatically so, they should all get paid close to market. Right now the Phillies are projecting a rotation of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Ben Lively.

The Cost:

Darvish is getting $21M a season with $25M a year possible with near impossible incentives. Based on history, Scott Boras will want to get his client (Arrieta) the best in some way either in guaranteed money or guaranteed money a year. given that $100M is a nice round number, Boras could get $22M for Arrieta for 5 years at a total contract of $110M and call it a win. Based on the Darvish contract, it is hard to see Arrieta really going below 5/$100M on his contract. Based on history we expect Cobb and Lynn to get somewhere between $16M and $20M a year. If we say 4 years on those deals, we get deals that are probably 4/$72M or 5/$80M assuming a higher AAV on the shorter deal.

The Phillies currently have a payroll against the luxury tax of under $70M and if we just view that as a cash allocation because of the front loaded deals to Santana, Neshek, and Hunter, the Phillies are still under $80M in financial outlay. They have the money to sign multiple players and right now they don’t have any major upcoming free agents for another 4 years.

As for the qualifying offer, the cost would be the Phillies’ 3rd round pick because they already surrendered their 2nd round pick to sign Carlos Santana. They would not lose any more international signing pool money. Historically the Phillies 3rd round pick ends up towards the back of my top 30. It is a halfway decent prospect, but not a prospect that anyone would be sad to see traded for a solid major league reliever or as the 4th piece in a trade for a SP.

The Projections:

Both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA)  have the Phillies projected at 78 wins. Projection systems by their nature are conservative, so rather than compare to the past, I want to compare to other teams. In Fangraph’s metrics, the Cubs, Nationals, and Dodgers are projected for large division leads, the Phillies are not catching the Nationals. If we look at just the Wild Card, the Mets, Brewers, Giants, Cardinals, and Rockies are all projected for 82 to 84 wins. That puts the Phillies at 4 to 6 games of “true” talent behind the wild card. PECOTA has a similar gap with the Diamondbacks projected at 86 wins, but the rest of the wild card contenders projecting out at 84 wins at the high end.

The Current State:

Here is the Phillies projected rotation and spot starters from the two projection sources.

Fangraphs PECOTA
Opening Day Rotation
Player IP ERA fWAR IP ERA WARP
Aaron Nola 180 3.77 3.9 168 3.46 3.2
Jerad Eickhoff 159 4.94 1.2 142 4.45 1
Vince Velasquez 122 4.65 1.3 127 4.05 1.5
Nick Pivetta 157 4.56 1.8 126 4.54 0.7
Ben Lively 93 5.32 0.3 126 5.08 -0.1
Spot Starters
Mark Leiter Jr 110 4.76 1.1 80 4.94 0.1
Jake Thompson 45 5.45 0.1 80 4.62 0.4
Zach Eflin 28 5.25 0.1 64 5.29 -0.2

At best the Phillies are getting nothing out of their 5th starter, and at worst they are getting a minor negative. It doesn’t get much better when going deeper in the 6th-8th starters. Fangraphs likes Leiter and PECOTA likes Thompson to some extent, but neither is going to carry a rotation. No matter how you slice it, any pitching upgrade is an upgrade on zero. That isn’t really the end of it either. Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff are coming off of injury. Given his history, Velasquez is probably not going to put up 122 innings of mediocre baseball. He is likely to put up 120-150 of pretty good baseball or 60 of terrible baseball. He is running out of time to be a starting pitcher or much of anything for the Phillies, but if he goes down you are dipping into that thin spot starter pool. This means that even if the Phillies were to acquire another starter, there is enough injury and regression risk in their existing group of pitchers to open up innings for some of their marginal starters looking for innings.

What Does An Upgrade Get?

The answer is probably 2-3 wins. Arrieta put up about 2-2.5 wins in a down year last year. If you get Cy Young level Arrieta you are probably a playoff team on that alone. If you get 2016 Arrieta that is probably a 3-4 win upgrade. Lynn and Cobb are 2-3 win pitches with about 4 wins as their ceiling. But ideally you are looking at about 180 innings of 3 WAR pitcher from either of them in 2018. That doesn’t put the Phillies in a Wild Card spot on it’s own, but it does get them in striking range and it insulates them some from their own depth issues. A 1-3 win gap from a Wild Card starts to allow for luck in wins, players beating projection, and midseason trades to propel the team forward.

What is the Alternative?

The Phillies could just run out what they have, finish close to .500 call it a success and try to use all of their money to make a big leap next year.

There is always a trade, but right now it looks like Jake Odorizzi is the only SP that is in their price range (the Archer price continues to be enormous). Odorizzi is the same type of pitcher as Lynn or Cobb, just cheaper. It also appears he would cost a significant piece.

There are some free agent alternatives:

  • Jaime Garcia – Garcia is probably good for wins of value and won’t cost very much. He also is a huge injury risk. Probably doable on a 1 or 2 year contract. Makes sense as a second SP acquisition.
  • John Lackey – Lackey looked finished last year and is probably a below average pitcher now.
  • Jason Vargas – If you believe in DRA (3.83), then Vargas might be the bargain of the offseason, but he is also 35 and his ERA (4.16) and FIP (4.64) disagree about how good he actually is.
  • Andrew Cashner – Andrew Cashner put up a 3.40 ERA last year. He also walked 64 and struck out 86 in 166.2 innings, and had a 4.58 FIP and 4.81 DRA. He is almost certainly the pitcher he was in 2015 and 2016 and not the one he was in 2017.
  • Chris Tillman – Until last year, Tillman had pitched at least 170 innings for the past 4 seasons. FIP didn’t love him, but he was a consistently solid pitcher. He also put up a 7.84 ERA in 93 innings last year.

There are more starters on the market, but when we start talking Jeremy Hellickson it is fair to ask if they are actually an upgrade.

What Should they do?

The Phillies have already made a sizable financial investment this offseason. Those moves have made the competitive, but not a contender. Any signing would be an upgrade on their #5 starter, but by swinging for one of the top 3 starters, the Phillies could move themselves into the Wild Card conversation. Without making a move, the Phillies waste their early offseason signings.

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