• Alec Liebsch

Phillies 2021 Trade Deadline Primer: Positions, Prices, and Probabilities

Baseball's inflection point is upon us. The All-Star Break is in the rearview and the Trade Deadline is fast approaching.


July 30 represents the last chance for teams to make meaningful changes to their rosters. Should your favorite team buy and sacrifice prospects in favor of more expected short-term success, or will it sell for long-term prosperity because it has fallen too far out of the playoff race?


Thanks to MLB's playoff structure, geography is destiny. The Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs are all vying for second in the NL Central, but none of them are likely to catch the Milwaukee Brewers. However, if any of them based camp in the NL East, they'd be within 3-5 games of the first-place New York Mets. At the same time, if you put anyone from the East in the NL West, they'd be dusted by the California cauldron of the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.


This season has given the Philadelphia Phillies a unique opportunity. Despite lumbering through the first half of the season in the most confusing, frustrating and uninspiring ways, a recent surge has put them right on the Mets' heels for the NL East crown. As of Tuesday morning they find themselves 47-46, 2.5 games back of the Mets and one game up on the Atlanta Braves.


The landscape could also look vastly different in nine days, as the Phillies are slated for four-game series against both the Braves and Washington Nationals leading up to the deadline. Every inning from now until the deadline will matter in Dave Dombrowski's calculus as he tries to get the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.


Speaking of Dombrowski, he's been very clear about his intentions. In an interview with John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia, the President of Baseball Operations was very open about the team's strengths, weaknesses and direction for the short term.


Dombrowski has never been one to shy away from the moment, and it doesn't look like he will here either. He's going to go down every path he can, and turn over every stone in his way, as he tries to turn the Phillies into a winner.


He said nothing out of the ordinary on Clark's podcast, but his honesty was refreshing. It seems he's not concerned with holding cards close to the vest; he's only concerned with making his team better. It's a bold strategy considering the leverage that could be lost, but it's an effective one for getting the job done. And everyone in baseball knows the Phillies have a lot to do before the deadline.


Bullpen


More saves blown than actual saves (23 to 22). 4.36 earned run average. 2.54 strikeouts per walk. 1.33 walks and hits per inning pitched. These are just some of the combined metrics for the most-used Phillies relievers this season (at least 10 innings pitched).


It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize how bad the bullpen is, but it will take some sorcery to shore it up without killing the farm. Big-time relivers command big-time trade packages, and the Phillies are low on ammo for that type of move.


Let's take Craig Kimbrel for example. One of the most battle-tested relievers in the game, Kimbrel has had a career renaissance in Chicago this season. He's given up just two earned runs, 11 hits and 11 walks in 33 2/3 innings (0.53 ERA, 0.653 WHIP) for a Cubs team that has faded out of the playoff picture. His pedigree speaks for itself, and his production this year indicates he's back to being one of the best closers in the game.


The Phillies desperately need a closer, and Kimbrel is likely to be the best one available. But can they satisfy the Cubs' asking price? There will be many suitors for the now eight-time All-Star, especially since he has a club option for next year ($16 million). Whoever gets him could have him for all of next year too, effectively a 1.5-year purchase.


It will cost the Phillies someone very talented (maybe even No. 3 prospect Francisco Morales) to get it done. Is that extra year of control enough for Dombrowski to pull the trigger? If he thinks Kimbrel can vault the Phillies into pennant contention, then it may be worth it. I have stipulations.


In the next tier is Pittsburgh Pirates closer Richard Rodriguez. He doesn't have Kimbrel's long-term pedigree, but he has an extra year of team control (last year of arbitration is 2023) and is making the most of a really bad situation. His style doesn't scram prototypical closer—he's more of a soft contact guy than a swing-and-miss flamethrower like Kimbrel—but he gets outs, and the Phillies need those however they can get them.


Rodriguez will probably cost less than Kimbrel in a trade. He's been lighting it up for a bad team, meaning he hasn't seen too many high-leverage situations. In Philly he'd be thrust into stressful spots from day one, especially if they designate him as their closer. Kimbrel's track record will work to Chicago's advantage (and to Pittsburgh's disadvantage) in trade talks.


(Credit: Erin Hooley, Chicago Tribune)


That could make him more attractive to the Phillies. Instead of giving up a coveted prospect for Kimbrel, they might be able to get away with sending out one or two mid-tier youngsters for Rodriguez. They could add a meaningful player to the core without taking a jackhammer to foundation.


Another bad NL team with an arm worth adding is the Colorado Rockies, as Mychal Givens is on the last year of his deal and having a solid year. He wouldn't be a candidate to close games, but as a middle relief fireman he could be way better than what the Phillies throw out there now. His teammate Daniel Bard is a more appealing option given his extra year of team control (arbitration next season) and relative efficacy in the closer role (2.63 ERA and 10 saves at Coors Field), but he will also cost more.


Having an even worse season than the Rockies is the Arizona Diamondbacks, whose closer Joakim Soria is suffering from being a part of it. His experience as a closer would be valued by Dombrowski. The Minnesota Twins have a few good pitchers to sell off, namely Jose Berrios, Taylor Rogers and Michael Pineda, but the former two are under team control through next season, lessening the impetus that they be traded this year (Berrios and Pineda are actually starters, but I felt like including them here). Ian Kennedy is definitely available, and the Texas Rangers have an incentive to trade him because he's expiring. He will likely be in another uniform by August, and the cost to make that change won't be steep. He's a good finishing touch rather than the addition everyone would highlight.


Two in-division options could be available if their teams falter: Yimi Garcia, the Miami Marlins' closer, and Daniel Hudson, one of the Nationals' middle relievers. Both are free agents in the winter, giving their incumbent teams a reason to get value now if they're not going to be in the playoff push. Neither should cost anything significant, seeing as Garcia should not be a closer and Hudson is a 34 year-old middle reliever.


Rotation


The entire pitching staff could use a boost. You can never have enough arms. But the Phillies can't just go out and buy starting pitchers recklessly; those guys are often bought at a premium, and the roster isn't complete enough to justify paying that price. Additionally, Dombrowski said on Clark's podcast that he's confident in his top trio of Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin. A fourth starter is not a top priority.


That was the case until Tuesday, when Eflin hit the 10-day injured list with tendinitis in his knee. The Phillies may be able to cobble together some solid outings from Vince Velasquez and the AAA guys (Bailey Falter just hit the COVID-related IL), but it's not a sustainable model when your 4 and 5 spots are already question marks. More than half the rotation is now compromised. Even if they can't get a legit No. 3, they have to try something.


Given the Phillies' farm system situation, the bargain bin will be their most likely shopping place if they go after a starter. Unfortunately, that dampens the appeal of whoever they do get, because he won't be a household name and his stats won't jump off the screen. But if they add one or two guys to the mix, it will induce much less anxiety than a bullpen game every fifth day.


Rockies starter Jon Gray has pitched really well in a ballpark that eats pitchers alive. But he's also a free agent in the winter, and his incumbent team doesn't look to be close to a contender. It behooves them to get value now. Whether the Phillies can match that value or not is the million dollar question surrounding this entire deadline, but finding out is very much worth it.


(Credit: Nick Laham, Getty Images)


The D-Backs are almost certainly going to trade Merrill Kelly, but they're likely to ask for more than the Phillies can give since he is their ace and has a club option for next season. Can Dombrowski pry Danny Duffy from the Kansas City Royals at a friendly price?


Matt Gelb of The Athletic mentioned three names that I find interesting: Zach Davies of the Cubs, Tyler Anderson of the Pirates, and Jordan Lyles of the Rangers. If any of them stick out as definitive upgrades over the in-house options, they're definitely obtainable at reasonable rates.


And of course there's Cole Hamels, who will not be traded but should be acquired by someone soon. The 37 year-old is recovering from a shoulder injury that has held him out all season, meaning he won't be ready to go until at least a month from now. The price to add him won't be high, but the upside is also pretty low. The argument for Hamels is that he can't be worse than Moore, Velasquez or Chase Anderson, but based on his most recent showcase, he might not be better either. And since the Phillies need immediate pitching help, he may be a "wait and see" candidate.


Defense


The pitching staff isn't solely to blame for how many runs the team gives up; Phillies fielders make up one of the worst defensive groups in baseball, and it's not too surprising to see why. Rhys Hoskins isn't the best fielder at first base, Didi Gregorious shouldn't be a shortstop, Alec Bohm is not a third baseman, and centerfield has been a revolving door all year. Usurping one of the infielders is unrealistic in the short term, but they can definitely plug the centerfield hole without hurting anyone's feelings.


And no, this doesn't mean they're getting Starling Marte. The Marlins are struggling to agree to an extension with him, but that's more because he thinks they're lowballing him rather than him not wanting to stick around. Miami has plenty of leverage to get a deal done, either with Marte or in a trade for him. He's the best outfielder available, and will likely be priced out of the Phillies range.


If the Twins do decide to sell, Byron Buxton is a guy Dombrowski could realistically go after. He's having a career year at the plate and is more healthy than usual, though there's always a chance those trends could normalize late in the season. Should he and Minnesota fail to agree to an extension, expect the Phillies and other second-tier contenders to sniff around for him.


When it comes to the infield, it depends what Dombrowski wants to reshuffle. Kris Bryant will be on everyone's radar, if for no other reason than to keep him away from division rivals. The Mets poached Francisco Lindor last winter; Dombrowski can't afford to let them get another one. His teammate, Javier Baez, would be a great addition to any ballclub, but he's a free agent at the end of the year and has serious interest in re-signing with Chicago. It wouldn't be smart for the Phillies to trade a big-time prospect for three months of Baez, just to see him re-sign with the team that traded him.


Another Rockies player destined for the trade block is Trevor Story, but he's also someone the Phillies might be better off waiting on until free agency. An extra half-season of convincing could be enough to keep him around long-term, but the Phillies should let money do the talking more so than prospects.


Dombrowski will have options, and he will exhaust all of them to make the Phillies better. He wasn't hired to tank. The Phillies will be buyers over the next week-plus; how much they buy is what's really up in the air.


My guess is that he hedges between the present and future. Going for broke with this team doesn't seem like the best allocation of resources. He's better off getting some mid-level bullpen help, maybe adding a cheap starter or two on the "2019 Jason Vargas" level, and hoping the bats stay hot down the stretch. No one player on the trade market will put the Phillies over the top.