Storybook endings have their name for a reason. When Frankie “The Answer” Edgar took to the octagon for the final fight of his 17-year UFC career on Saturday night, the raucous crowd in Madison Square Garden was sure hoping for one. With his family ringside, the 41-year-old former UFC lightweight champion had decided to go down swinging one last time. An ovation to a hall of fame career. The stage was set. 20,000 fans rose to their feet. The bell rang.

Even I could tell Frankie Edgar had no business being in that fight. Under the harsh glare of the halogen lights Edgar looked old and out of place, his mottled cauliflower ears a remnant of a career stuck in his past. His opponent Chris Gutierrez, 10 years his junior, bounced around him like jackrabbit. I’m not sure Edgar touched him once. A few feeble leg sweeps, a couple of jabs, when suddenly, Gutierrez flashed upwards, and it was over – a flying knee to Edgar’s chin, knocking him out cold with 2:01 left in the first round. 

Much like Edgar’s ignominious finish to a stellar career in UFC 281, the Philadelphia Phillies didn’t get a Hollywood ending to their improbable, Cinderella run to the 2022 World Series. Such is life. Unlike Edgar, however, the Phillies do have the chance to bounce back. To make a statement. To cement their legacy. 

That window of opportunity first opened last Thursday night with the start of Major League Baseball’s Free Agency period. In 2022, majority owner John Middleton did what he had never done before, exceeding the MLB’s Competitive Balance Tax, or luxury tax threshold, of $230 million with a season-ending luxury tax payroll of $243 million, the 4th highest in baseball. While Middleton’s decision came with a first-time tax of $2.6 million, it was well worth the cost. The Phillies’ costly free agents, new and old, propelled the team to its first World Series berth since 2009 and first playoff appearance since 2011. Not only did the team’s success satiate the thirst of a fanbase athirst for playoff success, but it made a statement to the rest of the MLB, the National League in particular: The Phillies are no longer an expensive, underperforming team on the outside looking in, but a true title contender for years to come. They are the little brother no more, standing proudly at eye level with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, and San Diego Padres. The path to the World Series now runs through Philadelphia. 

In order to fulfill this potential, President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski has a lot of work to do this offseason. While the bones of the Phillies are strong, there are sizable gaps in the roster – some left purposefully, to be filled in the coming months. In 2022, the franchise not only proved more than worthy of Middleton’s investment, but that they could win in an unorthodox manner. They are not a team built upon the backs of homegrown prospects, their core is not the product of a strong player development system. Instead, it’s the product of an ineffectual one and the waning patience of an owner tired of losing. Three of their last seven first round picks are no longer with the organization – Alec Bohm, the adequate, yet underwhelming Bryson Stott, and the offensively streaky, defensively atrocious Rhys Hoskins are their only impactful home-grown position players. Farm system natives Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez, and Seranthony Dominguez are the only members of the pitching staff to make the list.

No, the Phillies have found incredible, unforetold success by simply throwing unfathomable amounts of money at their problems. While this approach is undoubtedly not sustainable, this miniscule window of contention is all they’ve got. Now, more than ever, Middleton and Dombrowski are all in on the present, which brings us to this winter, the most pivotal off-season in recent franchise history. With roughly $65 million off the books in free-agency, the Phillies have only $140.2 million in guaranteed salary commitments for 2023. Including estimated arbitration payouts, they have an estimated payroll of $173.6 million – without the signing of free agents. The first tier of the 2023 MLB luxury tax is set at $233 million. 

What the Phillies have in spending money, however, they lack in players. They are without two of five starting pitchers – Nola, Zach Wheeler, and Ranger Suarez are all that remain. They are without a middle infielder, most likely a shortstop. And they are without bullpen depth – three of their top arms, Dave Robertson, Corey Knebel, and Brad Hand are off to free-agency. 

Dombrowski’s most anticipated acquisition will likely be one of the four premier shortstops on the market: Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, or Dansby Swanson. All are excellent but Correa and Turner are at the top of every team’s list. Although Bryson Stott played admirably at shortstop in his rookie season, he’s likely to slide over to second base with the arrival of one of these four free agents. The blow of fan favorite Jean Segura’s departure will be all but forgotten with a splashy signing as well

Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox has been the name linked to the Phillies most recently, partially due to their time spent together in Boston – where Dombrowski inked Bogaerts to a six-year $120 million extension in 2019. Although Bogaerts is a formidable choice, likely worth the estimated $27 million AAV, I don’t value him as highly as Turner or Correa. Although Bogaerts had a defensive resurgence last season, earning Gold Glove consideration while posting 4 Defensive Runs Saved, 5 Outs Above Average, and a 1.3 Defensive WAR – better than both Turner and Correa – his glove has been his biggest concern over the course of his career. Since 2013, his defense has been merely average at best and ranks last amongst all MLB shortstops in DRS and 20th out of 23 in Outs Above Average. Furthermore, much of his resurgence has come from playing closer towards second base – although that’s allowed him to reach more balls up the middle, he’s continued to rank below average when fielding balls hit towards the third base hole. With an already defensively challenged team, the Phillies would benefit from an above average defensive shortstop with range – especially to cover up any continued growing pains from Alec Bohm at third base. 

Offensively, Bogaerts has seen his power numbers drop in each of the last three seasons, with his slugging percentage dropping 100 points, a troubling sign for a player entering his age 30 season. Although Bogaerts did slash .307/.377/.456 with 15 home runs and 73 RBIs in 2022, signing a shortstop on the wrong side of 30 with questionable defense and declining power leaves room for concern. Additionally, because the Phillies exceeding 2022’s luxury tax threshold, signing  Bogaerts – who declined Boston’s qualifying offer – they would forfeit their 2nd and 5th round picks in the upcoming amateur draft as well as lose $1 million in the International Signing bonus pool.

Trea Turner, on the other hand, presents the best value amongst all four shortstops, even with an estimated $33.5 million AAV coming his way. A former teammate of Bryce Harper, Turner would provide the Phillies with much needed speed at the top of the order, not to mention contact and power. Last season, Turner hit .298/.343/.466 with 21 home runs and 27 stolen bases in 30 attempts. In the past four seasons, he’s hit .298 or better, averaging 26.5 home runs and 35.1 steals per 162. He’s played in 89.6% of all possible games in that time span and has never posted a 20% strikeout rate in a full MLB season. Turner could remedy a lineup severely struggling in the speed and strikeout department at the top of the order – read Kyle Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins – and provide consistent contact to an offense that sorely needs it. Although Turner has been rated as a merely average defender by DRS and OAA metrics since 2018, his extreme athleticism is by far the best of the group and could pave the way for time spent at second base or even in the outfield – his athletic ceiling would provide infield coach Bobby Dickerson, responsible for the transformation of Alec Bohm, much to work with. 

Featured Image: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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