Out West, a colossus looms. After signing Shohei Ohtani to a record-setting $680 million contract, the Los Angeles Dodgers quickly followed it up by signing 25-year-old Japanese superstar Yoshinobu Yamamoto to a $325 million deal, the largest ever free-agent contract for a pitcher. Oh, and they also traded for Rays ace Tyler Glasnow. An extremely flexible salary cap–and a league that doesn’t seem to care about the near complete deferral of Ohtani’s contract–allowed them to do so.
In the Southeast, a highly motivated Atlanta team has been churning on all cylinders, first by trading for the Seattle Mariners promising young outfielder Jarred Kelenic and more recently, by shipping infielder Vaugh Grissom to Boston in return for seven-time All-Star pitcher Chris Sale. The incentive for the Dodgers and Braves to spend big and take risks this off-season is understandable. Both franchises won their respective divisions. Both tallied at least 100 wins. And both fell in the NLDS to a Wild-Card team.
Meanwhile in the Mid-Atlantic, the Phillies have had a far less flashy off-season. After signing Aaron Nola to a 7-year, $172 million extension, they have mostly stood pat. All of this spending by some of the Phillies’ biggest rivals in the National League brings up the question: can the Phillies compete with the Braves and the Dodgers with their current roster or are significant additions needed to level the playing field?
The truth is that until the Phillies play these teams on the biggest stage, we won’t know. However, we do know that there are two areas in the team’s roster that are still in flux–pitching and outfield–and that there is still time to address these pieces this off-season.
At first glance, the Phillies’ starting rotation isn’t in need of a major upgrade. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola remain one of the most effective one-two combinations in baseball, Ranger Suarez is as good a three as any, and Taijuan Walker should be a completely adequate four. The likely fifth starter, Cristopher Sanchez, while not flashy, is fine.
However, two of the top free agent starting pitchers–lefties Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery–remain on the market. Their mere presence, along with the Phillies aggressive pursuit of Yamamoto, begs the question of will and should the Phillies pursue one of the two?
Well, why not? Yes, the Phillies have stated that their priority is to sign Wheeler, set to hit free agency after this season, to an extension. The Phillies will likely have to overpay Wheeler–either in average annual value or in the length of the extension–but keeping their ace for the next few years is still a shrewd move. What’s appealing about Snell, the reigning N.L. Cy Young winner, or Montgomery, is that the price tag is assuredly less than what Yamamoto commanded from the Dodgers.
Both Snell and Montgomery could command anywhere from around $22 million to close to $30 million a year, with Montgomery likely being the cheaper of the two. Both have their deficiencies: Snell led the league in walks, with 99 over his 32 starts and has a not insignificant injury history. Neither has ever hit the 200-inning mark in their career. With the Phillies, however, neither would have to in order to be successful. Bolstered by the long-standing durability of Wheeler and Nola, Snell or Montgomery could function as an exceptional second or even third pitcher in the rotation. Another lefty would give manager Rob Thomson the leeway to stagger Snell or Montgomery in between Nola and Wheeler, with a five-man rotation of Wheeler, Snell/Montgomery, Nola, Suarez, and Walker. Sandwiched in between two workhorses, Snell or Montgomery could flourish in an environment where they don’t have to be the team’s number one pitcher.
With Bryce Harper set to become the Phillies’ full-time first baseman in 2024, an MVP-sized crater has been opened in the outfield. Nick Castellanos, Brandon Marsh, Johan Rojas and Cristian Pache have been left to fill that gap and results, to say the least, have been mixed. For once, defensively, the Phillies are in good hands. Rojas is an elite defensive center fielder and Marsh and Pache are both well above average, especially in the corner outfield positions.
The issues are with the trio’s offense. Marsh, likely to be the team’s starting left fielder, was perfectly adequate in 2023, posting a slash line of .277/.372/.458 with 12 home runs and 60 RBIs in 404 at bats. While it wasn’t the breakout season that everybody had hoped for, it wasn’t a step backwards. Pache, maligned with injury for much of the year, found his stroke towards the All-Star break before heading to the IL again until September. At that point, Rojas, who managed to hit .302 in the regular season, had staked his claim on the centerfield spot.
However, Rojas collapsed offensively in the postseason, hitting just .093 with a .114 on-base percentage in 43 at bats. His chase rate, which at 40.4% was already well above the league average of 28.5% during the regular season, jumped to 43.5% in the postseason. He was, by all means, a near automatic out in the postseason. It’s a luxury that, no matter how elite his defense may be, the Phillies cannot afford.
So what do the Phillies do? Rojas knows just as well as anybody that his Opening Day roster status is up in the air and has been working diligently to improve his swing. But what if it doesn’t take? What happens if in May, the Phillies are left with a platoon of center fielders that can’t hit, a left-fielder that is average offensively, and a wild card right fielder in Nick Castellanos?
Then Dave Dombrowski and the Phillies front office will have some decisions to make. It’s hard to believe that they won’t learn from their mistakes and upgrade come October if necessary. However, their belief in Rojas, Marsh, and Pache will likely prevent them from making any additional significant signings to the outfield this offseason, even with players like Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson still on the market. For the Phillies, it’s not a bad idea to wait and see what they have–they just need to move quickly, if they realize halfway through the season that they don’t have enough.