PHILADELPHIA — It’s one thing for a veteran baseball executive to sit in a dugout eight days before the trade deadline and talk about how he won’t trade his best prospects. Team officials do this every summer. But the Phillies are in “win-now” mode because they have the largest payroll in franchise history and haven’t played a postseason game in a decade, so it’s all hypothetically on the table. table.
About 10 minutes into Dave Dombrowski’s session with reporters on Monday afternoon, he was asked about acquiring generational talent. Wink wink. No, the Phillies are not in the market for Juan Soto. Dombrowski, the club’s president of baseball operations, explained how he likes star players but feels the Phillies lack talent in their organization.
“We’re more…” Dombrowski began, then stopped. “This,” he said, “is a subject for another day.” Then he continued to talk.
“The strength of our organization right now is our young starting pitcher,” Dombrowski said. “It’s a very talented group of young starting pitchers. And the other thing that I found about talented young starting pitchers, and you can check where I’ve been, sometimes they get to the big leagues very quickly. I’m not saying this year, but there are people who could compete for places next year who are young people. I’ve had no problem casting guys who are 20 years old and very successful and putting them in the big leagues. And they’re so good that some of these guys could pitch here.
“So I don’t just want to think short-term – boom. I’m not saying they will. But they will go to spring training with us next year. I mean, some of these guys are really good.
Dombrowski is not stupid. He knows that every word he speaks is dissected. “No offense,” he said of the August 2 trade deadline, “but I just don’t want to go public with what we’re going to do.” So drop that gushing prospect under nothing more than an intriguing thought he wanted to share with everyone at a time when the Phillies desperately need improvements through a trade.
It’s not a bad turn: The Phillies have told other clubs that Andrew Painter, Mick Abel and Griff McGarry are unavailable. The Phillies haven’t boasted a collection of high-end rotational prospects like these three in some time. All three are by consensus among the top 100 prospects in the sport.
If that’s the club’s reckoning — that Painter, for example, is really in play for a major league role in 2023 — then it makes sense for the Phillies to take a conservative path right now. They want to trade for a pitcher late in the rotation. Dombrowski confirmed it. Otherwise, they will look for marginal additions. It’s wise not to rule out a potential surprise from Dombrowski, but she won’t reach the level of the Phillies by giving up a top prospect.
Perhaps, however, an organizational plan emerged in Dombrowski’s words. The Phillies preached patience with the development plans of Painter and Abel, who were drafted in the first round of high school. Painter is 19 years old. Abel will be 21 in August. McGarry, who is 23 and already at Double A, is on a faster track. But it was hard to see how the Phillies could merge that flurry of pitching with the early years of their high-priced roster currently at the majors. Even an aggressive plan for Painter wouldn’t have him in the majors until mid-to-late 2024.
Then Dombrowski changed the public schedule to Monday.
“It’s a fun situation, and it’s always one of those where people don’t (recognize it) until they’re a little higher in Double A,” Dombrowski said. “Now all of a sudden in Double A, McGarry has thrown six shutout innings and he’s already on a top 100 prospect list, right? But now it’s like, ‘Wow, look that.’ That’s what it takes sometimes when they get to that level We have a few other pitchers that it doesn’t necessarily take because they’re so good but once they get to Double A I don’t have never had a problem getting Double-As (players) into the big leagues.”
It is both ambitious and sensible. The Phillies have a club option on Aaron Nola for 2023. Zack Wheeler is signed through 2024. The two-fifths in the rotation will need to be replaced for next season. Maybe the Phillies are pushing top prospects to allocate salary resources elsewhere. A star shortstop, perhaps?
Pitching prospect ratings explain why the Phillies are reluctant to cash in on any of them in a trade for a top-flight starter they’d have for a year and two months. Maybe the Phillies are squeezing their prospects too tight. The price to acquire a great pitcher next week, in Dombrowski’s estimation, is not commensurate with the team’s chances. A more modest addition is reasonable.
“There are a lot of clubs trying to explore and acquire,” Dombrowski said of ongoing trade negotiations for starting pitchers. He added, “Where we are right now, you could ask for a No. 5 starter and they could ask you for your No. 1 prospect. I mean, that’s where you are. … We still have eight days because (the deadline is) 6 a.m. next Tuesday. It’s an eternity to the trade deadline.
Dombrowski will find a match – or two – because that’s what he does at this time of year. Whether that’s enough to push the Phillies into the expanded playoff field remains to be seen. The Phillies will hype Jean Segura, who heads to Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Tuesday on a rehab assignment, and Bryce Harper as their biggest “acquisitions.” Harper did not have the pins removed from his broken left thumb Monday when he saw a doctor. They will try again next week. He’s still weeks, maybe a month, away.
Harper turns 30 in October. He hasn’t played in a postseason game since he was days away from his 25th birthday. Everything the Phillies have done in recent years is to maximize Harper’s bounty. He still has many productive years left.
The Phillies’ failed teams of recent years were too heavyweight. This one is a little more balanced but still imperfect. One way to build a more dynamic roster would be an influx of one or two young, high-cap starting pitchers. Dombrowski has a history of pushing young pitchers, which he alluded to.
Rick Porcello was selected in the first round of the 2007 draft and made his Detroit debut at age 20 in April 2009. Jeremy Bonderman was drafted as a high schooler in 2001, acquired by Dombrowski in 2002, and made the Detroit’s 2003 Opening Day roster as a 20-year-old starter. Justin Verlander was 22 when he debuted. Andrew Miller, a varsity pick, was in a major league rotation the year after being drafted. Livan Hernández, 22, made 17 starts for the Florida Marlins in 1997. And two 22-year-olds, Eduardo Rodríguez and Henry Owens, combined to make 32 starts for the 2015 Red Sox.
This is all wishful thinking for 2023. It explains how the Phillies will perform in 2022, although it’s not like Dombrowski plans to sit idle at the deadline. The Phillies just won’t go all-in to end the drought.
“We’re trying to make the playoffs,” he said. “If we win the division, that’s great. But we’re sitting, what, nine and a half games from first place? But if you make the playoffs, anything can happen. And I think if we’re in a short series, like we are, we have a nice structure for a short series.
(Dave Dombrowski top photo: Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)