In the weeks since the Winter Meetings in San Diego, one thing about the Phillies has been made clear. The lack of activity, despite several small holes in the roster, have gone unfilled. In fact, several free agents have signed with no rumor as to the Phillies being key players in the sweepstakes, such as Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-jin Ryu, and at some point Josh Donaldson. Even Dellin Betances, who had only been strongly linked to the Phillies, ended up signing elsewhere.
It is clear that the Phillies’ front office is working on a clear budget, and the earlier signings that they made took them out of contention for any more. At this point, we can conclude that the owners have left the front office with a payroll limit at the luxury tax line, of which the team is currently about $4 million under (and that can fluctuate based on the results of a couple of arbitration cases). Most impact free agents cost more than that or would take the team right up to the limit and prevent any more minor moves.
With more problems to fix, such as an extra starting pitcher, reliever, or bench infielder, the team needs to find cheap players that have been mostly forgotten out in free agency, ones that can keep them within their budget but also provide close to the value that they would have gotten from a player with a better reputation. This is my attempt to look at 5 players who stand out as free agents the Phillies can and should still make an effort to sign.
Wilmer Flores, INF
Flores, a former division rival who had spent his 2019 season in Arizona, fits the profile of a bench infielder perfectly. He has over 140 career games played at 1B, 2B, 3B, and SS. While he is still pretty young at 28, you could argue that his time at shortstop is past him, but the Phillies have plenty of depth there with Gregorius, Segura, and Kingery. What they do not have, is depth at any other infield position.
Considering Flores’ experience defensively at several positions and offensive production, it is surprising that he has not garnered more interest this offseason. The fact that he had a $6 million club option declined points toward his next deal almost certainly being more affordable than most options. A deal like that should be plenty worth it. In 285 plate appearances in 2019, Flores posted a 120 wRC+ and 117 DRC+, his fourth season in a row with above-average productivity. While that does include a higher BABIP than his generally low career rates (thanks to a high percentage of infield flyballs), his 2020 Steamer projection gives him a 111 wRC+ even with a low .290 BABIP. This is thanks to incredibly low strikeout rates and decent power.
The ability to hit home runs will be key to Flores this upcoming season. In the 2nd half of 2019, his ISO was about .100 higher than the first half. While the sample size Flores had last season is not very reliable for power metrics, but his increase in exit velocity in the 2nd half is similar to seasons in which he had an ISO above .200, pointing to the possibility that he has found a way to put the ball over the fence again.
The information we know points to Flores being definitely a solid hitter, let alone for somebody able to play all over the infield. The deficiency holding him back is a lack of defensive productivity. His career DRS at all 4 infield positions are negative, and his UZR is only positive at 1st base. However, more experience may have helped him lately, as his OAA was 0 in 2018 and +2 in 2019. If his improvement last season with the glove and late-season power stroke can translate into the new decade, Flores may be good enough to be a starter on some teams. Even if the best-case scenario does not happen though, Flores should be solid enough to hold down a bench spot over some current minor-league free agent options.
Drew Smyly, SP
Despite the Phillies’ need for starting pitcher, Smyly coming back seems unrealistic. Given that he ended the 2019 season with the team, if they were going to bring him back, it would have happened sooner. Either way, Smyly’s performance in the 2nd half of 2019 makes me believe that he could be worth signing, at least as an insurance policy for if Pivetta, Velasquez, and Eflin fail to progress.
2019 was Smyly’s first year back from a ton of time missed due to injury. He started off with the Rangers but performed extremely poorly in a little over 50 innings. After joining the Phillies and starting 12 games, he showed serious improvement. You could argue that the lack of effectiveness with Texas was due to rust and that much more stock should be put into the 2nd half of his season, in which he looked much more like his old self, and even displayed solid health.
With the Phillies, Smyly pitched his way to a 4.45 ERA, 4.26 xFIP, and 4.22 SIERA. That xFIP and Siera are above league average when adjusted for park factors, so he would definitely bring an upgrade if he could repeat that in a below-average rotation. Smyly might actually be even better than he was prior to his injury. His average fastball velocity was 91.8 mph, higher than any other season in his career. The horizontal movement on his fastball, which had gone down significantly with the Rangers, bounced back in the 2nd half of the season. His K-BB% of 17.9% is better than his career numbers. His 12.2% SwStr% would also be a career-best if it were a full season.
Of course, his success with the Phillies comes with a small sample size, but nearly all of his underlying numbers suggest that Smyly at the moment is as good as he was prior to his injury problems, and is arguably better thanks to increased velocity, a change in pitch usage rates, and more effective placement of pitches. Given the rest of the market, Drew Smyly seems to be the best option. I see no reason why he could not continue to do what he did while with the Phillies, which is about average, and an upgrade over the current state of the rotation.
Chances are, the Phillies do not make any more moves at catcher. Realmuto will continue to play more than any other catcher, so the backup at this position matters less to the Phillies more than other teams. In fact, there are more teams right now still looking for starting catchers than there are major-league caliber catchers available. Andrew Knapp and Deivi Grullon both represent capable options to start off the season as a backup catcher, even if neither are great. So in the end, a catcher signing with the Phillies does not seem to be a great fit.
With that being said, if Russell Martin continues to not get much more interest, the team would be smart to take a look. Martin is clearly past his prime, but many teams like to have older catchers on their bench in order to have more leadership and somebody who works with pitchers well. Martin has had a positive DRS every season this past decade and a positive framing grade in every year (according to several different metrics) While he has clearly declined defensively from his prime, he is still clearly an above-average defensive catcher, and likely an upgrade over what the team has now.
If there’s any concern, it is about his bat. In 2019 with the Dodgers, Martin had an 83 wRC+, his lowest in his career. However, it does not seem that he will repeat those struggles. He only had 249 plate appearances, and many came in pinch-hitting situations, so his overall statline should only be taken with a grain of salt. His Steamer projection is predicting a bounceback to a 92 wRC+, right around where he was in 2018. Specifically, it is the power that the projection system expects to bounce back.
In 2016 and 2017, Martin had an ISO around .160 both years. That stays aligned with career numbers and happened with fairly large sample size. Since then, Martin’s batted ball profile in terms of flyballs vs grounders has stayed consistent, he has pulled even more balls in the air, and his exit velocity numbers have stayed consistent as well. This points to his true talent in terms of power actually being around .160 rather than what he did in a limited season in 2019. His xwOBA even matches his 2018 wOBA, so maybe some was just batted ball luck in the end anyway.
If Martin continues to be an above-average defensive catcher, he displays the leadership expected from a veteran catcher, and is less than 10% worse than the average hitter at the plate, Martin could probably hold down a starting role. The interest this offseason seems to be pointing toward him getting a backup role though, and he should stay affordable for the Phillies. If they are in fact looking for an upgrade over Knapp, they do not need to look any further than Russell Martin.
Cameron Maybin, OF
Outfield may be the one place the Phillies are least likely to upgrade. While if there was an opportunity to upgrade center field over Adam Haseley, they could consider it, at this point the only affordable bats would fit best on the bench. And with Jay Bruce and Roman Quinn already there and out of options, any upgrade would have to make a significant impact to offer a deal.
Cameron Maybin strikes me as the one outfielder still out there that could do that. As somebody with experience and the athletic ability to play all three spots in the outfield and as a right-handed bat, he would fit well as a bench alternative to the less versatile but left-handed Jay Bruce.
Even at 32 years old, and even though he’s played most games in 2019 in the corner outfield, there doesn’t seem to be much question as to whether or not he could play in Center Field. His OAA has been positive 2 of the past 3 seasons and his sprint speed is still well above average at 28.7 mph. His baserunning has been solid as well, as his BsR has been positive 4 of the past 5 seasons. What will determine Maybin’s effectiveness in the new decade will be his bat.
Maybin broke out with the stick in 2019, posting a 127 wRC+ in 82 games with the Yankees after having a wRC+ under 90 the past two seasons. While teams do not expect a repeat of this most recent season (or else he would be in line for a very large deal) due to overperforming expected BABIP and wOBA, there is a chance that Maybin truly reinvented himself as a member of the Bronx Bombers. A career-high ISO was attained as a result of a career-low in GB/FB (a.k.a. A higher launch angle) and a Barrel% over double any other rate in his career. While sometimes players go through stretches with increased power and BABIP over the course of 200 plate appearances, Maybin’s underlying changes have been significant and he has never had a jump in exit velocity over 100 batted balls like this most recent season.
It is tough to say with confidence that Maybin can be who he was with the Yankees in 2020. But he should be able to play center field and he should at least match his 2019 DRC+ of 106, if not higher, with the bat. That is starter-worthy, and the Phillies could find a way to give him playing time even in what could end up a crowded outfield.
Arodys Vizcaino, RP
The other 4 “affordable” players detailed mostly are players with not much risk of them not performing and not much ceiling past an average role player. Should any be signed by the Phillies, they would only be expected to fill a hole in the roster, but nothing more. Arodys Vizcaino, on the other hand, might be a little bit more of a high-risk, high-reward option. Not only is he a reliever, but the former closer recently had his season end as a result of a shoulder injury. Should that injury persist, Vizcaino will not be able to consistently throw at the velocity as he has, which could lead to a quick decline. If he comes back healthy, maybe Vizcaino can pitch in high-leverage situations with the Phillies.
Despite having an ERA under 3 in the two seasons prior to his 4 inning season, I would not expect much of that. His xFIP in 2017 and 2018 was 4.21, and even though he has outperformed his xFIP by a lot throughout his career, he does not even have 200 career innings, so it is not easy to put much stock into that. However, I do think he can do better than that xFIP as well. His career xwOBA is under .300 and his Barrel% has been below league average throughout his career, despite being a flyball pitcher. Arguably, Vizcaino’s lack of home runs is due to his actual talent level, not due to batted ball luck.
His elite breaking ball also makes me believe that Vizcaino could be even better in the future. He does not use is an especially high percentage of the time, but a career SwStr% of 24%, Zone% of 38%, and xwOBA no more than .160 in each of his last 3 full seasons suggests that maybe that would be a smart decision. Vizcaino is under 30 years old, has a history of pitching well in high-leverage situations, has en elite breaking ball, a fast fastball, and solid command. It is a bit surprising that he has not received more attention this winter.