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Dombrowski On Phillies’ Offseason, Wheeler, Rojas, Painter

Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski joined the 94 WIP Morning show with Joe DeCamara and Jon Ritchie on Wednesday, touching on a broad-reaching number of Phillies topics (Audacy link to the entire 20-minute interview). It’s a good listen for fans of any club — Phils fans in particular, of course — wherein Philadelphia’s top decision-maker discusses his team’s relatively quiet offseason, the state of the rotation and the outfield, Zack Wheeler’s future with the club, top prospect Andrew Painter’s health and quite a bit more.

Among the more notable takeaways was Dombrowski’s reply when asked a potential late move for one of the remaining big-name starters on the board. Dombrowski didn’t comment on either Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery by name but expressed that he’s content with the club’s rotation. As far back as early November, Dombrowski touted fifth starter Cristopher Sanchez as someone the team believes can be a big regular in the rotation, and his comments today mesh with that line of thinking. Dombrowski didn’t expressly rule out the addition of another starter but implied that the team wasn’t about to pay market rate for one of the remaining names out there.

“I can’t tell you that somebody doesn’t fall into your lap at some point where you say, ’Gee, that’s an opportunity we can’t turn down,’” Dombrowski said. That suggests a willingness to remain open-minded to some late, unexpected drops in price but doesn’t sound like a portent for an aggressive pursuit of a top-tier free agent.

That said, there was at least one name the Phillies considered worthy of an exception: Yoshinobu Yamamoto. It’s already been reported that the Phillies were a legitimate suitor for the 25-year-old NPB ace before he signed a record deal with the Dodgers, and Dombrowski now confirms that his team was “very involved” in Yamamoto’s market. The veteran baseball ops leader went so far as to say that others might be “shocked” to learn how much money the Phillies ultimately offered — naturally, he declined to specify — before indicating that Yamamoto simply had a preference to be a Dodger. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Scott Lauber reported last week that the Phils also made a 12-year offer, although it’s unclear if they were willing to match the $325MM guarantee which Yamamoto received from Los Angeles.

Obviously, any multi-year addition to the rotation could provide the Phillies with some insurance in the event that Wheeler departs as a free agent at season’s end. But Dombrowski called Wheeler “one of the best pitchers in baseball” and stressed that it’s “important” and a “priority” for the Phillies find a way to re-sign the right-hander.

Wheeler, 34 in May, has outperformed the five-year, $118MM contract he signed with the Phillies in the 2019-20 offseason. He’s garnered Cy Young consideration in three of his four Phillies seasons, highlighted by a second-place finish in 2021 and a sixth-place finish in 2023.

Over the past four seasons, he’s tied with Corbin Burnes for the fourth-most innings in Major League Baseball and leads MLB in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement. He’s notched a tidy 3.06 ERA despite typically playing in front of one of the game’s weakest defenses, thanks in large part to a sharp 26.7% strikeout rate and excellent 5.3% walk rate. A new contract for Wheeler would begin with his age-35 season, which caps his earning potential to an extent, but recent history has shown teams are willing to pay elite arms even at the late stages of their careers.

A look at MLBTR’s Contract Tracker highlights some recent examples of age-35 (or older) pitchers cashing in. Jacob deGrom signed a five-year deal with a $37MM annual value, while Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander both inked multi-year deals at a $43.333MM AAV. The AAV on Yu Darvish’s extension, beginning in his age-37 season, is just $18MM — but that was a function of the Padres drawing out the term in order to drive down the annual salary for luxury-tax purposes. Darvish still secured a $90MM guarantee on that frontloaded deal and was two years older than Wheeler will be in year one of a theoretical free agent pact or extension. Suffice it to say, Wheeler will be the relatively rare big leaguer who has a chance at multiple nine-figure contracts in his career.

On the point of the team’s defense, Dombrowski cited that as a primary reason the team has not pursued additional outfield help with much aggression this spring. Young Johan Rojas dazzled with his defensive ratings (+15 Defensive Runs Saved, +6 Outs Above Average) in just 392 innings of center field work. Asked if Rojas will be the team’s primary center fielder this season, Dombrowski all but anointed the 23-year-old.

“Likely? Yes,” Dombrowski replied. “Definitively? No. We saw enough the last couple months in August and September that we liked what we saw. I’ve talked to our hitting people at length about his progress over the winter time. He’s worked extremely hard. He’s made adjustments that he needs to make. I’m not saying he’s going to come up and hit .300 with 20 home runs off the bat, but I think he can do enough offensively and contribute from an offensive perspective. And when you add his speed and his defense, all of a sudden he becomes a real plus for us. So yes, I do think he’ll be up, but he has to earn that, too. We’re not just going to give it to him.”

Even as he made those caveats, Dombrowski also spoke of the team’s desire to get Kyle Schwarber more time at designated hitter and to keep Bryce Harper at first base as a means of improving the defense (as opposed to the alternative scenario where Schwarber plays left field and Rhys Hoskins were re-signed to split time between DH and first base). Rojas’ bat looked impressive during his brief regular-season look, as he hit .302/.342/.430 in 164 plate appearances, but that was buoyed by an unsustainable .410 average on balls in play. His bat went ice cold in the playoffs, too, as Rojas fell into a woeful 4-for-43 swoon and struck out in a third of his plate appearances.

Despite the postseason struggles, it appears Rojas will have first crack at the regular center field job. The Phillies are generally thin in terms of outfield depth, and this afternoon’s DFA of Simon Muzziotti could add to that if he’s traded or claimed by another club. There’s perhaps the chance that the Phils could add a bench bat to the mix, and outfield would be a natural spot, given the lackluster offensive contributions of Jake Cave and limited track record of Cristian Pache.

Dombrowski acknowledged the possibility of adding a bench bat, simply noting “that might end up happening,” but he didn’t characterize it as a major item that’s yet to be checked off the to-do list. Speaking in general terms, the Phillies’ president again implied that between wanting to give Rojas a real chance and the veteran nature of much of his roster, free agents have seen greater opportunity for playing time with other clubs thus far. There’s still quite a few names yet unsigned, so it stands to reason that the Phils could eventually find a bargain addition to deepen the mix. Pache, Cave and utility infielder Edmundo Sosa are all out of options, however, so adding a player to the bench mix would likely mean jettisoning someone like Cave, who’s already agreed to a $1MM salary for the 2024 season. That isn’t likely to be a major roadblock to any further additions, but it’ll factor into the calculus all the same.

The Phillies will effectively return the same bullpen in 2024, though again, Dombrowski indicated it’s not necessarily for lack of trying. He noted that the team has been in on at least “a couple” of notable names but that one, in particular, took an opportunity to be a starting pitcher elsewhere. Another simply preferred to be closer to his home on the west coast. Again, Dombrowski didn’t mention names, though Jordan Hicks and Reynaldo Lopez stand out as two bullpen arms who surprisingly landed rotation opportunities in free agency (Hicks in San Francisco, Lopez in Atlanta). Hicks, in particular, was rumored to be on the Phillies’ radar as a free agent.

Starting pitching depth, too, has been a recent area the Phillies have been searching. They signed former Braves first-rounder Kolby Allard to a split big league deal last month due in no small part to the fact that he has a minor league option remaining. That same line of thinking surely influenced today’s claim of righty Max Castillo from the Red Sox.

The Phillies have top prospects Mick Abel and Griff McGarry working through the minor league system, and while both could make their debuts in 2024, neither has yet pitched even five innings above the Double-A level. Painter was a rotation candidate early last season but wound up going down with an elbow injury that ultimately required Tommy John surgery. Dombrowski said in this morning’s interview that Painter has begun “tossing” a ball recently and is on schedule but that the organization is “looking toward 2025” with regard to the prized righty and isn’t planning on him pitching in games this season. There’s always the possibility his recovery progresses more quickly than expected, but the 20-year-old right-hander doesn’t appear to be someone the Phillies are banking on for even a late-season cameo.

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