MLB free agency: Dave Dombrowski says the Phillies will be aggressive

The Phillies exceeded the luxury tax for the first time in franchise history last offseason and the results were so encouraging that they’ll likely be just as aggressive this winter.

If they thought a year ago they were close to contention, coming two wins shy of winning a World Series will only reinforce the notion.

“We’re going to push the needle to try to win,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Wednesday. “We’re close, we’re going to try to win. Would I prefer to be under (the luxury tax?) Yeah, I would prefer to be under but I couldn’t say we’re going to be under. We ‘re going to try to do what we can to make our club a championship-caliber club.

“We have flexibility.”

Significant money came off the Phillies’ payroll the day after the World Series. They freed up $75 million, although they’ll also have to account for about $10 million in raises for players not yet eligible for free agency.

Their estimated luxury tax payroll as of now is in the range of $185 million, far below the $233 million threshold for 2023.

Much can be accomplished with that money. It’s enough for another superstar contract, the addition of rotation depth and the building out of a bullpen.

The Phillies have been heavily connected to the top of the shortstop market, which is led by Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa and Dansby Swanson. The middle infield is the clearest and potentially only everyday position the Phillies can upgrade this winter since they’re locked into their starters everywhere else in the field. First base will continue to be a topic of discussion in that regard as Rhys Hoskins enters his final year under team control.

The addition of any of those four top shortstops — particularly Turner — would make an enormous difference in the Phillies’ lineup, bringing another table-setting and run-producing bat that could help offset the early-season loss of Bryce Harper and add a layer of protection if 2022 was a sign of what’s to come with Nick Castellanos.

The shortstop talk has grown so loud that Phillies fans are expecting a major signing. Would Dombrowski be surprised if he can’t check off the item in a major way?

“I wouldn’t say that I’d be surprised, but we’re open to a lot of things,” he said.

The vacancy was created when Jean Segura’s contract came to an end. While Segura performed up to his career standards in four seasons with the Phillies, hitting .281 with an OPS two percent better than the league average, it’s a clear spot to upgrade. The Phillies are excited about the future of 25-year-old Bryson Stott, who was asked by manager Rob Thomson at the season’s end whether he preferred being at shortstop or second base and responded “in the majors.”

“We would sign one middle infielder,” Dombrowski said when asked if the Phillies could sign a top shortstop and also bring back Segura.

“If it’s a second baseman or shortstop, we have Stott, we like Stott, we want Stott to play. We think he’s only going to get better. We have Edmundo Sosa, too, but I think at least knowing that we want Stott to play, we could use Sosa as a utility guy. So if we sign one, it precludes anything else at this point.”

The starting pitching market

Starting pitching is arguably an even bigger need for the Phillies, who did it in the playoffs and continued to advance without having a No. 4 starters. They used Noah Syndergaard and Bailey Falter in abbreviated starts in that spot and felt they couldn’t trust Kyle Gibson.

Syndergaard and Gibson are free agents. So is Zach Eflin, who started 115 games for the Phillies from 2016-22 before returning from injury late last season as a reliever.

One free-agent option came off the board early in Tyler Anderson, the former Dodgers lefty who agreed Wednesday to a three-year, $39 million deal with the Angels.

The free-agent class of starting pitchers includes Carlos Rodon, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt, Jameson Taillon, Sean Manaea, Taijuan Walker, Andrew Heaney, Syndergaard, Eflin, Nate Eovaldi, Jose Quintana, Ross Stripling, Michael Wacha and Mike Clevinger, among others.

Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suarez provide a solid foundation from which to build, but the Phillies know they need starting pitchers, plural. They are keeping a spot open for youth but aren’t going to pin their pitching hopes on a potential rookie like top prospect Andrew Painter to start 30 games or for Falter or Cristopher Sanchez to occupy the fifth spot. Painter could still find his way to Philadelphia quickly, especially with an impressive spring training, but teams need at least seven, eight, nine starters to make it through 162 games these days.

“We feel that we probably need to do something from a starting pitching perspective, at least somebody for depth even though we have the big three guys and we have Falter and Sanchez and somebody like Painter coming,” Dombrowski said.

“We know how important depth is so we’re open-minded to that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a top-of-the-rotation kind of guy but we’ll explore that market.

“We are keeping a spot open for a youngster. Could two (make it)? Perhaps, but we’re really only looking at one. Not that two at some point won’t be pitching in your rotation, but I do think that having another veteran arm, we do need to fill a slot like that.”

As important as any offseason addition is the health of the arms of Wheeler and Nola. There were concerns about Wheeler after his velocity dipped in Game 2 of the World Series, but he looked strong in a dominant Game 6 showing. Dombrowski said Wednesday that Wheeler is healthy.

Nola, the major-league leader in innings the last five seasons, threw more in 2022 than ever before.

“They pitched a lot of innings. You’re always going to watch that going into the next year, but I don’t know why they wouldn’t be ready to pitch the season, why they wouldn’t be ready to go, ” Dombrowski said. “I’ve had this throughout my career that pitchers were going four years in a row making the playoffs and pitching these innings or more and were already ready to go. So I don’t really think that’s an issue.”

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