SAN DIEGO — Less than four hours after Dave Dombrowski rested on a seventh-floor sofa at the Manchester Grand Hyatt and said, “I can’t say we’ve made any progress” in finding a mid-rotation starter, The Phillies had agreed in principle to a four-year, $72 million deal for Taijuan Walker. The experienced manager was not deceitful. The deal came quickly, according to major league sources.
As Walker talks progressed Tuesday night, the Phillies struck an agreement with Matt Strahm, a left aide. So it was official. This was the Phillies’ winter meetings, a two-day flurry in which the defending National League champions declared they were serious about capitalizing on the momentum of their post-season magic run – and have no time for efficiency concerns.
They committed $372 million to cover their two biggest needs. They’re financial juggernauts in a stacked NL East made up of three teams with World Series ambitions and the wherewithal to spend something like that. They tried out postseason baseball at Citizens Bank Park, and it was exhilarating, especially for the people signing the paychecks.
The Phillies were expensive underdogs in October. So much has changed since then.
Earlier Tuesday, before the Phillies and Walker were matched, Phillies manager Rob Thomson popped questions in a small banquet room. There’s still offseason work for the front office — a couple of middle reliefs are next — but the Phillies now have a good idea of what the 2023 roster will look like. Thomson has already started thinking about how to hit the right note in Florida.
“There are a few things I want to talk about in spring training,” Thomson said. “One of those is expectations — high expectations — and that’s a good thing, because that means you’re probably pretty good and you have to deal with that.”
Expectations haven’t been this high since 2011, when the Four Aces were set to deliver another deep October run. It took a decade to recover from this disappointment. Now, in 2023, the Phillies will field one of the better paper rosters in club history. The addition of Trea Turner, one of the sport’s most exciting players, was the prize.
But Walker was just as important. The Phillies needed innings. They didn’t buy in at the top of the rotation market, and after giving up two draft picks to sign Turner, they were reluctant to do it again to get a mid-rotation pitcher. They valued innings and reliability. So that led her to Walker. He was one of only 26 pitchers to pitch at least 150 innings in each of the past two seasons. The volume bar is getting lower and lower every year. Walker, who turns 31 in August, has had it since his Tommy John surgery in 2018.
This did not go unnoticed by his agent Scott Boras.
“You can see in the market that there’s quite a number of pitchers that pitch 60 and 70 innings that have been tracked … on the verge of about $13 (million) to $15 million a year because of the demand for quality pitching is so big,” Boras said Tuesday morning before Walker signed. “So Tai (30) is one of the younger ones, one of the more long-lived ones, and we expect to see him heavily pursued as his market develops.”
The Mets made no qualifying bid for Walker, who was a better starter than league average in 2022. That helped his market. The Phillies paid for certainty, and while Walker might not have looked like an old workhorse, he was one of the closest things to him in this free agent market.
Walker plays in a rotation with Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suárez. The Phillies reserve fifth for a collection of younger pitchers. There is a strong belief within the organization that Andrew Painter can win a spring training rotation spot. Painter, 19, is one of baseball’s best pitchers. The Phillies treated him with an unusual kind of aggressiveness because they think he’s that good and that he can handle it.
But he won’t field 200 innings or even 160 in the majors next season. He won’t make 32 starts if he breaks camp with the Phillies. The team has considered various solutions to accommodate him. They like prospects Mick Abel, another former first-round pick, and Griff McGarry. All three could be factored into rotation plans during the season.
“But,” Thomson said, “the guy we’re eyeing to potentially get into that roster starting in the spring is Painter.”
Thomson didn’t see it open. Has he started asking people about the view?
“We don’t even have to ask,” Thomson said. “They just tell you how good this guy is and the makeup and the intangibles and the athleticism, all that stuff. And I watched a little tape and it’s real.”
The Phillies also like Bailey Falter, and it’s possible they’re using him to manage Painter’s load. The club has discussed various rotation arrangements. Painter made 22 starts in the minors last season and hit 103 2/3 innings.
“Well, to jump to 200 innings, that would be a bit much,” Dombrowski said Tuesday. “But I think you could start a number of games depending on what happens. You get the All-Star Game, you work your way through these days. You have days off, you work them off. You could use a sixth starter if you wish to do this. All of these things are possible.”
A six-man rotation can also act as a buffer for Wheeler, Nola and Suárez to balance their larger workload in 2022. Realistically, the Phillies have at least eight viable rotation options — experienced and inexperienced — and that’s the best depth they’ve amassed in a long time.
There isn’t much to do this winter. Dombrowski expects to sign a few more middle reliever types. The market is overflowing with them; The Phillies can wait and throw some darts later.
They gave a tidy chunk of their bullpen budget to Strahm, a 31-year-old left-hander whose average fastball speed in 2022 was when he spent his first full season in the bullpen. He agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal, according to a major league source. Strahm is the rare helper who used five different pitches, and the Phillies have been able to hone his repertoire. He had better numbers against righties in 2022; The Phillies could still be looking for a third left to fit in the bullpen alongside Strahm and Jose Alvarado.
On Thursday, the Phillies will introduce gymnasts in a No. 7 jersey at Citizens Bank Park. They will have another event for Walker soon after. The lineup is set. Rotation is almost here – spring training is set to be an intriguing time for the organization’s young starters.
“There are always opportunities to be creative,” Dombrowski said.
The Phillies haven’t needed a creative approach to their offseason so far. They attacked with precision and power. In two days here they announced their intentions with an exclamation mark.
(Top photo by Taijuan Walker: Vincent Carchietta/USA Today)