SAN DIEGO — Not four hours after Dave Dombrowski snuggled up on a seventh-floor couch at the Manchester Grand Hyatt and said, “I can’t say we’ve made any progress” in the search for a starting midfield, the Phillies agreed in principle to a four-year deal worth $72 million for Taijuan Walker. The veteran CEO did not disappoint. The agreement, according to major league sources, came together quickly.
While Walker’s talks were progressing Tuesday night, the Phillies finalized an agreement with Matt Strahm, a left-handed reliever. So, it was official. This was the Phillies winter meeting, a two-day outburst in which the reigning National League champions declared they were serious about capitalizing on the momentum from their magical run in the postseason—and they had no time to worry about efficiency.
They have set aside $372 million to fill their two biggest needs. They’re financial giants in a three-team stacked NL East with World Series aspirations and the tools to spend the same. They got a taste of postseason baseball at Citizens Bank Park, and it was intoxicating, especially to the people signing the paychecks.
The Phillies were expensive in October. Much has changed since then.
Earlier Tuesday, before the Phillies and Walker game, Phillies manager Rob Thomson answered questions in a small banquet room. There’s still off-season work for the front office to do – and there are a few mid-salters – but the Phillies now have a pretty good idea of what their 2023 roster will look like. Thompson has already begun to think about how to create the right tone in Florida.
“There are a few things I want to talk about in spring training,” Thompson said. “One of them is expectations — high expectations — and that’s a good thing because that means you’re probably very good, and you have to deal with that.”
Expectations have not been this high since 2011 when the Four Aces were supposed to deliver a deeper one in October. It took a decade to recover from that disappointment. Now, in 2023, the Phillies will put together one of the best rosters on paper in the club’s history. The addition of Trea Turner, one of the most exciting players in the sport, was the prize.
But Walker was just as important. The Phillies needed innings. They weren’t shopping at the top of the rotation market, and after handing out two draft picks to sign Turner, they were reluctant to do it again for a middle-rotating pitcher. They value roles and reliability. So, that led them to Walker. He was one of only 26 pitchers to score at least 150 runs in each of the past two seasons. The column is less and less every year in size. Walker, who turns 31 in August, has met him since he had Tommy John surgery in 2018.
This was not lost on his agent, Scott Boras.
“You can see in the market, there’s a whole number of pitchers who throw 60 and 70 rounds that have been pursued … at the threshold of about $13 (million) to $15 million a year because the demand is for high-quality pitches,” Boras said Tuesday morning, before Walker signs.”So, Tai Fei (30 years old) is one of the youngest, one of the most enduring, and we expect that to be followed in a big way as the market develops.”
The Mets did not make a qualifying offer for Walker, who was a better-than-league average player in 2022. That helped his market. The Phillies have pushed for certainty, and while Walker may not look like an old workhorse, he’s like one of the closest things to them in this free agent market.
Walker alternate slots with Zach Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suarez. The Phillies will hold the fifth spot for a group of younger pitchers. Within the organization, there is a strong belief that Andrew Painter can win a rotational position in spring training. Painter, 19, is one of the best prospects in baseball. The Phillies have treated him with an unusual brand of aggressiveness because they think he’s good and can handle it.
But he won’t pitch 200 or even 160 innings in the majors next season. He wouldn’t make 32 games if he cut camp with the Phillies. The team has thought of different solutions to suit it. They like prospects Mick Appel, another former first-round draft pick, and Griff McGarry. All three could make it into rotation plans during the season.
Thompson said, “But, the man we’re looking to possibly come up on this list this spring is Paint.”
Thompson did not see him throw. Did he start asking people about the possibility?
“We don’t even have to ask,” Thompson said. “They just tell you how good this guy is and the makeup and the intangibles and the athleticism, all that stuff. And I’ve been watching a little bit of the tape, and it’s true.”
The Phillies like Billy Walter too, and it’s possible they could use him to manage his painter load. The club discussed various rotation arrangements. Painter made 22 starts last season and pitched 103 2/3 innings.
“So, to jump to 200 rounds, that would be a lot,” Dombrowski said Tuesday. “But I think you can start a bunch of games depending on what happens. You get an all-star game, you work through those days. You get days off, and you work through them. You could use a sixth starter if you wanted to do that. All of those things are possible.”
The six-man rotation could also be a safety buffer for Wheeler, Nola, and Suárez to make up for their larger workloads in 2022. Realistically, the Phillies have at least eight viable rotation options—experienced and inexperienced—and which one is better. The depth they have accumulated in a long time.
There is not much left to do this winter. Dombrowski expects to sign a few middle reliever types. The market is overflowing with them. Phillies can wait and throw some darts later.
They earmarked a fair portion of their pumpkin budget to Strahm, a 31-year-old left-hander whose fast average jumped in 2022 when he spent a full season in the bullpen for the first time. And according to a major league source, he has agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal. Strahm is the rare reliever who has used five different pitches, and the Phillies can improve his repertoire. He had better numbers against the rights in 2022; The Philly could still look for a third left-hander to suit them alongside Strahm and Jose Alvarado in the bullpen.
On Thursday, Phillies will present Turner with the number 7 jersey at Citizens Bank Park. They would have another Walker event shortly thereafter. The lineup is set. The rotation is about to end – Spring training will be an interesting time for the organization’s young starters.
“There are always ways to get creative,” Dombrowski said.
Phillies, until now, did not need a creative approach in dealing with others. They attacked with precision and force. In a couple of days here, they announced their intentions with an exclamation point.
(Taijuan Walker top photo: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)