The Phillies’ acquisition of veteran starting pitcher Clay Buchholz on Tuesday offers the latest example of the balance that the club is trying to strike between the present and the future.
Buchholz is a 32-year-old right-hander who experienced the highs of a no-hitter, two All-Star selections and two World Series championships, as well as the lows of frequent injury and being bounced from the starting rotation, during a 10-year run in Boston. The Phillies got him for Josh Tobias, a 24-year-old infielder with below average defensive ability but good on-base skills who played at the Single A level in 2016 (see story). Deep in star-quality starting pitching and concerned about baseball’s competitive balance tax, the Red Sox were looking for a place to dump Buchholz’s $13.5 million salary and Philadelphia has become the place to do that. A year ago, the Phillies gave up very little because they were willing to take on the salaries of Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton. Ditto for Pat Neshek this offseason.
The deep-pocketed Phillies were willing to add Hellickson, Morton, Neshek and now Buchholz because they all had just one year remaining on their contracts, a reality that fit nicely on Matt Klentak’s balance beam. All could help the Phillies win a few more games in the short term, you know, save the team from embarrassing itself with another 99-loss season, while not clogging the path for young talent that had already arrived from the minors or was getting ready to.
Hellickson, with his 32 starts, 189 innings and 3.71 ERA clearly helped last season. An early-season injury prevented Morton from aiding the cause. Neshek and Buchholz — and others — get their chance to impact the present in 2017.
And they might just get to impact the future, as well.
By acquiring Neshek, Buchholz and outfielder Howie Kendrick — he came earlier this offseason — the Phillies have set themselves up for a potentially busy month of July. Neshek, Buchholz and Kendrick can all be free agents at the end of the season and that makes them possible trade chips for the Phillies — provided they have performed well, and that’s no given considering all three are coming off down seasons that put them on the trading block in the first place — and trade chips are valuable for a rebuilding team.
You can add Joaquin Benoit, a recent free-agent signing, and Hellickson, back on a one-year deal after eschewing free agency, to that list, as well.
Klentak didn’t BS anyone on Tuesday. He acknowledged that Buchholz — and others — could be trade chips in July, thus helping the Phillies of the future. But he also acknowledged the attractiveness of them helping in the present, as well.
“We’re trying to make our team as competitive as we can and the hope is that we will be playing meaningful games when we get to the end of July,” he said. “But it certainly isn’t lost on us that if the standings are looking the other way at the end of July, we have a lot of meaningful players in the last years of their contracts — not just pitchers, but a number of players that could be trade chips.”
The Phillies scored just 610 runs last season, the lowest total in the majors by a whopping margin of 39 runs. Sticking to their plan of a methodical rebuild, they have not done enough to improve their offense this winter to be thought of as a potential playoff contender. Getting young talent that fits into the rebuild in return for their veteran short-timers would be ideal for this team given its current state and mission. But the ideal doesn’t always work out. Hellickson is proof of that. The Phillies didn’t get an attractive trade offer for him last summer and he didn’t reject their free-agent qualifying offer, which would have netted them a valuable first-round draft pick. So he’s back to help again in the short term, and maybe in the future if he pitches well and some team sees him as a potential difference-maker. There are many variables in this strategy of collecting assets in hopes of turning them into other assets. But the logic is there.
Still, it comes at a cost. Klentak has said many times this winter — especially when answering the question: Why aren’t you getting another hitter? — that he does not want to block the opportunities of playing time and growth for a young player by bringing in too many place-holding veterans. But, in some regards, that is just what he’s done with the addition of Buchholz, who will line up with Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez in the top four spots of the rotation with a host of others — Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Adam Morgan — vying for one opening in spring training. It’s difficult to imagine Nola, if healthy, not being the guy. But one has to wonder if the Buchholz move might have some connection to Nola. He was shut down in July with an elbow strain. The Phillies say he’s fine and will be ready to go in spring training. But he’s yet to test his elbow by throwing a pitch in competitive anger (he did throw in the bullpen this fall) and until that happens, he’s a question mark. Eflin, coming off double knee surgery for chronic tendinitis, is also a question mark until he faces hitters in a competitive situation.
“Nothing specific,” Klentak answered when asked if the acquisition of Buchholz reflected a concern about the health of Nola or another pitcher.
“If everyone is healthy and pitching well, then it is possible that it may block somebody’s growth. But, realistically, going into spring training we value the depth.”
In other words, you can never have enough pitching.
And if a pitcher’s growth is blocked, it won’t be fatal and it won’t last long. There will be innings that need to be filled at Triple A and Clay Buchholz is probably just here for a pit stop.