Matt Gelb: 2017 too soon for Phillies to go big in free agency

The Phillies last winter spent $3.9 million on major-league free agents. The winter before that, $7 million. They spent more ($11 million) last Thursday just to rid themselves of two players, Ryan Howard and Charlie Morton, through buyout payments.

So the payroll slate is clean. Cleaner, maybe, than ever before. But this Phillies offseason, which begins this week with the commencement of free agency and the annual general managers’ meetings, could be less about signings and more about trades.

And patience.

The Phillies are not likely to apply drastic alterations this winter because there are few moves that can morph a team outscored by 186 runs one season into a contending group the next. Instead, they will attempt to buy low and sell high.

Buying low could look like small improvements through the acquisition of another team’s bad contract or underperforming player without disrupting what will be a young roster. Whatever veterans are acquired in the winter could be flipped in a summer trade.

Selling high could mean a trade involving Odubel Herrera or Vince Velasquez or Hector Neris. A major league source said all three players have been made available. That does not mean the Phillies want to trade them. But a good offer could compel them – much like the Ken Giles trade last winter.

The front office’s plan is not to stray from a meticulous rebuild. More and more teams view free agency as a way to transform a good team into a great one. Studies of free-agent contracts will show the initial years of a long-term deal are the most productive. The Phillies do not expect to contend in 2017, better free-agent classes exist after the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and so they plan to wait.

Of the 12 teams that spent the most free-agent money in the previous two winters combined, nine qualified for the postseason in 2016. (The ones that did not: Detroit, Arizona and Kansas City.) The Chicago Cubs spent more in the last two offseasons ($468 million) than any other franchise. As the Cubs were crowned champions, they were hailed for their formidable young core of position players, who were drafted and developed during a three-season rebuilding process under Theo Epstein. The free agents – like Jon Lester, John Lackey and Dexter Fowler – helped push them to the top.

The Phillies, instead, could look to emulate the trades last winter for Morton and Jeremy Hellickson to find a rotation stabilizer. Clay Buchholz, Gio Gonzalez and Jaime Garcia had expensive club options picked up and could be trade bait. Texas has reportedly floated Derek Holland. Each of those pitchers will make $11 million or more in 2017, money the Phillies can more than accommodate.

They could add a free-agent bat like Mitch Moreland, Brandon Moss, Adam Lind, Jon Jay or Colby Rasmus, someone who would come on a short-term deal and could pad their stats at Citizens Bank Park to increase their value.

The team’s plan calls for bigger fish later.

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