The Phillies aren’t done looking for starting pitching, and James Paxton, Jake Odorizzi, and Taijuan Walker are reportedly their top targets.
On Thursday morning, Mark Feinsand of MLB.com tweeted about the Phillies’ ongoing search for starting pitching.
It’s incredible to hear that the Phillies are still looking to add starting pitchers. There was a time not so long ago when we thought they’d be going into the 2021 season with Vince Velasquez as a lock to make the rotation. Then, after the signings of Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, and Ivan Nova, it seemed like the Phillies were surely done adding starters. They hadn’t signed any big names, but they significantly improved their rotation depth. The back end of the rotation wasn’t going to be great, but it was better than many of us expected.
That’s why it was so exciting to read Feinsand’s tweet this morning. James Paxton, Jake Odorizzi, and Taijuan Waker are all talented, established starting pitchers. Any one of them, if signed, would immediately join – and improve – the major league rotation.
I should note that Feinsand never actually said the Phillies were actively considering those pitchers. All he wrote was that the Phillies are looking for starters, and those three guys are their top remaining options. With the Phillies’ payroll already at $197 million, it’s hard to believe that Dave Dombrowski has the financial flexibility to pursue any of these three.
But let’s just imagine that the Phillies are in fact looking at Paxton, Odorizzi, and Walker. Which one should they choose?
The Easy Answer: Whoever Comes Cheapest
The simplest answer to this question is that the Phillies should sign whoever commands the least amount of money. Any of these three players, even the least expensive option, would improve the rotation. Therefore, I’m not too picky about which one they might sign.
I’m not advocating for the Phillies to stay under the luxury tax, but if that’s what they’re going to do, they can’t afford to blow the rest of the payroll on just one guy. At the very least, this team still needs to add a couple of cheap bench bats and another relief pitcher. If the Phillies break the bank on Paxton/Odorizzi/Walker, we’ll be watching a lot of Mickey Moniak as the fifth outfielder next season.
However, it’s hard to predict which one of them will be the cheapest option. All of them will probably earn a salary in the vicinity of $8 to $13 million a year, but factors like length of contract and level of injury risk will affect that number.
Money Aside, Who Makes the Most Sense?
Taijuan Walker is the smartest option if the team is prioritizing reliability. Unlike Paxton and Odorizzi, he was healthy and he pitched well throughout the 2020 season. He did miss most of the 2018 and 2019 seasons while recovering from Tommy John Surgery, but he seems to have made a full recovery. Prior to his injury, Walker was a consistent and dependable number 3/4 starter, and in 2020, he looked like that pitcher once again. His K/9, BB/9 and HR/FB in 2020 looked very similar to his 2015-2017 numbers. He’s also only 28 years old, which bodes well for his future health.
James Paxton, on the other hand, is the smartest choice for the Phillies if they want to prioritize upside. When James Paxton is healthy, he’s an All-Star level pitcher. Unfortunately, he’s struggled with injuries his entire career, and he’s coming off his worst and most injury-plagued season yet. He suffered a season-ending arm injury in mid-August, and at 32 years old, it’s hard to know if he’ll make a full recovery. Even before that injury, he pitched dreadfully in 2020. He had a 6.64 ERA and 4.37 FIP in 5 starts. However, if Paxton is healthy in 2021 and pitches the way he did for the first six years of his career, than he’ll give the Phillies their best chance to compete for a playoff spot.
Odorizzi is the compromise option. He’s in-between Walker and Paxton in terms of both upside and injury risk. Prior to the 2020 season, he was a highly reliable mid-rotation starter. He made at least 28 starts a season every year from 2014-2019. He also showed flashes of brilliance during that time period, and in 2019 he was an All-Star for the first time. His 2020 season, unfortunately, was disastrous. He was placed on the injured list three different times, and when he did manage to make it to the mound, he pitched very poorly. None of his injuries in 2020 were arm-related, so they are much less concerning that Paxton’s. However, his dreadful performance in 2020 is still reason for a team to take pause.
While there isn’t a clear winner, I’m gunning for Paxton. The Phillies still project to finish well behind the Mets and the Braves in the NL East. If the Phillies want a chance to compete with the powerhouses atop their division, they need to take some risks.
A few weeks ago, Taijuan Walker would have seemed very appealing. Back then, I would have prioritized consistency over anything else. However, now that Moore, Anderson, and Nova are in the fold, the Phillies rotation will be able to weather an injury or two.
The Phillies have enough depth to survive if Paxton gets injured again, but they may not have enough talent to win without him.
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