PHILADELPHIA — They made sure to savor every moment, no matter how small, this October, which is why Aaron Nola tipped his hat when he could, why Rhys Hoskins drove straight from the airport to Citizens Bank Park to watch Game 7 from the dugout. But at 11:22 p.m. ET, Hoskins sat alone and blew a bubble as the Diamondbacks danced on the grass. Nola retreated into the clubhouse, where the teammates said their goodbyes.
A confusing end to this Phillies season only hastened questions about the club’s long-term players. What the Phillies do with Nola, in particular, is a sticking point for the remainder of this season.
“Of course I hope to be back,” Nola said Tuesday night. “But I don’t know what the future holds yet.”
Nola will test the free-agent market, and he’ll see strong interest. A starter who makes every start in an era where teams don’t have enough durable starting pitchers. The Phillies exchanged offers with Nola’s camp last spring, but neither side showed much effort to bridge the gap. Market forces add urgency. Nola’s top bidders could include the Cardinals and Braves.
The Phillies don’t want to pay $30 million a year into his 30s, but that decision requires a unique — and not obvious — solution to turning 200 innings.
Nola’s decision may be the toughest test of Dave Dombrowski’s tenure as president of baseball operations. Even if the 2024 Phillies resemble the 2023 version, there’s more to Dombrowski than Nola as he overhauls the roster.
1. If Aaron Nola walks, what’s the plan?
Every indication is that the Phillies will try to re-sign Nola, but it wouldn’t be a shock if other teams outbid him. While they hope Mick Abel, one of the club’s top pitching prospects, can debut in 2024, they know he won’t replace Nola’s 193 2/3 innings. Top prospect Andrew Painter will miss 2024 as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Griff McCurry, another pitching prospect, will incorporate major mechanical changes as the Phillies try to get him more in the strike zone. He profiles as a future reliever.
Therefore, there are no internal solutions. If the Phillies can resist paying Nola top dollar, they won’t do the same to someone like Blake Snell. The free agent starter market isn’t deep.
But there may be trades to follow. Milwaukee’s Corbin Burns is a free agent after the 2024 season, and the Brewers are long shots to re-sign him. Because of that, they could look to a team this winter where Burns, 29, could negotiate a long-term extension. The Rays are expected to float Tyler Glasnow, who is in the final year of a two-year, $30.35 million contract, in trade talks. Glasnow, 30, is not an enduring portrait. He pitched 120 innings last season. But he’s useful when he’s healthy.
While NOLA is not without flaws, potential solutions are fraught with pitfalls. The sting of Game 7 spurred Dombrowski (and the franchise) to retain Nola.
2. Where will Bryce Harper be playing in 2024?
When Harper went to the Phillies in April with the idea of learning first base, he did so knowing there were many changes beyond 2023.
“First base, or right field, or whatever it is — not just this year, but going forward — if we can give them whatever they want, that gives us an opportunity,” Harper said in April. “Whatever. Whatever they want. It gives them the option to do it.
Even if the Phillies retain Hoskin on a short-term deal, he’s unlikely to be an everyday first baseman in the first year after ACL surgery. Harper said he expects Phillies Hoskins to return to the outfield “in some capacity” if he is re-signed before the National League Championship Series. Harper should make it through spring training clinically.
Harper enjoyed his time at first base and playing on the dirt kept him engaged. He made mistakes, but some of them were inexperienced. He looks like he can play the position well.
“If Rice needs a day off, even if (Rice) comes back, I don’t mind giving them the option,” Harper said last week. “Give them the option to put me at first base and they know, ‘Hey, we can put him in there any time, he’ll be fine’.”
Hoskins is eager to return. The Phillies know it. The question is whether they can fit corner outfielders and first basemen and designated hitter types on the same roster. Harper likely splits his time in the outfield and infield, while Hoskins plays half first baseman and half DH. That forces Kyle Schwarber to hit 70 or more games as a left fielder.
There won’t be much level of flexibility. But in the NLCS, the Phillies were reminded again how much they missed Hoskins’ combination of right-handed power and patience.
3. What will the outfield look like?
Maybe Phillis Hoskins re-signs and Harper plays 80 games in the outfield. Will the Phillies keep Nick Castellanos in right and relearn Harper in left? He hasn’t played an innings there since 2014. But if he does, is there enough room for both Brandon Marsh and Johan Rojas on the roster? Rojas is an elite defender and his bat needs work. But the Phillies have seen enough flashes to think they have the makings of a valuable everyday player. Marsh has shown improvement in several areas — power, plate discipline, at-bats against lefties — and looks like someone who should play every day.
All of which makes Castellanos an intriguing figure this winter. He is due $60 million over three years. It’s a deal despite 2023 being a resurgent season for Castellanos. The Phillies could pursue a trade involving another team’s worst contract that fits the roster better. If the Phillies believe Arizona has exploited a weakness in their free-swinging ways, no one will execute it like Castellanos. The Phillies could seek a better balance of aggressive and patient hitters in their lineup. Flipping Castellanos would allow Harper to return to a full-time spot in right field.
But that’s easier said than done. This may not be realistic.
4. Who will make amends with Taijuan Walker?
As some Phillies players and coaches circled the clubhouse after midnight Tuesday, Walker leaned against his locker and sipped a drink. Nola came at one point and sat with him. They talked.
Walker, for most of the postseason, stood on the top step of the dugout. He inspired his teammates, living and dying for every moment. He didn’t pitch. Then, at 2:04 a.m. Wednesday, he tweeted: “Disrespect is at an all-time high #nextyear,” and then liked a fan’s tweet, adding, “The disrespect came from your manager. He doesn’t trust you, it’s a joke and his performance cost the Phillies this series. Remember that!”
It’s a different dynamic. The Phillies wanted Walker last winter and paid him $72 million over four years. They went 21-10 in the games he started on the season. He was a key part of the Phillies’ 90-game winning streak.
But the club didn’t trust him in the postseason. He was only seen as an emergency option for extra innings. So, what now? Walker will return as a mid-rotation starter. Are those hard feelings leading to problems down the road?
Walker, Ranger Suarez and Christopher Sanchez make up a solid back of the rotation. The Phillies expect 75 starts from the trio in 2024. Also, if Nola walks, the responsibility on those three pitchers will be even greater. That’s why someone from the Phillies needs to give Walker some real answers this winter. They need him in 2024.
(Top photo by Aaron Nola: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)