Take Note, Phillies: Six World Series Aces, One Home-Grown
Tonight begins the World Series and the two teams facing each other are the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros. The Philadelphia Phillies series ended on a very disappointing note, mostly thanks to a starting rotation that simply did not get the job done. The 2019 World Series is a stark reminder that starting pitching still matters in this game.
One of the big story lines of the Fall Classic in 2019 are the starting rotations. For games one through three, the two clubs will pit ace against ace. One long-held philosophy of Phillies president Andy MacPhail is, "develop the arms, buy the bats". But of these six starting pitchers that are at or near ace-level, only one of the two teams has a single home-grown starter.
Take note, Phillies.
Here is a look at the six starting pitchers that will face off for the next week (or more) and how the teams acquired them.
Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals: Free Agent
Scherzer could have signed with almost anyone. Originally drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks, Scherzer hit is stride with the Detroit Tigers. The Cy Young Award winner hit the open market after the 2014 season. He was available for anyone to sign.
Scherzer became the game's first $30 million pitcher. Sorta. His deal with the Washington Nationals is for seven years and $210 million, with half of that paid out over the seven years after his last year under contract. By the terms, Scherzer will be paid $15 million per year for 14 years to pitch seven.
That means the true value of the deal as signed is less. The New York Times did the math and reported that the final year Scherzer is paid $15 million would be worth $12.9 million in 2015 dollars. So if the Nationals invested the money they deferred, they got a much better deal that $30 million sticker price.
Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: Amateur Draft
While the Phillies were en route to their second World Series appearance in a row, Strasburg was the first overall pick in the 2009 draft. The Nationals paid Strasburg a record sum to sign a major league deal with the club. Strasburg's number 37 jerseys started selling almost immediately after he signed.
Strasburg made his major league debut in June of 2010, right around the time the Nationals drafted Bryce Harper, their second big-name draftee in as many years. Strasburg sat out the Nationals first playoff appearance in 2012 in a very controversial decision intended to protect his arm. Strasburg had one Tommy John surgery and dodged another.
Of note: Strasburg is the only home-grown ace starting pitcher on either staff.
Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals: Free Agent
The Philadelphia Phillies were interested in signing Corbin, even bringing Corbin to town and having his photoshopped image in a Phillies uniform on Phanavision. But in the end, the Phillies were simply not willing to go six years on a free agent contract for Corbin. The Washigton Nationals were.
Corbin proved to be a difference maker for the Nationals, going 14-7 with a 3.25 earned run average. Corbin took care of the menacing left-handed bats in the National League East and the rest of baseball; lefties batted just .190 against him. Imagine of the Phillies had Corbin to face the likes of Juan Soto, instead of playing alongside Soto.
The Phillies went without a left-handed pitcher in the starting rotation until they grabbed Drew Smyly and Jason Vargas of of the scrap heap in July. The free agent money made a real difference for the Nationals with Corbin. They are in the World Series now, so they will not worry too hard about year six of that contract.
Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros: Trade
Heading into the 2018 season, the Astros made a big trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. They acquired Cole in exchange for pitchers Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, infielder Colin Moran, and outfielder Jason Martin. A rare instance when an ace changes teams, the haul is usually expected to be large.
The Pirates received four players who contributed to the major league club in 2019, though for the most part the players were just average. Musgrove pitched in the starting rotation, Moran started a lot of games at third base, Feliz pitched in the bullpen, and Martin had a cup of coffee in the outfield. No player particularly wowed Pirates fans this year.
The Phillies could have their shot at Cole this offseason. Cole will be an unrestricted free agent. While Cole is said to favor the West Coast, the Phillies have money. Money talks. Will they shy away from Cole as they did Corbin?
Justin Verlander, Houston Astros: Trade
Verlander's acquisition came at the very last minute in August of 2017. The story is an interesting one, with officials camped outside Verlander's apartment in case he agreed to the trade at the last minute. They got a trade done with the Detroit Tigers and Verlander led the Astros to a World Series victory in 2017.
And here they are again. Verlander is still dominant. The righty went 21-6 in an era where pitchers do not pitch deep into games and have fewer and fewer decisions. Verlander pitched 223 innings for the Astros in 2019 at age 36.
Zack Greinke, Houston Astros: Trade
This was a name that many thought the Phillies could target. With a large annual contract, Greinke could be had for a low prospect price, many thought. They ultimately acquired Greinke from the Arizona Diamondbacks for their third, fourth and fifth-best prospects, according to MLB Pipeline.
While that might have been a deep price, Houston held on to its top two prospects. Greinke was available to them to help in the 2019 playoff run and also serve as replacement for Cole, who could depart at season's end. While it was a high price, a World Series appearance appears to be worth it.
Take Note, Phillies
The only home-grown starter out of these six was Strasburg. The Phillies have been very protective of prospects in recent years. While it is fair to say they should stay away from their top two prospects in third baseman Alec Bohm and pitcher Spencer Howard, the Astros did not need to give up their top two prospects to get Greinke. As we saw with other trades, it's rare that a team will give up a top prospect in a trade.
But free agency is something that the cash-rich Phillies should be doing. The Phillies had no problem in giving Jake Arrieta $25 million a season in average annual value over three years into his 30s, but have not been willing to make a longer-term commitment to a younger pitcher even if the deal would cover years in the same age range.
The Phillies signed Arrieta for his age 32, 33 and 34 seasons. Corbin signed for six years - season beginning ages 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, and 34. In other words, the Phillies were willing to pay for essentially the same three years of Arrieta without getting the benefits of three prime seasons. The Phillies ended up eating much of year two and are stuck with year three of Arrieta.
Had the Phillies signed Corbin, they could have had the 2019 season he had. Even with Arreita in the fold, that contract would expire after 2020. The Phillies would then be carrying only one contract of the aging pitcher sort.
Nothing that the Pirates received from Houston for Cole is that wonderful on the field. Are the Phillies overvaluing their prospects that they cannot trade some lower-level prospects? What is more important: seeing if the prospects work out or playing in the World Series?
The Phillies decided that a one-game playoff was not worth trading prospects for. Instead, the team essentially folded in July. The Washington Nationals took the one-game playoff no problem. And they are in the World Series.
While the Phillies played it safe, other teams are in the World Series on the heels of decisions the Phillies very well could have made. Take note, Phillies.