Phillies more aggressive than it may have appeared this winter – NBC Sports Philadelphia


Despite the Phillies’ relative inactivity in free agency through most of December and January after re-signing Aaron Nola, they weren’t ignoring opportunities that made sense.

They had their eye on Whit Merrifield early. They were known to be after Jordan Hicks, one of the top relievers on the market. There had been a strong indication that they made a huge offer to Yoshinobu Yamamoto and owner John Middleton confirmed as much to the Inquirer this week.

The Hicks situation played out surprisingly with a talent-depleted Giants team offering him the opportunity to start. Yamamoto clearly wanted to play for the Dodgers. While the Phillies didn’t end up with either player, the pursuits were two more examples of how aggressive they’ll be in trying to finish a job they came so close to completing in 2022 and 2023.

Spending $8 million on a guy who might not play every day is equally aggressive, but Merrifield fits in so many ways. Hicks (27) and Yamamoto (25) were appealing for their ability to help now and in the future and their contracts reflect that, whereas the Merrifield move is more about short-term insurance, protection and the simple fact that you need more than nine capable everyday position players in the age of the universal DH.

The Phillies can use Merrifield in a variety of ways — center field if Johan Rojas doesn’t hit, left field if Brandon Marsh is struggling against same-handed pitching, second base when Bryson Stott sits against a tough lefty, first base or DH if Bryce Harper or Kyle Schwarber is ever out of the lineup. Merrifield is also a right-handed bat off the bench, obviously not a thumper but a guy who can give you a quality at-bat. Jake Cave had at-bats in the ninth inning of Games 4 and 7 of the 2023 NLCS, which the Phillies lost by one and two runs. You never know when your 10th or 11th position player will be needed.

“He is somebody we’ve had our eye on for, I guess, an extended period, one of the names we identified that might fit for us this year,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said of Merrifield.

“We were concerned at first that he would accept the type of role we’d have on the club, that was the first thing. The second thing, earlier on in the wintertime, they were looking for a multi-year deal and we weren’t prepared to give that type of contract. And then I would say, over about the last week is when it picked up. We went back and forth quite a few times between his agent and myself. He was always a name that appealed to us, just didn’t know if the circumstances would have worked.”

The Phillies weren’t offering a multi-year deal to any outfielder because they didn’t want to block Rojas now or in the future. The Merrifield deal achieved the goal of adding an insurance policy without taking too much away from Rojas, and if Merrifield does end up taking ABs from Rojas, it will be because Rojas didn’t hit enough to stick.

Throw in Merrifield’s ability to step in for Marsh or Stott against a difficult southpaw and it was an obvious addition to make once the contract terms aligned.

“It does protect us in that regard,” Dombrowski said. “I have actually felt more comfortable than most that if we had (reserve outfielder) Cristian Pache out there against left-handed pitching that he would be fine because he’s such an outstanding defensive player too. But Merrifield definitely brings more offense in that situation so it does protect us a little bit. Not only if (Rojas) doesn’t make it, but if he does and we have injuries, Merrifield can protect us in a lot of different positions.”

Merrifield is an interesting story. He had a standout career at South Carolina but was a ninth-round pick and never considered a top prospect. He progressed slowly through the Royals’ minor-league system and things didn’t click until his age-25 season at Triple A. He was 27 when he debuted in the majors and performed far better at the highest level than he did in the minors.

In his first full season, 2017, he hit a career-high 19 home runs and led the American League in stolen bases. He then led the majors in hits in 2018 and 2019 and doubles in 2021. His production dipped in 2022 and he was traded to Toronto for far less than he would have returned in any of the preceding five years. For the first time in his major-league career, he was not an everyday player, starting only 34 of Toronto’s final 57 games.

Merrifield was back to everyday duty with the Blue Jays last season, starting 137 games and taking 592 plate appearances. The Phillies should be able to keep him fresher.

“He’s a winner, and I think for a club that’s a good club like ours, when you can add veteran people to your bench that you know are not going to crumble under tough situations, (you do it),” Dombrowski said. “He’ll play hard. He’ll play right. He adds the speed dimension. He’s just the right guy for our club to bring in and add to what we have.”

Harper played a role in the recruitment process (no shock there), discussing the possibility with Merrifield in early February.

“We talked about two weeks ago,” Harper said, “had some conversation about Philly and things like that. I think he’s really excited to be here, he’s going to be great for us. He’s had such a great career, even when he was younger at South Carolina, two-time National Champ, he knows how to win, he’s a leader.

“He’s a little bit of a veteran guy, 35 years old, so I think he’ll bring that into our clubhouse as well. We’re all looking forward to seeing him. He’s Top 3 in hits since 2017 and just a really good player all-around. He’s going to be a gamer for us and I think Philadelphia should be really excited to get this guy.”

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