Phillies solidify rotation with Taijuan Walker and put their stamp on Winter Meetings


SAN DIEGO — Less than four hours after Dave Dombrowski rested on a couch on the seventh floor of the Manchester Grand Hyatt and said “I can’t say we’ve made any progress” in the search for a mid-rotation starter, the Phillies agree in principle to a four-year, $72 million deal for Taijuan Walker. The experienced director was not deceptive. The deal came about quickly, according to Major League sources.

As the Walker talks progressed Tuesday-evening, the Phillies signed a deal with Matt Strahm, a lefty reliever. So, it was official. This was the Phillies’ Winter Meetings, a two-day flurry in which the defending National League champions declared they were serious about capitalizing on the momentum of their magical postseason run – and not having time to worry about efficiency.

They have pledged $372 million to meet their two biggest needs. They are financial juggernauts in a stacked three-team NL East with World Series aspirations and the resources to spend money on them. They got a taste of postseason baseball at Citizens Bank Park, and it was intoxicating, especially for the people who sign the paychecks.

The Phillies were expensive underdogs in October. So much has changed since then.

The Phillies pledged $300 million to Trea Turner on Monday and $72 million to Taijuan Walker on Tuesday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Earlier Tuesday, before the Phillies and Walker matched, Phillies manager Rob Thomson answered questions in a small banquet hall. There is still off-season work for the front office — a few middle relievers are next — but the Phillies now have a good idea of ​​what the 2023 roster will look like. Thomson is already thinking about how to set the right tone in Florida.

“There are some things I want to talk about in spring training,” Thomson said. “One is expectations — high expectations — and that’s a good thing because that means you’re probably pretty good, and you have to deal with that.”

Expectations haven’t been this high since 2011, when the Four Aces would deliver another deep run in October. It took ten years to recover from that disappointment. Now, in 2023, the Phillies will field one of the better rosters on paper in club history. Adding Trea Turner, one of the most exciting players in the sport, was the prize.

But Walker was just as important. The Phillies needed innings. They weren’t shopping at the top of the rotation market, and after turning in two draft picks to sign Turner, they were reluctant to do it again to secure a mid-rotation pitcher. They valued innings and reliability. So that led them to Walker. He was one of only 26 pitchers to hit at least 150 innings in each of the past two seasons. The bar is lower and lower for volume every year. Walker, who turns 31 in August, has met it since undergoing Tommy John in 2018.

This had not gone unnoticed by his agent, Scott Boras.

“You can see in the market that there are quite a number of pitchers who throw 60 and 70 innings that are pursuing… on the threshold of about $13 (million) to $15 million a year because the demand for quality pitching is that big,” Boras said Tuesday morning before signing Walker. “So Tai (30) is one of the younger, one of the more enduring, and we expect he’s going to be hugely pursued as his market unfolds.”

The Mets did not make a qualifying offer for Walker, who was a better-than-league starter in 2022. That helped his market. The Phillies paid for security, and while Walker may not have resembled a workhorse of yesteryear, he represented one of the closest people in this market to free agents.

Walker plays in a rotation with Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suárez. The Phillies reserve fifth spot for a collection of younger pitchers. There is a strong belief within the organization that Andrew Painter can secure a rotation spot in spring training. Painter, 19, is one of the best pitchers in baseball. The Phillies have treated him with an unusual kind of aggressiveness because they think he’s so good and he can handle it.

But he won’t throw 200 innings or even 160 in the majors next season. He won’t make 32 starts if he breaks camp with the Phillies. The team has considered several solutions to accommodate him. They like prospects Mick Abel, another former first round pick, and Griff McGarry. All three could play a role in rotation plans during the season.

“But,” said Thomson, “the guy we’re looking to potentially get on this roster starting in the spring is Painter.”

Thomson didn’t see him pitch. Has he started asking people about the prospect?

“We don’t even have to ask,” Thomson said. “They just tell you how good this guy is and the makeup and the intangibles and the athletics, all that stuff. And I watched a piece of tape and it’s real.”

Andrew Painter could take the big league team out of spring training. (Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via Associated Press)

The Phillies also like Bailey Falter, and it’s possible they’re using him to manage Painter’s load. The club has discussed various rotation arrangements. Painter made 22 starts in the minors last season and threw 103 2/3 innings.

“So to jump to 200 innings would be a bit much,” Dombrowski said on Tuesday. “But I think you can start some games depending on what happens. You get the All-Star Game, you work through those days. You get days off, you work through them. You could use a sixth starter as you want. All those things are possible.”

A six-man rotation could also serve as a buffer for Wheeler, Nola and Suárez to offset their increased workload in 2022. Realistically, the Phillies have at least eight viable rotation options — experienced and inexperienced — and that’s the best depth they’ve built in a long time.

There is not much left to achieve this winter. Dombrowski expects to attract a few more middle-reliever types. The market is full of them; the Phillies can wait and throw some darts later.

Matt Strahm posted a 3.83 ERA in 50 appearances last season. (Paul Rutherford/USA Today)

They spent a fair chunk of their bullpen budget on Strahm, a 31-year-old southpaw whose average fastball speed made a tick in 2022 when he spent his first full season in the bullpen. According to a Major League source, he agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal. Strahm is the rare reliever to use five different pitches, and the Phillies were able to refine his repertoire. He had better marks against judges in 2022; the Phillies could still look for a third lefty to fit in the bullpen alongside Strahm and Jose Alvarado.

On Thursday, the Phillies introduce Turner wearing a No. 7 jersey at Citizens Bank Park. Soon after, they have another event for Walker. The lineup is set. The rotation is almost here – spring training is shaping up to be an intriguing time for the organization’s young starters.

“There are always ways to be creative,” Dombrowski said.

The Phillies haven’t needed a creative approach to their off-season thus far. They have attacked with precision and power. In two days here, they announced their intentions with an exclamation mark.

(Top photo from Taijuan Walker: Vincent Carchietta/USA Today)

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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