ATLANTA — For days leading up to the trade deadline, the Phillies tried to acquire a starting pitcher. It was their highest priority, their biggest need. But as the clock ticked toward 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dave Dombrowski grew increasingly pessimistic about the pursuit.
“It became very questionable,” he said. “Just, the asks were very, very high.”
So, the Phillies focused on other areas of the roster to better their chances to end a 10-year postseason drought. At about 3:30 p.m., they struck a deal with the Los Angeles Angels to get Brandon Marsh, a top-10 defensive outfielder by most metrics. Then, a few minutes later, they picked up veteran reliever David Robertson from the Chicago Cubs.
With that, Phillies officials thought they were done. And Dombrowski maintains he would have been satisfied with simply upgrading the defense and the bullpen. It came at a cost. Touted but blocked catching prospect Logan O’Hoppe went for Marsh; promising 22-year-old right-hander Ben Brown for Robertson. But at least the Phillies held prized pitching prospects Andrew Painter, Mick Abel, and Griff McGarry, nonstarters in any deal.
Then, with about 15 minutes to spare, the Angels called back.
Noah Syndergaard, anyone?
OK, so Syndergaard isn’t the flamethrower who once teamed with Phillies ace Zack Wheeler in a New York Mets rotation that threatened to dominate the National League for years. But the 29-year-old should still help stabilize a rotation that has been without injured Zach Eflin for a month and doesn’t know if he will make it back.
“I think we’re better,” Dombrowski said after the Phillies picked up the roughly $7.8 million left on Syndergaard’s expiring contract and attached 2016 No. 1 overall pick Mickey Moniak and single-A outfielder Yadiel Sánchez. “How much better are we? I know we’re a better ballclub. We were able to add a starting pitcher, a bullpen guy, and we solidified our ballclub from a defensive perspective.”
Not a bad day’s work.
Syndergaard is the biggest name and therefore will get the most attention. But Marsh is the player who could turn this from a some-gain, little-pain deadline to a truly memorable one. Back to him shortly.
The Phillies’ search for starting pitching took them down several paths. There was one common theme: Every team asked about Painter, Abel, or McGarry, the Phillies’ No. 1, 2, and 4 prospects, according to Baseball America’s rankings.
“I couldn’t get anybody off of those names,” Dombrowski said. “Those are the three names that just kept coming up in any deal if you were going to make a deal. We just didn’t want to trade those guys.”
That being the case, Dombrowski said the Phillies “never really dallied in that market” for high-end starters Luis Castillo or Frankie Montas, who went to the Mariners and Yankees, respectively, for prospect-laced packages.
But they scouted Syndergaard’s most recent start last week in Kansas City, checked into him a lot over the last few days, and got the feeling the Angels were shopping him elsewhere, perhaps to the Toronto Blue Jays. They were happy, then, to revisit last-minute talks, even while acknowledging that Syndergaard isn’t the same pitcher after missing two seasons while coming back from Tommy John elbow surgery.
Whereas he once threw an upper-90s fastball with a power sinker that averaged 97-98 mph, Syndergaard now sits in the 93-95 mph range. He also pitched in a six-man rotation with the Angels, enabling him to get an extra day of rest before each start. But with every Monday off in September, the Phillies may be able to give him similar breathers in a customary five-man rotation.
“His stuff is down from where he was in the past, there’s no question about that,” Dombrowski said. “But he’s still throwing mid-90s. He’s just a different pitcher. He’s got a great sinker at this point. That’s his primary pitch. But he’s pitched very effectively this year in a five-, six-inning type of role.”
Syndergaard has a 3.83 ERA in 80 innings over 15 starts. He was scheduled to pitch Tuesday night in Anaheim. Instead, he will join the Phillies on Thursday and likely will make his debut later this week against the Washington Nationals, who shook the sport by sending Juan Soto to the San Diego Padres for four elite prospects in the biggest blockbuster in trade deadline history.
But as long as Syndergaard is more effective than internal Eflin replacements Bailey Falter or Cristopher Sánchez, he will be a worthwhile addition.
Similarly, the bar for Robertson isn’t terribly high. The Phillies essentially want him to replace veteran reliever Jeurys Familia, who was designated for assignment Tuesday after posting a 6.09 ERA.
There was some pain involved in reacquiring Robertson, whose first stint with the Phillies lasted seven appearances before Tommy John elbow surgery. Brown, a former 33rd-round pick, has been a strikeout machine in a breakthrough season in the minors. But he wasn’t one of the Big Three.
“Brown is probably the one that hurt the most,” Dombrowski said. “We like him a lot, but you can’t protect everybody.”
Don’t get too attached to Syndergaard or Robertson. Both are likely to be here only through the end of the season. The Phillies are making a longer investment in Marsh, even believing he can be the future center fielder that has eluded them for several years.
O’Hoppe rose from the ranks of a 22nd-round pick to the Phillies’ No. 3 prospect. But he’s a catcher, which means he was blocked in the organization by J.T. Realmuto, who has three years left on a $115.5 million contract.
It made sense for the Phillies to use O’Hoppe as bait in a trade, but only for a player that they could control well beyond this year. Marsh, 24, isn’t eligible for free agency until 2027. And he’s already a Gold Glove-caliber defender in center field, seven runs better than the average outfielder based on Sports Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved metric.
In the short term, the Phillies will ask Marsh to run down everything between Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos in left field and right. Long-term, they think hitting coach Kevin Long can unlock Marsh’s left-handed swing. After hitting in the minors, he’s a .239/.299/.354 hitter with 208 strikeouts in 528 at-bats in the majors.
“The fact that he’s hit in the past tells you that there’s something in there,” said interim manager Rob Thomson, who intends to give Marsh a majority of the playing time in center field while sprinkling in starts for Matt Vierling. “We just have to pull it out.”
The Phillies explored other center field options at the deadline, including Kansas City’s Michael A. Taylor and Houston’s Jose Siri. But they have liked Marsh for a while. Dombrowski said they tried to acquire him in the offseason but couldn’t work out a deal until now.
“We think he’s a Gold Glove-type center fielder from a defensive perspective, still young and growing from an offensive perspective,” Dombrowski said. “Our hitting people think that he has some very correctable areas for them to work with. We have a great deal of faith in them.”
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