As Phillies plot trade deadline course, Dave Dombrowski offers intriguing glimpse at 2023

PHILADELPHIA — It’s one thing for a veteran baseball executive to sit in a dugout eight days before the trade deadline and talk about how he won’t trade his best prospects. Team officials do that every summer. But the Phillies are in “win-now” mode because they are carrying the largest payroll in franchise history and haven’t played a postseason game in a decade, so everything is hypothetically on the table.

About 10 minutes into Dave Dombrowski’s session with reporters Monday afternoon, he was asked about acquiring a generational talent. Wink wink. No, the Phillies aren’t in the Juan Soto market. Dombrowski, the club’s president of baseball operations, spoke about how he loves star players but feels the Phillies have lacked talent depth in their organization.

“We are more …” Dombrowski started, then stopped himself. “This,” he said, “is a topic for another day.” Then he kept talking.

“The strength of our organization right now is our young starting pitching,” Dombrowski said. “It’s a very talented group of young starting pitchers. And the other thing I’ve found about talented young starting pitchers, and you can check back where I’ve been, sometimes they get to the big leagues very fast. I’m not saying this year, but there are some people that could be competing for spots next year that are youngsters. I’ve had no problem pitching guys who are 20 years old and having a lot of success and putting them in the big leagues. And they’re that good that some of those guys could be pitching here.

“So I don’t want to just think short term — boom. I’m not saying that they will. But they’ll be going to spring training with us next year. I mean, some of those guys are really good.”

Andrew Painter has posted a 1.63 ERA in 14 starts at Low A and High A this season. He is averaging 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings. (Mike Janes / Four Seam Images via Associated Press)

Dombrowski is not stupid. He knows that every word he utters is dissected. “No offense,” he said about the Aug. 2 trade deadline, “but I just don’t want to tip my hand totally publicly with what  we’re going to do.” So, file this prospect gushing under nothing more than an intriguing thought he wanted to share with everyone at a time when the Phillies are desperate for upgrades through a trade.

It’s not a misdirection: The Phillies have signaled to other clubs that Andrew Painter, Mick Abel and Griff McGarry are not available. The Phillies have not boasted a collection of high-end rotation prospects like those three in some time. All three are consensus top 100 prospects in the sport.

If that is the club’s calculus — that maybe Painter, for example, is really in play for a major-league role in 2023 — then it makes sense why the Phillies are treading on a conservative path right now. They want to trade for a back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Dombrowski confirmed that much. Otherwise, they’ll look for marginal additions. It’s wise not to dismiss a potential surprise from Dombrowski, but it will not rise to the level of the Phillies surrendering a top prospect.

Maybe, though, an organizational plan emerged in Dombrowski’s words. The Phillies have preached patience when it comes to the development plans for Painter and Abel, who were drafted in the first round out of high school. Painter is 19. Abel turns 21 in August. McGarry, who is 23 and already at Double A, is on a faster track. But it was difficult to see how the Phillies could merge that pitching wave with the prime years of their high-priced roster currently in the majors. Even an aggressive plan for Painter wouldn’t have him in the majors until sometime in mid-to-late 2024.

Then, Dombrowski changed the public timeline Monday.

“It’s a fun situation to be in, and it’s always one of those where people don’t (recognize it) until they get a little higher in Double A,” Dombrowski said. “Now, all of a sudden in Double A, McGarry pitched six shutouts innings and he’s already on a top 100 prospect list, right? But now it’s like, ‘Wow, look at that.’ That’s what it takes sometimes when they get to that level. We’ve got a couple of other pitchers that it doesn’t necessarily take that because they’re so good, but once they get to Double A, I’ve never had a problem jumping Double-A (players) to the big leagues.”

It is both ambitious and sensible. The Phillies have a club option on Aaron Nola for 2023. Zack Wheeler is signed through 2024. Two-fifths of the rotation will have to be replaced for next season. Maybe the Phillies push the top prospects to allocate payroll resources elsewhere. A star shortstop, perhaps?

The evaluations of the pitching prospects are why the Phillies are reluctant to cash in on one of them in a trade for a top-flight starter who they would have for one year and two months. Maybe the Phillies are hugging their prospects too much. The price to acquire great pitching in the next week, in Dombrowski’s estimation, is not commensurate with the team’s odds. A more modest addition is reasonable.

“There’s a lot of clubs that are trying to explore and acquire,” Dombrowski said of the current trade talks for starting pitchers. He added: “Where we are at this time right now, you might ask for a No. 5 starter and they might ask you for your No. 1 prospect. I mean, that’s where you are. … We still have eight days because (the deadline is) 6 o’clock next Tuesday. That’s an eternity at the trade deadline.”

Dombrowski will find a match — or two — because it’s what he does at this time of year. Whether it’s enough to nudge the Phillies into the expanded postseason field remains to be seen. The Phillies will hype Jean Segura, who is going to Triple-A Lehigh Valley on a rehab assignment Tuesday, and Bryce Harper as their biggest “acquisitions.” Harper did not have the pins in his broken left thumb removed Monday when he saw a doctor. They will try again next week. He’s still weeks, maybe a month, away.

Harper turns 30 in October. He has not played in a postseason game since he was days away from his 25th birthday. Everything the Phillies have done in recent years is to maximize Harper’s prime. He still has many productive years remaining.

The failed Phillies teams of recent years were too top-heavy. This one is a little more balanced but still flawed. One way to build a more dynamic roster would be an influx of one or two young, high-ceiling starting pitchers. Dombrowski does have a history of pushing young pitchers, to which he alluded.

Rick Porcello was selected in the first round of the 2007 draft and debuted for Detroit when he was 20 years old in April 2009. Jeremy Bonderman was drafted as a high schooler in 2001, acquired by Dombrowski in 2002, and made Detroit’s Opening Day roster in 2003 as a 20-year-old starter. Justin Verlander was 22 when he debuted. Andrew Miller, a college pick, was in a big-league rotation the year after he was drafted. Livan Hernández, at 22, made 17 starts for the 1997 Florida Marlins. And two 22-year-olds, Eduardo Rodríguez and Henry Owens, combined to make 32 starts for the 2015 Red Sox.

All of this is wishful thinking about 2023. It explains how the Phillies will operate in 2022, although it’s not as if Dombrowski plans to sit idle at the deadline. The Phillies just won’t go all-in to end the drought.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs,” he said. “If we win the division, that’s great. But we’re sitting, what, 9 1/2 games out of first place? But if you make the postseason, anything can happen. And I do think that if we’re in a short series, the way we are, we have a nice structure for a short series.”

(Top photo of Dave Dombrowski: Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

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