Minor Phillies trade may be just a start as they try to pull away from Braves

The Phillies acquired Jay Bruce in  trade with Mariners over the weekend. It was a solid move for the Phillies, who were in desperate need of outfield depth and a lefty bat. It only cost them a prospect who was in high Single-A ball and taking on $2.75 million of the roughly $21 million owed Bruce through 2020.

It's not a move that figures to make a big difference for the Phillies in their NL East race with the Braves. That kind of move would be signing free-agent pitchers Dallas Kuechel or Craig Kimbrel now that draft-pick compensation no longer is an issue. That could come next for the Phillies, according to Todd Zolecki of MLB.com:

"Bruce could be the first of the Phillies' upgrades leading up to the July 31 Trade Deadline. His impact on the Phillies' luxury tax threshold is minimal — about $1 million for 2019 — meaning they have plenty of flexibility to make more moves before the end of the month. There seems to be little chance the team signs free-agent left-hander Dallas Keuchel, but they have been interested in free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel, if he is willing to sign a short-term deal. He has been seeking a multi-year deal."

You'll recall that the Phillies spent "stupid" money last winter trying to build an instant contender. The Phillies have never trailed in the NL East and have led the division since April 25 despite their stacked lineup underachieving so far. The Phillies got swept at the Dodgers over the weekend, same as the Braves did in May, but still lead the East by a game.

The Phillies, like the Braves, can use all the pitching help they can get. Unlike the Braves, the Phillies have shown a willingness to pay big for what they want. The Braves also are interested in signing Keuchel and Kimbrel, but it's hard to see them outbidding the Phillies for either.

The Cubs reportedly also are interesting in signing Kimbrel. The Yankees and Cardinals are said to want Kuechel. If those clubs really have serious interest in signing Keuchel and Kimbrel, then the low-budget Braves will be circled by big spenders, one of which includes their primary rival in the East.

The market interest in the pitchers also increases the possibility they will get long-term deals. Keuchel reportedly is open to accepting $17.9 million for this season, the same amount as the qualifying offer he turned down from Houston. Kimbrel’s terms supposedly have dropped from a five-year deal to a three-year deal, which I’m guessing still is two more years longer the Braves are willing to do.

The Braves might find pitching help on the trade market but it's difficult to envision them taking on much money. There's no real business incentive for Liberty Media to increase player payroll for as long as fans keep coming out to enjoy its real estate investment in Cobb County. The franchise has already shown its willingness to absorb barbs from critics and pocket profits it once pledged would go to player payroll.

From a baseball perspective, the Braves could decide that a rich, long-term deal for a free-agent pitcher makes little sense. One graduated prospect, Mike Soroka, has been their best pitcher this season. Another, Touki Toussaint, has been solid in the bullpen. Four Braves pitchers rank among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects —two have already made their MLB debuts and the other two are at Double-A.

Internal help is on the way for Braves pitching, for next year if not this one. It’s reasonable for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to conclude it’s better to wait for the organization’s young arms to develop and spend his limited payroll allowance on other needs. That approach won’t mollify detractors still waiting for that financial “flexibility” to reveal itself but, again, LM seems willing to take those hits and stay the course.

The Phillies face no such restrictions. Their ownership already is pot committed. They appear to need a talent boost to pull away from the Braves and become true threats to the Dodgers, Cubs and (maybe) Brewers. Paying (or overpaying) for Keuchel or Kimbrel is within reach for the Phillies.

In the meantime, the Phillies made a smart, low-cost move to acquire Bruce. It could be the first of many for the Phillies in their efforts to hold off the Braves in the East and contend for a World Series title.