The Phillies Lock up Another Part of Their League-Best Rotation

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

At this time last year, the Phillies faced a good deal of long-term uncertainty about their rotation. Aaron Nola was a free agent after the season, Zack Wheeler would follow a year later, and the only pitcher with a guaranteed contract past the 2024 season was Taijuan Walker. This time around, their rotation once again leads the league in WAR, but much of that future angst has been alleviated. The Phillies re-signed Nola and extended Wheeler during the offseason, and now they’ve locked up left-hander Cristopher Sánchez, a 2023 sensation who has remained one this season, for at least four more years, with two club options that could keep him around the through 2030 season.

The 27-year-old Sánchez, whom the Phillies acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays for Curtis Mead back in 2019, has a 2.67 ERA/2.49 FIP over 15 starts this season. That’s good for 2.6 WAR, fourth best among National League pitchers. Sánchez will receive a guaranteed $22.5 million over the next four seasons, buying out all of his possible years of arbitration, plus a $2 million signing bonus. Not bad for someone who had just one full year of service time entering 2024. The two club options come with a $1 million buyout each for 2029 and ’30, bringing the minimum value of the deal to $22.5 million. If the Phillies pick up those two options, for $14 million and $15 million, respectively, and if Sánchez secures top-10 finishes in the Cy Young voting during those option years, his salaries could increase to $16 million for 2029 and $19 million for ’30. That puts the maximum total value of the extension at $56.5 million over six years.

If you didn’t see Sánchez coming, you’re definitely not alone. Mead went on to become one of Tampa Bay’s top prospects – he was still ranked fourth in the Rays’ system and 32nd overall in our preseason prospects rankings – while Sánchez came back from the COVID layoff struggling against Triple-A hitters. Changeup pitchers with command issues generally aren’t highly regarded, and neither Sánchez’s cup of coffee in 2021 nor his larger carafe in 2022 suggested a pitcher who would become a key part of a top rotation a year later. The Phillies certainly weren’t confident in him entering 2023; he had lost weight over the offseason, and the team intended to give him only a single spot start in April after a White Sox doubleheader messed up the rotation’s rest days. From a story from last August by Matt Gelb of The Athletic:

Rob Thomson was transparent with Sánchez: This was one start, and one start only. Sánchez, who had missed most of spring training with various injuries, later said he appreciated the manager’s honesty. He knew where he stood.

Before the call ended, Brian Kaplan had a question. He is the team’s assistant pitching coach and director of pitching development. The Phillies had outlined an offseason plan for Sánchez, a lanky lefty from the Dominican Republic, and it went haywire. Sánchez was supposed to add bulk. But a long illness sapped him of strength. He lost more than 15 pounds. It compromised him in the spring when he failed to make an impression while the Phillies scrambled to fill the back of their rotation.

In truth, Sánchez didn’t dominate for Lehigh Valley last year, either, but he did accomplish one goal the team set out for him; by the summer, he had gained 25 pounds. That coincided with a small window of opportunity to grab the fifth spot in the rotation. The Phillies had used Matt Strahm in the role early in the season, but they were worried about his innings count. Dylan Covey had gotten a couple starts but was bombed by the Braves in his most recent one, and Bailey Falter, who had been in the rotation earlier, was in the minors and out with a neck injury. So Sánchez got the nod on June 17 against the A’s; he went four scoreless innings and allowed one hit. His tumbling changeup — which looks like the world’s least erratic forkball — clicked, and he never gave the Phillies a reason to boot him from the rotation. Even the acquisition of Michael Lorenzen didn’t cost him his job. The Phillies happily went with a six-man rotation rather than deprive themselves of Sánchez’s services.

Over the first half of this season, Sánchez has proven that his performance last year was no fluke. He’s now been up for a full calendar year, throwing 175 1/3 innings with 157 strikeouts with a 3.08 ERA across 31 starts. He surely won’t continue his rate of home run avoidance (just one allowed this season), but even if his home run rate were to regress heavily toward the mean and cause his ERA to jump to the low 3.00s, he’d still worthy of his rotation spot.

So, what’s the projection look like? Suffice it to say, ZiPS was not very excited about him coming into 2023.

ZiPS Projection – Cristopher Sánchez (Pre-2023)
2023 4 4 4.55 26 15 83.0 79 42 10 38 78 91 0.8
2024 4 4 4.39 26 15 84.0 79 41 9 37 79 94 0.9
2025 4 4 4.38 26 15 86.3 80 42 9 38 81 95 1.0
2026 4 4 4.33 27 15 87.3 81 42 9 38 82 96 1.0
2027 4 4 4.34 27 15 87.0 82 42 9 38 81 96 1.0
2028 4 4 4.39 26 14 84.0 79 41 8 38 77 94 1.0
2029 4 4 4.43 26 14 83.3 79 41 8 38 75 94 0.9
2030 4 4 4.52 24 13 79.7 76 40 8 38 71 92 0.8

That’s not disastrous; with those numbers, he would’ve been a competent spot starter/long reliever. But it wasn’t even a shadow of what he’s accomplished in the last year. So let’s spin up his current, much sunnier projection. How sunny? Let’s just say Tom Glavine pops up in the top 10 on his comps list and leave it at that.

ZiPS Projection – Cristopher Sánchez (Now)
2025 8 6 3.69 29 28 158.7 160 65 14 48 133 118 3.3
2026 8 6 3.70 28 27 151.0 155 62 14 45 126 118 3.1
2027 7 6 3.81 27 26 146.3 153 62 13 44 120 114 2.9
2028 7 6 3.87 26 24 137.3 146 59 13 43 111 113 2.6
2029 7 5 4.00 26 24 135.0 146 60 13 43 107 109 2.4
2030 6 5 4.12 23 22 122.3 136 56 13 41 95 106 2.0

Most teams would be ecstatic to have this projection from their no. 2 starter. From your no. 4, this is like waking up one morning and finding out that your garden hose somehow makes its own IPA. Based on these numbers, ZiPS projects Sánchez to be worth $27.3 million over the four-year extension, making this a decent value from the point of view of the Phils. The deal becomes even better for Philadelphia when you look at the option years; ZiPS projects Sánchez’s value for 2029 and ’30 to be worth a combined $41 million in free agency, $11 million more than the base value of those years if the Phillies pick up his options.

That leaves Ranger Suárez as the only key member of the rotation who might not be around long term. He’s set to hit free agency after the 2025 season, and considering his excellence this year, he probably won’t come cheap if the Phillies try to extend him; a six-year deal would cost them $135 million, according to ZiPS. Having Sánchez around until the end of the decade at such a generous rate could provide Philadelphia the flexibility to dole out more money to keep Suárez.

Before we go, I’ve been looking for an excuse to project the Phillies rotation, so I’m not letting this opportunity slip away! Using the innings allocation in our depth charts, ZiPS currently projects Phillies starting pitchers to accumulate 8.6 more WAR over the rest of the season, which would give their starters a combined 22.7 WAR for the entire 2024 campaign. Here’s how that compares to the best starting staffs in the five-man rotation era, which I’m somewhat arbitrarily starting in 1980:

Top Rotations, 1980-2024
Season Team Top Four Starters WAR
2011 Phillies Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt 27.0
1997 Braves John Smoltz, Denny Neagle, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine 25.4
1996 Braves Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Steve Avery 24.6
1998 Braves Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Denny Neagle, Kevin Millwood 24.4
2003 Yankees Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, David Wells 23.8
2002 Diamondbacks Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Rick Helling, Miguel Batista 23.8
2013 Tigers Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Aníbal Sánchez 23.1
1999 Braves Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood, John Smoltz 22.8
2024 Phillies (Projected) Zack Wheeler, Ranger Suárez, Cristopher Sánchez, Aaron Nola 22.7
1988 Mets Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda 22.2
2017 Cleveland Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin 22.2
2002 Yankees Mike Mussina, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte 22.1
2018 Cleveland Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer 22.1
1999 Astros Shane Reynolds, Jose Lima, Mike Hampton, Chris Holt 21.7
1990 Mets Frank Viola, Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Sid Fernandez 21.3
2018 Astros Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton 21.2
2019 Nationals Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez, Max Scherzer 21.0
1995 Braves John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Greg Maddux 21.0
1985 Royals Charlie Leibrandt, Bud Black, Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson 21.0
2003 Cubs Carlos Zambrano, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, Mark Prior 21.0
2000 Braves Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood, John Burkett 20.9
2021 Dodgers Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer 20.8
1982 Phillies Steve Carlton, Larry Christenson, Mike Krukow, Dick Ruthven 20.7
1990 Red Sox Mike Boddicker, Roger Clemens, Greg Harris, Dana Kiecker 20.6
1993 Braves Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, John Smoltz 20.6

That’s quite rarified air. Based on these projections, the Phillies would finish the season with baseball’s best rotation in more than a decade, since the 2013 Tigers. And with the Sánchez extension coming on the heels of the deals for Nola and Wheeler, Philadelphia has the chance to keep this party going for several more years.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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29 days ago

Great piece, and I really like the bonus projection of the rotation. Would love to see more stuff like this tacked on the transaction projections!