With Marsh and Robertson, Phillies Patch Holes With an Eye to the Future

Brandon Marsh
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies were in an unenviable spot coming into today. At 55–47, they’re likely out of the NL East race, which leaves them competing with the Cardinals and Padres for the final two playoff spots in the NL. It’s three teams for two spots, and two of the three teams were attempting to add Juan Soto. That’s not a great place to be if you’re Philadelphia.

The Padres have likely separated themselves from that awkward middle by breaking open their prospect vault to secure Soto and Josh Bell. That leaves the Cardinals and Phillies as the two clearest contenders for the last Wild Card, and that’s where the good news starts. The Cardinals, naturally, aren’t getting Soto. They may not be getting anyone, period; they have contributors across the board offensively, which means there are no obvious spots for an upgrade, and there aren’t many marquee pitchers left on the board.

The Phillies, meanwhile, have no shortage of holes. They were the main offender in Jay Jaffe’s Replacement Level Killers series, the major league organization equivalent of Swiss cheese, and they were already trading for middle infielders the Cardinals would have otherwise had to DFA. That sounds bad, but it has its upsides. It’s a lot easier to improve when you start out from a lower point, and the Phillies are doing so today in two separate trades, adding Brandon Marsh from the Angels and David Robertson from the Cubs.

Marsh is in the midst of his first full season in the majors and has graduated from prospectdom as a likely impact player. It’s easy to see why: plus power, line drives to all fields, and top-level straight-line speed with elite outfield defense. It’s also easy to see what might go wrong, given that he’s running a gruesome 35.7% strikeout rate in the majors, due largely to contact issues. I think there’s some chance that swing changes he made to produce power before the 2021 season have been an overall negative.

If that’s the case, Marsh might have to choose between being a slashing, defense-first center fielder and a whiffs-and-dingers, defense-first center fielder. Let’s say either of those players top out in the 2-3 WAR range; that’s still a huge upgrade for the Phillies. They’ve been running out Matt Vierling and the now-DFA’d Odúbel Herrera in center, and both are hitting like Marsh and playing below-average defense. If the team decides Rhys Hoskins is going to play first base rather than DH, Vierling could shift to an outfield corner and upgrade Philadelphia’s defense from scary-bad to average while one of Nick Castellanos or Kyle Schwarber acts as the DH.

Over the next few years, adding a center fielder with a solid glove does a lot to stabilize the Philadelphia defense. When Bryce Harper returns to the field, they’ll have two above-average outfielders, and Marsh has the speed to make up for whoever plays in left. Assuming he can hit even a little bit, the job will be his for a while; he’s 24 and won’t reach free agency until after the 2027 season. Even if he continues at his current offensive pace, I think Philadelphia would happily run him out there to provide defensive cover for its roster of defensively-limited sluggers, and his pre-2020 track record of success points to upside from there. He could even sit out against tough lefties if need be; Vierling makes for a nice right-handed platoon partner with utility across the outfield on days where he isn’t starting. The Phillies haven’t had much outfield depth in recent years, but adding Marsh gives them options.

To secure Marsh’s services for the long haul, the Phillies gave up Logan O’Hoppe, their second-best prospect and the No. 50 prospect in baseball. The Phillies repeatedly pushed him after drafting him out of high school in 2018, and he’s met every test. He went through three levels of the minors last year and also played in Fall League, and he’s been thriving offensively in 2022, albeit in one of the best minor league parks for hitters, which dulls the shine on his .269/.385/.492 line somewhat. Even if you mark the performance down, though, it’s a great performance for a 22-year-old catcher who you’d expect to develop slowly thanks to playing his high school ball in cold-weather New York.

Per Eric Longenhagen, O’Hoppe is solidly average on defense, neither exceptional nor problematic behind the plate. He has an average arm and looks, on quick inspection, like an average framer. Eric also notes that his power is dead pull, and that he has occasional trouble with sliders away that may foreshadow how major league staffs approach him. He makes up for that with a good eye; the fewer sliders you swing at, the fewer you miss. Overall, it’s an impressive profile for a young catcher who looks like a future everyday starter at the position and contributes in many ways without any standout skill.

O’Hoppe had the most helium of anyone in the Phillies’ organization; he wasn’t on our preseason Top 100 at all, for example, though the prospect team pegged him as a fast riser. Marsh is the opposite, as his star has faded significantly in the past two years. Tell someone you were making a Marsh/O’Hoppe trade in 2020, and they wouldn’t believe you.

Does this mean the Phillies are buying low and selling high? It’s too soon to say, obviously, but I’d make this trade every day of the week if I were them. If you think the two will have roughly equivalent major league careers, Marsh is a far better fit in Philly; he’s ready right now, plays a position of need, and is young enough that I have no trouble believing he could unlock a better version of himself. I assume the Angels have a high opinion of O’Hoppe and are continuing to try to find playing time for Jo Adell in hopes that he figures it out, but it still feels like they didn’t get enough back for Marsh to me. This wasn’t some expiring contract they had to trade; nothing prevents them from just hanging onto Marsh and seeing what shakes out swing-wise.

The Phillies didn’t stop at Marsh, because they also need all the relief help they can get. They’ve scraped together an overall solid bullpen performance this season thanks to a characteristically excellent season from Seranthony Domínguez and good depth from Nick Nelson, Andrew Bellatti, and Connor Brogdon. That said, they’re short on impact arms, and Robertson will slot in as either a co-closer or ace setup man, depending on how Rob Thomson wants to use him.

Robertson’s last stint with the Phillies was disastrous; he tore his UCL just seven games into a two-year contract and didn’t pitch for them again. Healthy once again, he looks like every bit the reliever he was in his prime with the Yankees, still relying on a low-90s cutter that keeps hitters off balance as well as a nasty mid-80s curveball that’s one of the best in the game at missing bats. “One of the best” is no exaggeration; it’s third in swinging-strike rate across all major league curveballs and has consistently been in that range throughout Robertson’s career. He’s added a slider to give hitters a few more looks in recent years, but the core of his game is that cutter/curve combination. Maybe he’s not as good as his 2.23 ERA this year, but I’d be comfortable bringing him in late in games; his bat-missing stuff acts like a security blanket for managers with bullpen anxiety.

Robertson is 37 and will be a free agent after this year, so the Cubs didn’t ask for the moon and the stars in return for him. Instead, they asked for Ben Brown, a 22-year-old reliever pitching at Hi-A Jersey Shore this year. Per Eric, he has a modern reliever starter kit: a four-seam fastball that sits 94–96 mph with bat-missing shape, and two mid-80s breaking balls (slider and curveball) with north-south break. He profiles as a likely stuff-over-command reliever and will slot into the Cubs’ system as a 35+ FV.

The Phillies have so far mostly had a good day thanks to their closest competitor’s lack of activity. If the Cardinals had grabbed Soto, or if they pry Carlos Rodón from the Giants, Philadelphia’s tenuous playoff hopes will take a hit. But just because you’re not going to make big moves at the deadline doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make any. Relief help, particularly in exchange for nothing more than a prospective future reliever, is always welcome. Exchanging one young player for another who fits your team better is great, too, especially if you think they’re buying low on Marsh. Not everyone can trade for Soto, but I’m impressed by what the Phillies have done to get better now without giving away much in the way of long-term upside.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Add Thor to the mix, and the roster has good depth in the areas where it was shallow before.

There is a bit of a 40 man crunch coming for the Phillies at the catcher position, so it made sense to swap catcher for CF. Best of luck to O’Hoppe.