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Why did Phillies trade two clubhouse favorites?

By newadmin / Published on Tuesday, 10 Jan 2023 14:07 PM / No Comments / 3 views

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The 2022 Phillies were an amusement park of refreshing baseball joy. A huge part of that was the so-called “Phillies Daycare,” an assortment of young, jubilant position players who invigorated the team with base hits and good vibes.

But at some point, everyone has to graduate from daycare.

On Saturday the Phillies said goodbye to two beloved members, sending infielder Nick Maton and outfielder Matt Vierling (alongside Triple-A catcher Donny Sands) to Detroit in exchange for left-handed reliever Gregory Soto and utility guy Kody Clemens

Let’s get Sands out of the way really quick. A bat-first backup catcher-type who had a really nice year in Triple-A, Sands only played three games in the majors in 2022. He’ll be Detroit’s backup catcher in 2023, but had no role in Philly behind J.T. Realmuto and Garrett Stubbs. He’s not a huge loss.

Vierling and Maton’s departure, on the other hand, sent shockwaves through the Phillies fan base over the weekend, taking fans and players completely by surprise. While neither player was expected to be indispensable to the 2023 team, both became beloved clubhouse presences throughout Philly’s magical 2022 season.

Maton, who referred to himself exclusively as “Wolfie” for reasons unknown and unshared, often roamed the clubhouse and dugout barking at teammates, coaches and members of the media. It was a delightful weird-guy bit, one that turned Maton into a fond character at Citizens Bank Park.

Vierling, who started in center field all October against left-handed pitching, though a decidedly less weird presence than Maton, was still one of the more liked and fun-loving players in the Phillies clubhouse. During the locker room celebration upon winning the NLCS over the Padres, Vierling circled the clubhouse with a pack of cigarettes and offering heaters to all comers. 

Maton and Vierling’s contributions to concocting such a dynamic clubhouse culture, however, overshadow how helpful they were in guiding the Phillies through their run of debilitating regular-season injuries. Vierling had an 113 OPS+ in 134 plate appearances against lefties, while Maton caught fire in his 34-game stint with the big-league club, producing a 138 OPS+. 

You win a World Series with your best 15 players, but you survive the rigors of a 162-game season with your best 35. Just ask the Los Angeles Angels and their two MVPs with no postseason appearances since 2014. In 2022, Maton and Vierling gave the Phillies crucial offensive depth at a time when they most needed it. Not to mention the cigarettes and the howling.

And now they’re both gone, sent to Detroit for a guy with the fifth-worst walk rate in baseball and an underwhelming utility infielder with a famous father. So what convinced Philly president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld to part ways with two of their most admired chemistry characters?

It’s actually quite simple: Soto throws 100 and he does so with his left arm. 

Clemens is fine, a bat-first bench infielder with less upside and defensive value than Maton, but this trade is about Soto and what Soto can become.

Right now, the 6-foot-1 Dominican is a remarkably flawed yet effective pitcher. Soto throws absolute cheddar — the only left-handed hurler with more pitches over 100 mph in 2022 was his new teammate, José Alvarado — but a lack of command means he doesn’t strike out as many batters as you’d expect. And then there’s his love for walks; Soto was one of only six MLB pitchers last year to walk more than five batters per nine innings and strike out fewer than nine batters per nine innings. He also finished the year with the league’s fifth-worst average exit velocity allowed.

Usually, that’s a devastating combo: walking people without striking them out at a jaw-dropping rate, while also giving up a ton of hard contact. But Soto somehow dodged danger and pacified the baseball gods just enough to finish the year with a 3.28 ERA. That figure, in a backwards way, shows how much potential he has. He underwhelmed and underperformed in so many important categories in 2022 and still had a 3.59 FIP.

So for the Phillies, this is an upside play. Soto has shown flashes of dominance before, including a 49-game stretch in 2021 in which he posted a 2.47 ERA with an 11.9 K/9. The Phillies helped Alvarado, a fellow fuel-pumping left-handed reliever with control issues, discover enough consistency to develop into a reliable high-leverage arm. They’re clearly hoping they can do the same with Soto, who becomes yet another high-variance piece in a fascinating bullpen that now also includes Craig Kimbrel.

The trade therefore is polarizing. For some, it’s swapping two non-starters for a pitcher who could carry you through a postseason. For others, it’s losing two appreciated and promising position players for a volatile reliever with control issues.  

If you believe in Soto and Philly’s pitching coaches and the magic of small sample size, the deal makes sense. But for those who pray to the altar of the vibes (and position-player depth), this trade might be a bitter pill to swallow.

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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