The Phillies seem to appreciate duality.
On a Friday in December they traded Freddy Galvis to San Diego; about an hour later and on the same day, they signed Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million pact.
Today, on a random Sunday just before the beginning of the regular season, the Phillies announced they designated Cameron Rupp for assignment. Hours later, they announced they signed prospect Scott Kingery to a six-year guaranteed contract with three club option years.
In December it felt as if a new era had truly begun, as the longest-tenured player left and a big free agent entered. Today it feels as if the Phils aren’t playing around. Rupp wasn’t cutting it. And they clearly believe in Kingery, because teams do not give up to nine years of guaranteed money to guys who’ve never faced a major league pitch.
This is unusual. It’s unbelievable, bold, risky, controversial, debatable, but among all else, it sends direct messages. It’s standard practice in baseball to wait before promoting a top prospect because teams don’t want his service clock to begin too early, thus denying an extra year of team control. It’s also standard practice to wait two to four years before extending even a good young player on a long-term contract. We’ll get into the morality of these practices in a moment, but right now, just consider that before today, only one person has received a long-term major league contract before playing a major league game. That person, ironically enough, was former Phillies prospect Jonathan Singleton, who hasn’t lived up to his status. But the point is there was one person. Just one. Now there are two thanks to Kingery. We didn’t see this coming.
What it means right away is that Kingery will be on the opening day roster, and that the opening-day roster is likely settled. He’ll join a bench that includes Andrew Knapp (thanks to that Rupp news today), Pedro Florimon and Aaron Altherr. He’ll be asked to play his standard position of second base, but also shortstop and third base and all three outfield positions. He should immediately contribute to a team that is eyeing a dark-horse run at a National League wild card position.
For the future it means Kingery is likely to be the second baseman in Philadelphia for much of the next six seasons, and possibly the next nine. The Phillies believe he’s not only part of the future, but a core piece of the plan.
Now, back to the morality of what we just saw today. The Phillies could have kept Kingery in triple-A Lehigh Valley, and according to Matt Gelb at the Athletic, that was the plan up until a few days ago. If they kept him there, then brought him up by mid-April, they would’ve gained a seventh year of team control on the back end; thus, bringing him up on opening day would’ve potentially hurt the club’s roster and payroll far down the line. The Phils all along seemed content with keeping Kingery from potentially earning a ton of money in the free market after 2023.
But now we have this deal, and the Phils get to dictate just how much Kingery will make not only through 2023, but potentially through 2026. It’s possible Kingery could make $25 million in 2024, but instead he’ll only earn $13 million if his option exercises. It’s also possible Kingery could be out of baseball by 2024, or simply mediocre, but he could still earn either $1 million thanks to a buyout, or $13 million if that option exercises. It’s a risk for both sides, but look, the system is stacked against players. Teams can determine how much a player earns the first three years of his career, regardless of his performance. In arbitration, there is some control afforded to the player, but arbitration figures themselves are factors of the environment (the best arb players almost entirely make less than their actual value). Basically players don’t have the opportunity to determine how much they’re actually worth until free agency, and even then the system is stacked against them, because as we saw this offseason, front offices may shift thinking and devalue certain free agents.
So it’s unfair that Kingery would be put into a position where he either had to accept a long-term deal to get on the opening day roster, or he’d have to wait a few weeks and play a career dice game that relies both on his performance and outside factors (say a pitcher hits him in the head with a pitch). It’s also not that simple (the Phils never said *this* is why they were going to send him to Lehigh Valley), but the fact remains that there are few approaches that allow young players to earn more than the minimum right away. This is one of them, and while it’s one of the more generous approaches from a club sense, it’s still part of a bigger problem: baseball players typically don’t get paid enough.
Back to the generous approach thing: The Phillies could have not paid Kingery this money. They could have gone along with the previous plan of holding him back in Lehigh Valley, then playing the year-to-year game. Instead they are giving a prospect a big payday, which is – in this environment – a risk. That should be commended on some level. It’s also a big change in philosophy – the Phillies have never done anything like this – and as a fan, it’s pretty impressive, and even exciting, to see them make this kind of commitment.
So what’s the right take?
There is no right take, not one at least. You can be happy about the move while hating that young players have to practically be Scott Kingery to get this kind of deal, while also hating that Kingery isn’t going to earn more if he’s better.
The game needs fixing. How players are paid desperately needs fixing (especially this business with minor leaguers, which is just disgusting). At the same time, this is an important day in Phillies history: They locked up who they believe is a core part of basically the next decade of Philadelphia baseball in historic fashion.