The story of how the Phillies went from sleeping giants to disappointing in three years started way before John Middleton emerged as the new face of ownership. In fact, you can trace it back to six years before the 2008 Phillies paraded down Broad Street.
Their string of good drafts that gave way to the golden age of Phillies baseball ended in 2002 when they took Cole Hamels in the first round. They lost a ton of first-round picks in the coming years for signing top free agents such as Jim Thome and Raúl Ibañez and failed to succeed with a draft strategy of targeting high-upside high school players with a ton of athleticism.
As a result, the five-year stretch of dreamlike baseball from 2007 to 2011 abruptly ended. Under general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and scouting director Marti Wolever, the plan that hasn’t worked for years continued on. Meanwhile, most teams in baseball were gearing up for a sabermetric revolution. The Phillies only began building up their analytics department after Amaro’s departure in September of 2015.
In their final year in charge, Amaro and Wolever deviated from that strategy and acquired two players who would go on to play a key role in the team’s next competitive window: Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins.
Like the Phillies of the past, today’s Phillies have been very good at assembling the top of their roster, whether it be through the draft or free agency. The bottom? Not so much. Perhaps if they hit on a few late-round picks early in the 2010s, the Phillies would be in a better situation right now.
On the international market, they’ve been average at best. Schmenkman from The Good Phight did a fantastic job of breaking down just how productive the Phillies’ international signings have been since 1997 earlier this year. Their two best signings of the last 17 years, Carlos Carrasco and Sixto Sánchez were both used as trade chips to land Cliff Lee and J.T. Realmuto. Héctor Neris, César Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, Seranthony Dominguez and Maikel Franco were all solid signings but not enough to push the team forward.
The biggest knock on the Phillies’ international scouting and player development is that they haven’t produced a superstar talent like the Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. or the Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto. Sánchez could have been that star for the Phillies but at the moment, he’s garnering Pedro Martinez comparisons for the division-rival Miami Marlins.
But young talent acquisition is far from the only issue. Their shortfalls in both amateur and international scouting, as well as player development, can be mitigated through shrewd free agent signings or trades.
In 2017, Middleton went on Sportsradio 94 WIP and said “We’re going to get our trophy back or I’m going to die trying.” The quote gave way to a conversation with Bob Nightengale of USA Today more than a year later when he said he was “going to be a little stupid about it” in reference to the money the Phillies would be willing to spend in free agency on a star player like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. “Stupid money” became a mantra among Phillies fans and media alike.
In 2020, the phrase more accurately applies to a handful of bloated contracts for aging veterans the Phillies have carried over the last few years that is driving up the payroll.
Two of them came off the books this year. Jake Arrieta’s three-year, $75 million deal signed before the 2018 season was doomed from the start as many underlying metrics indicated that the former Cy Young Award-winner was in decline. David Robertson’s two-year deal was a good signing until it turned out he would only throw 6 2/3 innings for the Phillies.
A couple of those signings are still hurting the team. Matt Klentak and the front office misread the market when they signed Andrew McCutchen to a three-year, $50 million deal in December of 2019. Days later, the Astros signed veteran outfielder Michael Brantley to a two-year, $32 million deal. Brantley has been considerably more productive — and healthier — than McCutchen in the last two years.
The Phillies are still paying for the decision to sign Carlos Santana despite already having a starting first baseman on the roster in the form of Jean Segura’s contract. While Segura has shown he can aid the Phillies through his defensive versatility, they owe him over $29 million through 2022. His name has reportedly come up in trade talks.
Even their low-risk, high-reward moves haven’t panned out. Before Scott Kingery even played a game in the big leagues, the team signed him to a six-year deal worth $24 million in 2018. He has a four-million dollar cap hit for 2021. If the Phillies had decided against handing Kingery the historic contract they did in 2018, he would most likely be worth around league-minimum in arbitration this year.
Two years prior, they signed Odubel Herrera to a five-year extension. By 2018, it was evident he wasn’t the player they thought he could become. He hasn’t played for the team since he was arrested after injuring his girlfriend in a domestic violence incident. If the Phillies never signed Herrera to an extension, they could have cut ties with Herrera after the 2019 season without owing him any guaranteed money. He’s owed over $10 million in 2021 with a $6.1 million luxury tax hit in 2021, regardless if he plays or not.
All the failures listed above add up and manifest itself into what the Phillies are now: a once-proud franchise that holds the longest playoff drought in the National League.Embed from Getty Images
To be fair, the rebuild hasn’t been a complete failure. They drafted an ace in Nola and a middle-of-the-order bat in Hoskins. Zach Eflin is ascending and Spencer Howard is a promising talent. Alec Bohm could be a star in Philadelphia for a long time.
Joe Girardi is the manager that brings a level of professionalism and credibly that a team in win-now mode needs. Hitting coach Joe Dillon proved to be a solid hire in his first season and the Phillies have an exciting first-year pitching coach in Caleb Cotham.
They’ve also gone out and acquired the key players they need to round out their core of top players. They signed Bryce Harper to a record contract in 2019 and acquired a legit top-of-the-rotation starter in Zack Wheeler. For a one-year deal, the Didi Gregorius contract worked out pretty well for the Phillies.
And while the farm system won’t be churning out star talent anytime soon, the Phillies are probably in a better position to fill out the roster from the bottom-up with talent from the minor leagues. Connor Brogdon and JoJo Romero could play key roles in the bullpen next year. It wouldn’t be too surprising if Adonis Medina, Erik Miller and Damon Jones receive opportunities at the big-league level next year. The Phillies will learn a lot more about what they have in the minor-league system this year and it might not be as bad as you’d think.
But the positives pretty much end there.
The Phillies opened up a window of opportunity not when they signed Harper, but when they traded for Realmuto. By giving up their top pitching prospect in Sánchez for the best catcher in baseball, the Phillies signaled that they were finally ready to win again.
The only problem? They came up way short in year one, failed to properly fill out the roster in year two and lack a succinct plan heading into year three. They could very well lose Realmuto, which would create a gaping hole in the roster for the win-now Phillies.
And from the looks of it, it seems like the Phillies are indifferent towards losing arguably their best player. The decision to keep Realmuto pretty much lies solely in the hands of Middleton, who admitted that the team’s offseason spending will be tied to projected 2021 revenues.
“Can you tell me what the governor [of Pennsylvania] and the mayor of Philadelphia are going to allow us to have next year in the way of fans? Because if you do, you know something that I don’t,” Middleton said at the beginning of October. Granted, a lot of progress has been made towards a COVID-19 vaccine since Middleton uttered that quote two months ago.
Not to mention, the front office is in a state of flux. Instead of firing Klentak, the team decided to re-assign him and take their time to find his replacement. Interim GM Ned Rice is making the decisions for now but if their intention is to hire a new general manager or president of baseball operations immediately, they have to move a little quicker as the decisions that need to be made soon will have ramifications for years to come.
The bottom line is this: Middleton and his willingness to spend is the most important variable this offseason. If he provides a reasonable budget to either Rice or his replacement, the team could make the necessary improvements. The Phillies can construct a good team with a $185 to $200 million payroll in 2021. There are too many good players available on the market for the Phillies to completely fail this offseason, regardless of who is in charge, if the funds are available.
If Middleton calls for drastic budget cuts in the range of a payroll that’s around 30 to 40 million dollars less than what it was in 2020 (204 million dollars), the Phillies are going to have a hard time crawling out of the bottom of the division in 2021.
While the pandemic has created unique circumstances, this wasn’t always the plan Middleton had in mind. Back in 2017, Middleton laid out his approach on the Phillies payroll in the coming years:
“It isn’t that we create a financial budget and say to Matt and Andy ‘Here’s your number, do the best you can,” Middleton said on Sportsradio 94 WIP. “We look at them and say ‘Your job is to tell us what’s the best team that you can put on the field at this point in time, given where we are in our cycle and where you want us to be a year or two or three from now. And then you tell us how much that’s going to cost us.'”
At the end of 2019, Middleton had this to say in a press conference about the luxury tax:
“Here’s what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team. That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”
As it turns out, that “little gain” could have pushed the Phillies towards their first division title and playoff berth since 2011. Who knows what would have happened if the 2020 Phillies had an average bullpen, which could have been bought if the Phillies were willing to go over the luxury tax last season.
The team, which has been swimming in cash since they signed a new local television contract in 2014, has laid off 17 percent of their workforce after reportedly losing over $145 million in revenue in 2020. To put this into perspective, the club took in a combined $167 million in operating income from 2018 to 2019, according to Forbes.
They were deemed “sleeping giants” because they were practically sitting on a gold mine for years. Two years into their competitive window, they are a shell of what the baseball world once thought they could be when Hoskins, Nola, Realmuto and Harper all lined up for a Sports Illustrated cover shoot.
Two of those players, Nola and Hoskins, are set to become free agents in 2023. The end of the 2023 season should be considered the earliest end of their window of opportunity to win with the core they have, regardless if Realmuto is on the team or not. They’ve squandered the first two years and could very well punt the third away if Middleton and the anonymous group of minority owners deem it necessary to prioritize mitigating the losses incurred during the pandemic over winning.
With a free agent market flooded with talent that was let go due to budget crunches around the league, this is the year to right 18 years worth of wrongs and finally, win again. Financial directives from the top down could prevent that. If the Phillies sit out of free agency this year, they can count themselves out of having any chance to be competitive in 2021.
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