Coming into this offseason, many wondered whether the Phillies were going to be serious players in free agency. They were interested in bringing back star catcher J.T. Realmuto but managing partner John Middleton expressed hesitancy, citing an additional revenue shortfall in 2021 that could impede their chances of retaining him. The team also laid-off 17 percent of its workforce in response to the pandemic.
Months have gone by. COVID-19 cases are still rising but the U.S. is in the early stages of its vaccine rollout. The City of Philadelphia modified restrictions in October that allowed a small number of Philadelphia Eagles fans to attend three home games from mid-October to early November. If the Phillies do open their season against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park on April 1, there’s a good chance that a limited number of fans would be allowed through the gate.
The Phillies also hired a win-now executive in Dave Dombrowski. The 64-year-old probably wouldn’t have entertained the idea of taking the job in Philadelphia if ownership didn’t provide him with the resources he needed to win.
In his first press conference, Dombrowski stressed that the team’s goal in 2021 is to win but there were limits in place.
“I wouldn’t expect [the payroll] to be at that same amount as last year,” Dombrowski said in December. Before salaries were pro-rated, the Phillies carried a record-high payroll of $208 million in 2020. Phillies Nation’s Jonny Heller estimates the 2021 payroll to be around $156 million after the Archie Bradley signing.
These days, there’s reportedly less talk about the Phillies taking a gap year in 2021. They’re the favorites to sign Realmuto and according to Jayson Stark of The Athletic, have offered him a five-year deal worth over $100 million. On MLB Network Radio, Dombrowski said, “Anybody that’s out there at this point,” is a possibility as far as free-agent shortstops go. They’re also searching for starting pitching depth at the right price and are “open-minded” to future bullpen acquisitions.
“The way I look at it, there’s just too many good players on the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team to think about transitioning,” Dombrowski said Monday. “We’re thinking about winning. That’s what we’re going to try to do. We’re going to try to do what we can.
“I don’t mean that we’re mortgaging our future at this particular time. I don’t think we’re at that place by any means but I think we’re in a position where if we can make a couple moves in particular with some of the players that we have, I don’t know why we can’t compete to win.”
The Phillies have two of the best starters in the National League, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, under contract through at least 2023. It’ll be a decade until Bryce Harper’s time in Philly is up and Rhys Hoskins is scheduled to hit free agency in 2023. Alec Bohm has six more years of team control and Zach Eflin, who the Phillies hope is a solid No. 3 starter or better, won’t become a free agent until after the 2022 season.Embed from Getty Images
Considering the lackluster prospect haul teams are getting for top players, it wouldn’t make sense for the Phillies to give up on their existing core and enter a rebuild. Even if the Phillies re-sign Realmuto, acquire a starting shortstop and add more upgrades to the bullpen, they won’t be the favorites to win the division. Their roster isn’t nearly as good as the Braves and Mets on paper. Dombrowski knows that but that doesn’t mean the Phillies won’t try to be competitive in 2021.
“We’ll just wait and see what happens,” Dombrowski said. “A lot of it depends on the aquisition costs for individual players. That makes a determination of how much finances you have available to work.
“When I first came on board, we really hadn’t set a budget. A general number was given to me so I’ve got a pulse of what it is. I can’t say it’s etched in stone but I have a pulse of what it is.”
So far, the Phillies have fallen well behind the Mets, Braves and Nationals as far as activity on the free-agent market goes. Bradley represents the team’s lone expenditure but it could be a matter of days before the Phillies hand out the biggest contract so far this offseason.
Perhaps Dombrowski convinced Middleton to add a little more to the payroll budget or Middleton realized that if he wanted to win, he had to spend more money than he originally wanted to. Winning teams do not ignore glaring holes on their roster and they learned that lesson after missing a 16-team postseason by one game with one of the worst bullpens in baseball history.
Avoiding a tenth consecutive season without October baseball starts with Middleton and his willingness to spend. Judging by the rhetoric coming from the organization’s highest-ranking baseball official, Middleton might finally be coming around on that idea.
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