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John Middleton denies ever giving Phillies mandate to stay under luxury tax

Phillies managing partner John Middleton spoke with reporters on baseball matters for the first time since former general manager Matt Klentak was reassigned following the 2020 season.

John Middleton is the managing partner of the Philadelphia Phillies. (Cheryl Pursell)

Middleton spoke on a number of topics, including Dave Dombrowski’s pitch to ownership on signing Nick Castellanos and the public perception surrounding his tenure as the face of Phillies ownership.

One of the more interesting topics that came up during Middleton’s conversation with the media is whether or not the front office was ever given the order to stay under the first luxury tax threshold. Matt Gelb of The Athletic reported that to be the case for the 2022 season. Plans changed when Dombrowski sold Middleton, the Buck Family and minority owners on going over the tax to sign a difference-making bat in Castellanos.

Middleton insisted that there was never such thing as a mandate to stay under.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, there’s a directive,'” Middleton told reporters, including Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Really? Who did I? … Did I write it down? Was it a verbal directive? Who was I talking to? When did I say it? There was no truth to any of that. But you know what, sometimes you just have to be patient and wait until the right moment and then you get to do what you’ve always said you were going to do all along.”

According to the Associated Pressannual payroll reports, the Phillies finished about $600,000 under the luxury tax in each of the last two seasons. Unless the first half of the season is a total disaster and the team opts to shed significant salary via trade, the Phillies will join the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Red Sox, Cubs, Tigers, Giants, Nationals, Padres and (presumably) the Mets as teams who have payed the tax at least once since the present-day system was implemented in 2002.

All along, the Phillies’ plan was to go over the tax when the right move presented itself. There’s no doubt that the strategy — along with a lack of production out of the farm system — has hurt the Phillies in previous years.

In 2020, Tommy Hunter was the only reliever the team signed to a major league contract in the prior offseason. In an attempt to stay under the tax, the front office searched for arms with some floor and no upside to keep costs down. This led to the Phillies having to make trades at the deadline for Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree and David Phelps, three arms who significantly regressed after arriving in Philadelphia and did little to solve the team’s bullpen troubles. The Phillies ended up with a ‘pen that posted the second-highest ERA in MLB history and no playoffs, despite being gifted a “win and you’re in” scenario on the final day of the year.

Middleton can’t take back the failures of the last three to four years, but by going over the luxury tax, the Phillies managing partner did prove to the fanbase that he’s willing to do what it takes to win, cost be damned.

Castellanos knows it. In his first public comments since reportedly agreeing to a five-year deal with the Phillies, Castellanos praised Phillies ownership — and sent a message to the rebuilding Reds and his former owner Bob Castellini.

“At the end of the day, baseball comes down to ownership,” Castellanos told John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia at the airport. “The owner either wants to invest and cares about winning or doesn’t. It speaks a lot to who he is. So Philadelphia should be pumped that that guy is behind the Phillies.”


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