I’m intent on winning. We’re going to get that trophy back somehow, or I’m going to die trying… And if you’re not aiming to win, then you really don’t belong owning a sports team, in my opinion.
Those were John Middleton’s words in the spring of 2017. It was a simpler time for the Phillies, before Rhys Hoskins burst onto the scene, before Gabe Kapler, before the Great Free Agent Chase of 2019, before they went 33–53 (a 62-win pace) over the last three Septembers.
The Phillies, coming off a 71–91 campaign in 2016 that included promising years from Odubel Herrea, Cesar Hernandez, Jerad Eickhoff, and Vince Velasquez, were looking beyond the rebuild for the first time. Aaron Nola, despite a sophomore slump, was a future top-of-the-rotation starter. Maikel Franco was set to man third base for years to come. Hell, even Aaron Altherr and Jake Thompson were still intriguing.
And the optimism wasn’t limited to the major-league roster. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked the Phillies’ system #6 and #5, respectively, heading into 2017. The Cole Hamels trade was about to bear fruit in the form of Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams. J.P. Crawford and Scott Kingery projected as the double-play combination of the 2020s. Top draft picks Mickey Moniak and Cornelius Randolph, both high school outfielders, got off to strong starts in the minors. Nick Pivetta, Sixto Sanchez, Franklyn Kilome, and Adonis Medina were future rotation arms to on which to dream.
Of course, the Next Great Phillies Team was never going to carry all those names. Baseball doesn’t work like that. No one produces wave after wave of first division regulars. (Okay, no one save for the Dodgers.) Guys get injured, fail to develop, or get traded for better pieces. Churn happens.
First, take the good. The Phillies swapped Darin Ruf and Darnell Sweeney (part of the Chase Utley trade) for a few stellar months of Howie Kendrick. But this is the Phillies after all, so even here we have some bad news: they later sent Kendrick to the Washington Nationals for McKenzie Mills, who a year later turned into Justin Bour. Kendrick’s now a World Series hero. Bour is, uh, not. And what of Ruf? He posted a wRC+ of 141 in 100 PA for the Giants this year.
Seriously, positive thoughts here. David Whitehead (who?) brought back Charlie Morton, who showed flashes in 2016 before getting injured. Understandably, the Phillies balked at bringing him back. In four seasons since he left Philadelphia, Morton is 47–18 with a 3.34 ERA and 10.8 bWAR in 97 starts, not to mention a World Series Game 7 win to his name. I digress.
The Phillies got 40 elite innings from Pat Neshek for basically nothing. They turned up and down reliever Luis Garcia into the surprisingly dependable and effective Jose Alvarez. In Matt Klentak’s boldest move as GM, he flipped Sanchez and Alfaro for J.T. Realmuto. And yes, it was the right call.
As for the bad, unfortunate, or questionable developments, a few stand out as representative of larger organizational problems. The team justifiably parted ways with Freddy Galvis, getting in return a projectable arm in Enyel De Los Santos. De Los Santos had struck out nearly a batter per inning in 300+ minor-league innings from 2015–17. To date, he’s logged just 30 innings and a 5.70 ERA in Philadelphia.
After a breakout 2017 across AA and AAA, Kingery got a six-year, $24 million contract before he made his major league debut. Neither the length nor the price tag bother me much. It’s the fact that we’re sitting here nearly three years later and a positionless Kingery is lugging around a .233/.284/.393 slash line in more than 1,100 plate appearances. His swing, once short and compact, is badly in need of an overhaul.
Meanwhile, the initial Carlos Santana signing, a strange pivot for sure, was not a mistake. That came later, when the Phillies packaged him and Crawford for the Mariners’ Jean Segura. Since joining the Phillies, Segura has been slightly below league average offensively and contributed 2.7 bWAR. He’s drawn a pandemic-adjusted salary of $21 million in that time. Crawford, who’s still on his pre-arbitration rookie deal, has posted 2.5 bWAR while earning $700,000 — practically the same production, with a minor salary gap equal to Jake Arrieta’s 2020 compensation.
It’s worth noting that old friend Cesar Hernandez, who the Phillies let reach free agency rather than trade him when he had more value, would’ve been the most valuable position player on the 2020 Phillies by FanGraphs’ standards.
This brings us to the bullpen, the Achilles’ heel that extended the franchise’s latest postseason drought to nine years and cost Klentak his job. No move was more emblematic of the organization’s flaws than the one Klentak executed on August 21.
Following a disastrous doubleheader sweep at the hands of the Toronto-Buffalo Blue Jays, the Phillies were desperate for competent relief help. Surely any outside acquisitions would represent upgrades over the existing group of also-rans.
For Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree, the Phillies shipped out Nick Pivetta and Connor Seabold. In Pivetta, the Phillies had a hurler with electric stuff and brief moments of brilliance. Everything about his pedigree shouted mid-rotation starter. His performance record shouted something else entirely: one of the worst stat lines in team history. In Seabold, the team had a polished college arm who looked like a backend starter, the type of high-floor, low-ceiling talent that any aspiring contender needs.
Both illustrate the organization’s inability to develop pitching talent, in the rotation and the bullpen. A profile like Pivetta’s has crashed and burned elsewhere, but it’s just more likely when it comes to the Phillies. On the other hand, losing guys like Seabold and hard-throwing Addison Russ (traded for David Hale) is the worst form of short-term desperation. You’re saying goodbye to rare functional arms in exchange for rentals in hopes of squeezing into an expanded playoff field.
That Klentak was forced to overhaul the bullpen spoke volumes of the internal options available. No doubt, injuries to homegrown talents Victor Arano, Ranger Suarez, and Seranthony Dominguez, in addition to free agent signing David Robertson, were terrible luck. But neglecting the bullpen last offseason in favor of a nightmare carousel of spring training invitees and castoffs was a disastrous blunder.
Not every reliever needs to be making $8 million a year. But resorting to payroll machinations to stay under the luxury tax threshold cost this team no less than 5–6 games this year. You may overcome that handicap in a normal year, but not in a 60-game sprint.
The wreckage left behind is overwhelming. In the four seasons from 2017 to 2020, 37 relievers threw at least 10 innings for the Phillies. Of that group, just two (Héctor Neris and Connor Brogdon) figure to play prominent roles in the 2021 bullpen. Think about that. JoJo Romero has a shot, but he stumbled after a hot start. Alvarez and Blake Parker could be there, but both are free agents. Prospects like Kyle Dohy, Damon Jones, and Zach Warren may pop next year, but one wonders why they weren’t given a shot this summer.
Before we return to Middleton’s fateful words, let’s dispel a lingering myth. Drafting hasn’t crippled the Phillies. Their record has been far from great, but it’s not the horror show many analysts and fans claim. The first draft of the Klentak regime was the worst, although Mickey Moniak is, even now, just 22 years old. While he falls far short of the first-overall-pick talent you’d like to see, he isn’t a total loss either.
Since 2017, they’ve drafted Adam Haseley (at worst, a good fourth outfielder), Spencer Howard (mid-rotation upside), Seabold, Alec Bohm (any questions?), Bryson Stott, Jamari Baylor, Mick Abel, and Casey Martin. The jury’s out on the final four, of course, and it will be years before anyone can pass judgment there. The two drafts before Klentak and company took over produced Crawford, Nola, and Hoskins. The notion that they’ve swung and missed at everything is simply wrong.
The recurring problems that have truly haunted this organization are (1) a failure to develop players inherited from the previous regime; (2) a lack of major successes in the international market (as well as tighter spending in this area in more recent years); and (3) countless pitchers, many of them the type of later-rounder picks who fill out major league pitching staffs on competitive teams, plateauing at Reading or Lehigh Valley. Hiring Brian Barber away from the Yankees to serve as the amateur scouting director was a good start, but the dividends from that move won’t be apparent for a few years.
The hard truth is that these issues can’t be solved in a single offseason, especially one in which baseball ops activities are limited due to COVID-19. All of this brings us back to the one competitive advantage the Phillies do enjoy.
$688 million. That’s the total amount of money the Phillies have committed to big free agents since December 2017. It represents the contracts of Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Carlos Santana, Andrew McCutchen, David Robertson, Tommy Hunter, and Didi Gregorius.
For most organizations, that’s a decade’s worth of free-agent spending. For the Phillies, with so many holes to fill, it was a necessity. The acquisitions are a mixed bag: some clear highlights (Harper, Wheeler, and Gregorius), some hefty price tags for league average production (Arrieta and Santana), and some that looked great at first but have since been tainted by injuries or decline (McCutchen, Robertson, and Hunter).
Last winter, following the signings of Wheeler and Gregorius, the front office was given marching orders to stay under baseball’s “Competitive Balance Tax.” The ownership group didn’t see the point in pushing past the threshold for a few relievers. Suddenly, the cash-rich, win-at-all-costs Middleton was bargain hunting.
Here we are, staring into the abyss of another make-or-break offseason, with the Phillies wavering on whether they’ll press the one advantage they have at their disposal.
Failing to resign Realmuto practically defeats the purpose of getting Harper. They structured Harper’s deal over 13 years with the idea of adding more talent around him. Leaning on a core of Realmuto, Harper, Hoskins, Bohm, Nola, and Wheeler is the way forward. Beyond that, resigning Gregorius and springing for Liam Hendriks should be priorities.
“I’m intent on winning,” Middleton said in 2017 and many times since. That doesn’t ring true if he continues to worry about the luxury tax. Blowing past the tax threshold appears to be the team’s only answer, at least in the short term. Pandemic-ravaged revenues and the search for a new GM shouldn’t distract from that fact. The Phillies have the money — it’s a self-imposed spending cap that’s preventing them from breaking out of their mediocrity.
We all wish it hadn’t come to this, but money is the Phillies only salvation in the months ahead. A billionaire owner fretting over a small tax penalty could be their undoing.