I don’t have to belabor the obvious - this free agent season has been a bore. At this point, the Phillies have spent the third-most money this off-season (Rockies and Brewers have spent the most), by signing Carlos Santana, Pat Neshek, and Tommy Hunter, and in Santana, they have the second biggest signing . . . at just $60 million.
Lists of top free agents this off-season are stunning in terms of who hasn’t signed. Only 3 of the top 11 on ESPN have signed contracts (Santana being one of them, Zach Cozart and Lorenzo Cain being the others) and only 22 of the top 50 have signed. Notably, not only is Santana’s contract the second-largest dollar value, it’s also the second-longest in length at three years (with Cain topping everyone at 5 years, and several others also at 3 years).
Most relevant to the Phillies’ needs, in a game that is always starved for good starting pitching, only 1 of the top 6 starting pitcher free agents on ESPN has signed a contract (Jhoulys Chacin). Still on the board are the familiar names that have been discussed ad nauseum here and elsewhere — Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn, among others.
At this point, it goes without saying that the Phillies could use another starting pitcher to complement Aaron Nola at the top of the rotation. So far, the rumors around the guys listed here have not included much about the Phillies, and publicly, Matt Klentak has been circumspect about the team spending money to get a top starter.
But the time is now to spend money on this team, and spend big. And not just because of the hole at the top of the rotation that needs filing and the Phillies being flush with money. Given what’s been going in the entire sport of baseball, here are four more reasons the Phillies should spend their money, spend it now, and spend it big.
1) More teams are “tanking.” With the success of the Cubs and Astros and a greater understanding of the value of high draft picks, more teams have learned the lessons of the current rules of the game — if you can’t compete for the World Series, then there’s no value in being in the middle. Estimates range from 8 to 12 teams that are actively “tanking” with another handful in a conservative, or just plain old bad, group of middle-class low-spenders.
Why does this mean the Phillies should spend now? Because with more teams tanking, there will be easier competition during the season. At least 6, possibly 7, of those tanking or terrible teams are in the NL, and 3 of them are in the NL East. That means a significant number of Phillies games will be against competition that they should be able to beat . . . if they put a good enough product on the field.
In other words, when this many teams are trying to be bad (or just are bad) and you aren’t in that group, it is a good time to invest in quality players to maximize your chance of winning.
2) Top teams are not spending. Along with the increase in the number of teams at the bottom that are tanking or just terrible, given the luxury tax, there are a number of teams at the top that are not going to spend with the reckless abandon that we’ve seen in the past. It seems quite clear that the Yankees and Dodgers are trying to stay under the luxury tax, both to avoid the tax and position themselves for next year’s free agent market. There may also be other teams at the top of the payroll list that are in similar situations but just haven’t been as public about it.
What this means for the Phillies, who are closer to paying their entire team minimum wage than they are to the luxury tax threshold, is that the free agent prices are lower now than they would be if the top teams were in the hunt. This is just simple economics — when demand is lower, especially demand among the most cash-flush possible buyers, price goes down. The Phillies have money and should jump on this opportunity to buy low that may not come around again.
3) 2018 free agents are watching. There’s no secret that the Phillies are eyeing the incredible free agent class of 2018. In particular, Phillies fans have been dreaming of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado joining the team.
However, the Phillies aren’t the only teams that will be bidding on these young superstars. Which will mean these players will have a choice where they will sign. In making that choice, they may just choose the highest bidder. But, they may also weigh in their decision how good the team is.
Right now, if the Phillies were to try to woo one of these generational talents, they’d be trying to convince him to join a team with a bunch of youngsters coming into their prime. Don’t you think it would be easier to make the sales pitch if the team won more games in 2017 and had another top-line player signed already? In other words, don’t you think Harper would more likely give more consideration to the Phillies if they were 81-81 this year with Arrieta or Darvish joining Nola to anchor the rotation than if they went 75-87 with just Nola at the top?
4) 2021 is going to be a shitshow. What does 2021 have to do with free agent signings now? Well, the current collective bargaining agreement is up after the 2020 season. If this off-season is any indication, the relationship between owners and players is going to be absolutely horrendous by that time. Unless there’s a major shift, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s no baseball in 2021 at all.
For the Phillies, this is particularly problematic. We all know that the team is slowly building its core from within. If the team gets lucky, it’s window of opportunity should be at its peak somewhere around the years of 2019-2023. What’s right smack in the middle of that window? The possible 2021 debacle.
Now, this is all highly speculative. For all we know there’s labor peace negotiated in the meantime. Or the Phillies pull an Eagles and surprise everyone by moving their window up. Or the window never really opens. Or we’re all obliterated by a Trump nuclear war. We have no idea with any certainty what will happen between now and 2021.
But, it’s very reasonable to think that the Phillies’ window will be interrupted by something in 2021, which means the team should spend now to try to move the window up.
The players are out there that can fill this team’s greatest need. The team has money, and a lot of it. Given the current state of major league baseball — more teams tanking, a few teams at the top deciding not to spend, the free agent class next year, and the looming disaster of 2021 — the Phillies have even more reason to spend big