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Are the Phillies trying to lower expectations on free agency?

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The Phillies may not go hog wild on free agency this off-season after all. Or maybe they will.

Milwaukee Brewers v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Expectations can be a terrible thing. Expectations, when not met, can often times lead to feelings of anger or disappointment. One of the worst things a person can do to another person is to disappoint them or fail to meet their expectations, even if it was done unintentionally.

When we consider what the Phillies might do this off-season with regards to free agency, fans’ expectations are sky-high. There are many who believe that anything short of landing either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper will be a failure. And it is hard to argue that failing to land one of the two young superstars wouldn’t indeed be crushing — because it would. The Phils front office would likely be faced with a fanbase that is apoplectic if they don’t sign one of The Big Two.

So it is perhaps with that in mind that, during his end-of-year news conference today, team president Andy MacPhail appeared to downplay the likelihood of the Phillies dropping a Brinks truck full of cash onto the doorstep of Machado or Harper this coming off-season.

“I guess if you were going to invest all you had on one star-type player, then that would be sort of an acknowledgment that you think you may be one player away. I think we’re going to have to make some hard evaluations as to really, where are we? Are we the first 117 games or are we the last 45? The truth is, we’re probably somewhere in between.”

The notion that you would only add Machado or Harper to a big-money contract unless you were one player away is silly, because if you believe enough in the young talent on this team, adding one of those two players immediately helps the lineup take a giant leap forward. Besides, didn’t the team try to add Machado at the trade deadline this season? Weren’t they willing to give up Adonis Medina and others to land him?

Failing to add one of those two players because the front office doesn’t think the rest of the nucleus is good enough would lead one to believe that we are in for a massive roster overhaul this winter. It would also lead one to believe that no one inside the organization believes all that strongly in the homegrown core they have tried to develop over the last season-and-a-half.

As MacPhail continued, it became clearer that he was trying to soft-pedal just how much money the Phillies would be willing to spend on free agents this winter.

“...As attractive as this free agent class is,” MacPhail continued, “take a look at next year’s class. The class coming up after this one, really impressive. And this isn’t the last year that Major League Baseball is ever going to be played, so you’re not going to throw every resource you have at this year because there’s the following year as well.”

After the 2019 season, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, Miles Mikolas, Marcell Ozuna, Aaron Hicks, Nick Castellanos, Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius, Scooter Gennett, JD Martinez, and potentially Stephen Strasburg (if he opts out of his deal) will become free agents. So MacPhail isn’t wrong that not everything rests on this off-season.

But one of the reasons this off-season seemed like the best time to strike was because, in Machado and Harper, you had two of the 10 best players in the game hitting free agency in their mid-20s, something that almost never happens. But one of the other big reasons is the Phillies payroll commitment moving forward is still minuscule.

Jake Arrieta is signed for $25 million next season. Carlos Santana is slated to earn $20.3 million. Tommy Hunter is owed $9 million, Pat Neshek $7.75 million, Odubel Herrera $5.35 million and Scott Kingery $1.5 million. There are other players who are arbitration eligible, like Cesar Hernandez, who would get a raise from his $5.1 million salary this season, as well as Justin Bour, and Maikel Franco. And perhaps the Phillies approach Rhys Hoskins or, more importantly, Aaron Nola about a contract extension. But as far as guaranteed money is concerned, the Phillies are on the hook for just $68.9 million in 2019.

That would seem to leave a lot of wiggle room in the budget for a team that signed a $2.5 billion cable TV deal with Comcast in March of 2014, but perhaps not.

“I would expect we’ll get back to the payroll levels the club has been at in the past,” MacPhail said, “but I would also remind you the club was drawing 3.6 million, 3.4 million in those years. We have some flexibility this year, and we model out our arbitration cost over the years and what we think we have rolling off and coming. We have flexibility, but it’s not so overwhelming that we don’t have to manage it.”

One of the ways to get back to that 3.4-3.6 million attendance level and get another sellout streak going would be to sign Machado or Harper this off-season. Making a splash with a talent like that would automatically increase ticket sales. But regardless, it has been widely assumed that the monster Comcast deal signed four years ago by the team would be able to make up for the lack of tickets being sold at the stadium.

“There’s been some speculation of what we’re going to do that, I find to be, someone just didn’t put a paper and pencil together, and do the math. I would anticipate we’re always gong to be active, this ownership group has demonstrated it’s not afraid of having a payroll in the top five, it’s our hope to get back there.”

MacPhail is right that free agents are not always the best expenditure of a team’s capital, as most free agents are on the wrong side of 30 and prices tend to balloon during the off-season bidding wars (last off-season notwithstanding). And while Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta both put up about the same numbers they did last year, and Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter had seasons typical of most relievers, MacPhail noted they didn’t exactly hit the jackpot with what they paid for last off-season.

“We spent $169 million on free agents. That’s the 2nd most of anybody. If you calculate how good your free agent class is, using WAR as the measuring stick, we had the 4th most productive class but we spent the 2nd-most. Not exactly a great, efficient use of your dough.”

Of course, none of these players were two of the very best position players in baseball in their mid-20s, presumably with their primes still in front of them. And perhaps MacPhail’s comments are more a criticism of what they spent the money on rather than the fact they spent it at all.

At the end of the day, it’s more than likely the Phillies are going to be aggressive in their pursuit of Machado or Harper. As MacPhail noted, majority owner John Middleton has “been a little crabby to be around lately,” and it’s probable he and Matt Klentak, an aggressive general manager, will look to spend a bunch of money to try and improve the roster in the coming months.

MacPhail’s comments could be his way of trying to lower the expectations of a fanbase that is expecting, perhaps even demanding, that the team land one of the two premier free on the market this off-season.