If Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak’s year-end news conferences left you worried that the Phillies were not going to be big spenders this off-season, you’re probably feeling a lot better today.
The Phils are going to spend. The man who holds the team’s wallet, owner John Middleton, said so once again, this time to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. And he didn’t pump the brakes.
“We’re going into this expecting to spend money,’’ Middleton told USA TODAY Sports. “And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.’’
Middleton laughed, then said without smiling: “We just prefer not to be completely stupid.”
In a sport in which virtually everyone is concerned with getting as much for as little as possible, it’s refreshing to see a Major League owner ready and willing to spend actual American dollars on baseball players who can help them win games. It’s a novel concept to be sure.
Middleton’s comments are an interesting negotiating tactic, though. Whereas MacPhail and Klentak tried to slow-play the Phillies off-season plans in the days following the end of the regular season, Middleton has decided to come out with a guns-blazing approach, letting the rest of Major League Baseball know that they are going to carpet bomb the league’s free agents and high-priced trade targets with big piles of cash.
“It’s exciting to contemplate what we may be able to do this off-season,’’ Middleton said. “We know the free agent class this year is really, really good.’’
Could they spend in excess of $700 million to land the two biggest fish in the free-agent sea?
“I don’t know who you’re referring to,’’ Middleton said, with a laugh. “But we will be spending.’’
One could argue that it’s not terribly wise to make such a proclamation. By acknowledging your willingness to spend, perhaps so much it would be considered “stupid,” you don’t leave yourself much room for negotiation. However, Middleton is not spilling trade secrets here. Scott Boras did not do a spit-take this morning when he came across this story on his gold-plated iPad. Middleton has made it known to anyone who would listen that the Phillies will be aggressive this winter, and anyone can look at the books and see that the team is in a tremendous position to make that a reality.
As Nightengale noted in his piece, the Phillies currently have $68.9 million on the books for 2019, but NBC Sports Philly’s Corey Seidman noted that number is closer to $110 million, with projected arbitration figures and pre-arb raises factored in. USA Today says, in 2020, the Phils owe $50.68 million and it’s $15.1 million in 2021.
They’re going to spend. But what exactly does Middleton mean when he says they “may even be a little bit stupid about it?”
Middleton had to know that Phillies fans would hear his words and immediately assume he was talking about signing both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. MLB.com’s Jon Morosi reported the Phillies are also in on the starting pitching market and have made inquiries about free agent starter Patrick Corbin. They’ve been connected to some relief pitchers like Craig Kimbrel, and there are a number of players who could be available through trade that the Phils are potentially interested in pursuing.
But even if the team wanted to be “stupid” with his money, how much can they add?
In short, a lot.
Assuming the Phils sign Harper and Machado for a combined $75 million a season, that would bring next year’s payroll to $144 million using USA Today’s numbers, and $185 million using Seidman’s figures. But that’s assuming the team doesn’t trade away players like Maikel Franco, Cesar Hernandez, Carlos Santana or Odubel Herrera this off-season.
The team has a number of holes to fill and one would assume there is a contract extension coming for Aaron Nola at some point soon. Rhys Hoskins may not be far behind. The hope is that the team is also going to bring in additional pitching and relievers this winter that will help fill out the roster, but the team will also be done with Jake Arrieta’s and Carlos Santana’s contracts after the 2020 season, clearing up $45 million a year.
All restrictions on spending work under the assumption that the team wants to stay under the luxury tax. But is it possible Middleton’s definition of “stupid” means going over the luxury tax, something the team has never done before?
The odds are still far better than not that the Phillies will not sign both Harper and Machado. After all, as Nightengale noted, Middleton’s baseball people are warning their boss to leave a little cash left in the safety deposit box for future winters.
“Every free agent now is apparently my free agent,’’ Middleton said. “As Andy [MacPhail, Phillies president] likes to tell me, ‘John, we are playing baseball after 2019, so, you can’t spend every last dime after this year.’
“You got to have something in the tank for future years.’’
Middleton has made no secret of the fact he wants to win now, and he’s willing to spend to do it. His comments today, while perhaps not the best negotiating strategy, probably don’t change the conversations the team is having with prospective agents.
Everyone knew the Phillies were ready to spend. And no one is more excited about that than the man who signs the checks.