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How signing Jake Arrieta saved the Phillies from irrelevance

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With their biggest free agent signing of the off-season yesterday, the Phillies saved their season from irrelevance.

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League Championship Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs - Game Four Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The big news yesterday was that the Phillies added a front-line starter in the form of former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta to their rotation. After months of waiting and waiting and waiting (and then waiting some more), all involved came to an agreement to patch the biggest hole on the Phillies’ 2018 roster. Arrieta joins Aaron Nola at the top of the Phils’ rotation to create a formidable 1-2 punch. If Jerad Eickhoff can return to 2016 form and Vince Velasquez can figure out how to control his incredible stuff, the Phillies’ rotation now has the potential to become one of the team’s strengths instead of its biggest weakness.

All of this is quite obvious to anyone following the team this off-season and spring training. What might be less obvious is another aspect of the Arrieta signing - how it should save the Phillies from irrelevance this year.

Before I explain, let’s get one thing straight. I am of course well aware that this team has a very exciting crop of young players who should take steps forward this year and show us all what the hopefully-very-near future of this franchise is going to look like. Even without Arrieta, the 2018 Phillies were probably going to win 10 to 20 wins more than they did last year, when they won only 66. They may have even competed for the second NL Wild Card spot this year without him.

But, barring a huge leap forward, at the end of the day, the 2018 Phillies were probably going to notch their sixth-straight sub-.500 season. They were going to once again be a big-market team playing with a small-market payroll. They are too far into their rebuild to have the word “tank” next to their name, but they probably weren’t going to climb into the sports consciousness of people beyond us diehards.

That is, until yesterday. Maybe I’m making too much of one signing, but I think it’s fair to say that by signing Arrieta, the Phillies have become relevant again — for the 2018 standings, for the 2018 off-season, and for the hearts (and dollars) of 2018 Philadelphia sports fans.

1) The 2018 Baseball Season: The various projections available on Fangraphs place Arrieta at about a 3 WAR player this coming year. Depending on how well you expected the combination of pitchers at the bottom of the pre-Arrieta rotation to pitch, this should be a 2 to 4 win swing for the Phillies in the win column (and a 4 to 8 game swing in getting to or above .500).

Other than the odd 2015 season, for three of the last four years, the second NL Wild Card has won 87 or 88 games. For the Phillies to get to that total, they would have to have been in the low 80s before signing Arrieta. That number isn’t out of the question, but it’s at the very high end of most people’s predictions. Still, it was possible, which means that getting to 87 or so wins this year with Arrieta is also possible. Maybe not likely, but possible.

But, what is more possible than actually getting to 87 wins is being in the mix to get to that second Wild Card spot. Being in the mix all year for the Phillies will do two things. One, it will mean that the Phillies are once again relevant to the sport of baseball. People will be talking about the Phillies and other teams will be concerned about them. Second, it will mean that the Phillies could, if they were in the right position, make a trade to bring in another piece mid-season. From there, they may be able to get even closer to the playoffs.

Without Arrieta, this scenario was a huge long shot and almost no one was paying attention to the team for 2018. With Arrieta, the Phillies are in the conversation again. Just look at all the talk of the Phillies being a 2018 sleeper now. That wasn’t happening before they signed Arrieta.

2) The 2018 Off-Season: It’s no secret the Phillies have their sights set on the free agent market this coming off-season. They have a ridiculous amount of money to spend right when some of the best players in baseball should hit free agency -- Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Blackmon, and more.

But would the top players in the game have wanted to sign with the Phillies without the addition of Arrieta? Possibly, since the team has a ton of money to offer and to many guys, that may be all that matters this coming off-season.

It’s also possible though that these guys would give up a few million average annual value on their contract to play for a contender. In other words, if Harper or Machado could choose to play for the Phillies coming off a 75 win season and no other veteran stars on the team versus the Yankees coming off a 90+ win season with Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge bracketing them in the lineup, don’t you think the choice would have been obvious?

It still may be come this fall, but the Phillies’ addition of Arrieta complicated the matter. They have now spent the second-most in free agency this off-season, showing next year’s free agent crop that the team is serious about doing what it needs to do for the future. Even without Arrieta, the Phillies had made some good moves and positioned themselves well for 2019 and beyond. But with Arrieta, they have an established top-flight veteran anchoring their rotation.

This will no doubt attract the attention of next year’s free agent crop. And if the Phillies compete for the Wild Card this year (see point 1 above), free agent attention will be laser-focused on the franchise this off-season.

3) The 2018 Philadelphia Fans: This was going to be a really tough year for the Phillies to compete for the Philadelphia sports fan attention and dollar. The Eagles are coming off their first Super Bowl win and are showing no signs of slowing down with their recent roster moves. The Sixers are finally showing everyone that Trusting the Process was the right thing to do, with multiple stars on the roster and their first playoff appearance in years right around the corner. The Flyers have been one of the hottest teams in hockey since December and should also be in the playoffs, with some exciting players on the roster as well.

In other words, the Phillies were bound to be an afterthought in this town until June or July, and even then the focus would be on Eagles training camp right around the corner. It was probably going to be another year of low attendance, low viewership, and low interest.

The Arrieta signing isn’t going to immediately change that. The focus on the Eagles, Sixers, and Flyers is inevitable given their successes. But, the signing is going to make it impossible to shrug off the Phils as the afterthought sports franchise in Philadelphia. They may be a year or two behind the others in terms of contention, but Arrieta makes the Phillies relevant in the city-wide sports conversation. Especially if they contend for a playoff spot deep into the season (again, see #1 above).

*****

The 2018 season was already shaping up to be a very interesting one for Phillies diehards. But it was also going to be a struggle, in part because of the inevitable vagaries of youth, but also because of the big hole in the starting rotation. The team risked quickly being forgotten by baseball, free agents, and Philadelphia.

However, by bringing Jake Arrieta into the fold, the Phillies not only took a big step forward, but they also helped rescue the franchise from certain irrelevancy in 2018.