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Why haven’t the Phillies used their financial muscle before signing Bryce Harper?

A surprisingly rare strategy used by front offices was never really implemented here. Or was it?

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

On December 10, the Giants and Angels struck a deal that would end up barely being mentioned thanks to the signings of Didi Gregorius and Gerrit Cole on the last full day of the winter meetings. Zack Cozart and the remainder of his contract was sent (~$12 million) along with 2019 first round pick Will Wilson to the Giants in exchange for that famous 27th man, cash considerations. As it turned out, the Angels were jettisoning Cozart and his contract to make room for Anthony Rendon which, can you really blame them?

The Giants, by taking on Cozart’s contract, more or less bought a prospect from the Angels in the form of Wilson. He wasn’t as highly regarded as other prospects in their system, but it’s strange that the Angels gave him up so easily, especially when they were the ones that drafted him. You sometimes see front offices trade players they didn’t draft because their internal evaluations didn’t match up with the previous group’s, but something must have changed here so that the Angels were alright in parting with him. Was it desperation that made them buckle? Did they need to clear that much salary to sign Rendon?

This isn’t why we’re here though. We’re here because of a question about the Phillies: why haven’t they done something like this? This tweet came across the Twitter machine and made me pause:

It’s pretty safe to assume that at this point, the Phillies aren’t rebuilding. When they signed Bryce Harper and traded their best prospect for J.T. Realmuto, they essentially announced it from the rooftops with choirs, fireworks and the klaxons sounding. So now, the team has a core of players (Harper, Realmuto, Aaron Nola, Scott Kingery, Andrew McCutchen, Zach Wheeler) that are squarely in their prime, or a tic past it, that they will ride to try and make a return to the playoffs. If the team were looking for reinforcements from the farm, by many accounts, there are two players that can be almost certainly counted to be able to make an impact - and a bunch of hope. Outside of Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard, there isn’t anyone that we can be fairly certain will make an impact on the major league team either now or in the future. For a team that spent a lot of the past decade rebuilding their system from the bottom up, that’s a pretty bleak picture. So why didn’t they do what other smart team did? Why weren’t they using that sweet television money to scramble about, acquiring bad contracts and the prospects to accompany them? It’s a pretty smart way to strengthen your farm, yet it was largely eschewed by this organization. Were there any instances where the team should have been looking to acquire someone? Did they miss out? Looking back at some of their recent transactions, they had a strategy that would flex their financial muscle, just not in the way that gave them young, controllable talent.

When the Cole Hamels trade was announced, thus officially setting off the rebuild, the team took back several prospects that were highly regarded in Jake Thompson, Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro. There were two other names (Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher) that were thought to be filler, but the sometimes forgotten part of the deal was Matt Harrison. At the time, Harrison was on the injured list, wasn’t physically able to pitch anyway and was an anchor on the Rangers payroll, someone that had two years and $37 million remaining on his contract. The Phillies knew he wouldn’t ever pitch for them, so they took his contract in the deal basically to make the package of players coming back get better. While most people knew they’d be getting minor leaguers in return for Hamels, this is really the only case of them “paying” to buy back a prospect or two (in this case: better prospects). After that, there really isn’t a trade of significance where the team got back a player other than some transactions that had them getting some international spending money.

What we have to remember though is that when we think of teams and their “buying” of prospects, it’s not as common as we think. The Red Sox were the ones that kind of started everything when they unloaded all of their dead salary on the Dodgers in the form of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett. In this case, they were given the chance to re-start their payroll and that eventually led to the team winning the World Series in 2013 thanks to the newfound financial flexibility, so no real prospects were involved in that deal, just financial flexibility. This was really the start of teams getting creative with ways to improve their organization. The Braves traded for Bronson Arroyo in 2015 when they were also rebuilding, gaining a highly touted prospect at the time in Touki Toussaint, along with agreeing to take on Arroyo’s remaining salary. And now, we have the Giants getting Will Wilson this year. So, as you can see, these types of trades don’t happen too often, so criticizing the Phillies for not doing the same would be akin to criticizing the whole league. No one really does it.

While the Phillies haven’t gotten players that we think of when we think of Toussaint or Wilson, they have gotten players via a different means - international spending money. They did this twice in 2017 when they traded Jeremy Hellickson and Howie Kendrick and got a player and money in return. They took Nick Burdi in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, then immediately shipped him out for more bonus money, then did the same thing with Drew Jackson in 2018. It was clearly a target of theirs since they have used that money wisely. Thanks to the wonderful website Phillies Minor Thoughts, we can look at how the Phillies have used their international money.

  • In the 2017-18 signing period, they traded for $2.5 million. They signed players like Luis Garcia (BP’s #6 Phillies prospect) and Victor Vargas
  • In the 2018-19 signing period, they again traded for $2.5 million. They signed players like Starlyn Castillo (BP’s Low Minors Sleeper) , Victor Diaz and Josh Gessner

While that money acquired may not have been earmarked to get Garcia or the like, according to Matt Winkelman, they’ve taken that money and sunken it into nontraditional markets like Europe, Asia and Australia. Players like Kyle Glogoski (New Zealand) and Curtis Mead (Australia), they’re what the team is spending on. If they hit on even one of those guys, it’ll make that trades worth it. So, while they may not be acquiring the name prospects like Toussaint or Wilson through trades, they are still adding talent in a different capacity. Instead of buying prospects and seeing what they become through taking on bad contracts, the team has instead bought international money and spread that money acquired around the international market.

Where the Phillies are also spending their money is on buying the fringe players that help fill out rosters. Most recently, the team bought Corey Dickerson and Brad Miller in 2019, two players that would end up giving them some positive offensive value, and all they had to surrender cash. In season, though, that’s not out of the norm and is something teams do with regularity. And that point there, that’s where the team has been using their muscle. Your Hellicksons, your Nicasios, your Millers and Dickersons. This is where the team is trying to show their wallets.

You can argue whether they are buying the correct players, but this is another strategy they have chosen to pursue. Rather than take their prospects and trade them for players, they are simply flashing cash at teams and holding their minor league depth in tact. It’s not a bad way of building a roster, especially when a team is rebuilding. They were fortunate to get a good season out of Hellickson in 2017 (113 ERA+) when they needed someone to give them innings throughout the year. Miller and Dickerson, we’ve already written about them in our player reviews. They gave the team perhaps their 3rd and 4th best offensive players as the calendar changed to August and September, so they did their jobs.

So yes, the Phillies aren’t the cool, popular kids, taking on bad contracts and acquiring shiny Baseball America-ranked prospects that come along with the deal. Instead, they’re focusing the money on a different avenue of talent acquisition. It’ll take time to bear fruit, but it could end up paying off in the end.