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Comparing the payrolls of the Phillies, Mets, Braves and Nationals

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The Phils have a $200+ million payroll and perhaps the 3rd-best team in the division. Why?

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

With the Phillies’ off-season shopping pretty much done (outside of GM Matt Klentak reportedly looking around for a right-handed hitting center fielder to pair with Adam Haseley), we have a pretty good idea what this team is going to look like heading into the Clearwater next month. We also have a pretty good idea how much it’s going to cost.

Estimates at Cot’s Contracts has the Phils’ Opening Day payroll (AAV) at just over $203 million, while Fangraphs has it at just over $205 million, putting the team a few million under the $208 million luxury tax. It’s clear the Phils aren’t going over that tax this off-season, barring something unforeseen, and yet, most experts and fans believe the Phillies have either the 3rd or 4th-best roster in the National League East.

How did this happen? How is it that the Phillies are likely to have the highest payroll in the division and perhaps just the 3rd or 4th-best team? Let’s break it down.

NL East Projected Payrolls (AAV)

Phillies Player AAV Braves Player AAV Nats Player AAV Mets Player AAV
Phillies Player AAV Braves Player AAV Nats Player AAV Mets Player AAV
Bryce Harper 25.3 Cole Hamels 18 Stephen Strasburg 35 Robinson Cano 24
Jake Arrieta 25 Freddie Freeman 16.875 Max Scherzer 28.7 Jacob deGrom 21.8
Zack Wheeler 23.6 Mark Melancon 15.5 Patrick Corbin 23.3 Marcus Stroman 11.75
Andrew McCutchen 16.6 Will Smith 13.3 Adam Eaton 9.5 Jeurys Familia 10
Jean Segura 14 Ronald Acuna 12.5 Anibal Sanchez 9.5 Jed Lowrie 10
Didi Gregorius 14 Travis d'Arnaud 8 Trea Turner 8 Rick Porcello 10
David Robertson 11.5 Mike Foltynewicz 7.25 Will Harris 8 Noah Syndergaard 9.5
Aaron Nola 11.25 Shane Greene 7 Sean Doolittle 6.5 Wilson Ramos 9.5
J.T. Realmuto 11 Chris Martin 7 Yan Gomes 6.25 Michael Conforto 8.5
Odubel Herrera 6.1 Ender Inciarte 6.1 Starlin Castro 6 Dellin Betances 5.25
Scott Kingery 4 Ozzie Albies 5 Daniel Hudson 5.5 Yoenis Cespedes 6
Vince Velasquez 4 Tyler Flowers 4 Kurt Suzuki 5 Steven Matz 5
Jose Alvarez 4 Nick Markakis 4 Eric Thames 4 Justin Wilson 5
Hector Neris 4 Adam Duvall 3.5 Michael A. Taylor 3 Edwin Diaz 3.75
Zach Eflin 3.75 Dansby Swanson 2.75 Asdrubal Cabrera 2.5 Jake Marisnick 3.25
Adam Morgan 2 Darren O'Day 2.75 Juan Soto Pre-Arb Michael Wacha 3
Rhys Hoskins Pre-Arb Max Fried Pre-Arb Victor Robles Pre-Arb Seth Lugo 1.75
Seranthony Dominguez Pre-Arb Mike Soroka Pre-Arb Brandon Nimmo 1.25
Nick Pivetta Pre-Arb Robert Gsellman 1.1
Nick Williams Pre-Arb Brad Brach 1.05
Adam Haseley Pre-Arb Amed Rosario Pre-Arb
Victor Arano Pre-Arb Pete Alonso Pre-Arb
Jeff McNeil Pre-Arb
J.D. Davis Pre-Arb
Dominic Smith Pre-Arb

As of now, Cot’s Contracts puts the Nationals payroll at just under $193 million, the Mets at $185.6 million and the Braves at $157.5 million.

The Phillies have three players making at least $20 million a season on average, Bryce Harper ($25.3 million), Jake Arrieta ($25 million) and Zack Wheeler ($23.6 million). The Nationals also have three players, with Stephen Strasburg ($35 million) the highest-paid player in the division. Max Scherzer ($28.7 million) has the second-largest contract, with Patrick Corbin ($23.3 million) the other player making more than $20 million a season. The Mets have two players making more than $20 million a year, Robinson Cano ($24 million) and Jacob deGrom ($21.8 million). The Braves have none.

One note: it’s highly possible either the Nats or Braves sign Josh Donaldson, which would add a significant chunk of payroll to either team.

However, when you look at the number of players making at least $10 million a season, you can see the clear disparity between the Phils and the rest of the division.

The Phillies have nine players making at least $10 million in 2020, with Andrew McCutchen, Didi Gregorius, David Robertson, and Aaron Nola already guaranteed at least that much, and J.T. Realmuto expected to make around $11 million in arbitration or on a one-year deal. Outside of their top three, the Nationals have no other players making over $10 million a season. The Braves have five $10+ million plus players, but again, no one making more than $20 million, and the Mets have five total players making at least $10 million, but three of those players are making just that, $10 million a piece.

Most of those deals look OK, but the two largest albatrosses are the Arrieta and Cano deals. Neither the Phillies or Mets are likely to get their money’s worth out of those players in 2020. Some of Arrieta’s cash is off-set by Nola’s less-than-market deal ($11.25 million AAV), but the Phils are also flushing $11.5 million this season down the toilet with David Robertson missing the season due to a Tommy John surgery, and $6.1 million with Odubel Herrera’s domestic violence-induced team banishment. That’s $17.6 million in dead money the Phils are absorbing between Robertson and Herrera. None of the other teams in the division have that much dead money hanging around their necks.

The Braves benefit from the incredibly team-friendly contracts signed by Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and the fact that two of their best starters, Mike Soroka and Max Fried, are both pre-arbitration eligible. In fact, it’s the many pre-arb superstars in the division — Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Pete Alonso, Amed Rosario, and Jeff McNeil that really give those teams a leg up. The Phils have Rhys Hoskins, Adam Haseley and Seranthony Dominguez as pre-arb players, but only Hoskins has anything close to the upside of the other pre-arb players mentioned. Sure, Scott Kingery only costs $4 million a season and was a 3.0 WAR player last season (per Baseball Reference) but compare him to Albies, who is making $5 million and was worth 4.7 WAR in 2019.

Anytime you have to fill your team with veterans through free agency or trades, you’re going to pay more for those players than you would if they were internally developed, and perhaps that’s why the Phils are willing to wait and see on players like Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard rather than spending more cash on the open market for players like Hyun-Jin Ryu and Josh Donaldson. The lack of development of young star players has left the Phillies no other choice than to head into the marketplace to fill their holes and, as such, has left them with the highest payroll in the division with as many if not more question marks than any other team in the division.

In order for the Phils to pull this off, McCutchen must play a full season and be the dynamic leadoff hitter he was last year, Arrieta has to pitch like a quality low-end No. 3 starter, the bullpen has to find some home grown improvements, Hoskins and Kingery need to continue to play more consistently, and Harper and Realmuto need to give the team a full season of production, not just one great half.

A lot has to go right for this unbalanced roster to make it all work, or the Phils could blow past the luxury tax and pay the penalties, but that’s not something owner John Middleton is willing to do at this time.

On Episode 349 of Hittin’ Season, actress and baseball expert Ellen Adair joins the show to talk about the payroll, the luxury tax, the Phils’ key off-season additions and potential breakout players for 2020. Tune in!