There were a lot of boxes to check off this winter with the Phillies. They needed (in no particular order) a catcher, a shortstop, several relievers and maybe a starting pitcher or two. Oh, and if things broke right, a center fielder. So yeah, they had some issues that needed to get fixed, but as it is with much of baseball, there isn’t enough money to go around. You can debate all you want about whether the teams should be spending money considering the personal wealth of many of the owners, but with so many teams going on record as saying that spending would be down, it would be a futile argument.
So, the team began by filling its most obvious hole: top decision maker. In giving Dave Dombrowski the keys to the kingdom, they had at least settled on a person that was going to move forward with a specific vision of roster building. Getting the available money he needed to fulfill that vision would depend on the player he wanted.
Fast forward several weeks and the team has now started to fill those holes. Jose Alvarado, Sam Coonrod and Archie Bradley have been added to the bullpen as high octane arms, something the Phillies were markedly short on. While the jury is still out on Alvarado (injury history) and Coonrod (effectiveness), Bradley seems like the perfect signing to help this team. What his role will be moving forward remains to be seen (closer? stopper? high leverage eighth inning guy?), but at least the skeleton of the bullpen is beginning to take shape.
One of the biggest things that each of these relievers brings to the table is low cost. Alvarado settled his contract at $1 million, Bradley signed for $6 million and Coonrod is still in his pre-arbitration years, so the major league minimum looks like his ultimate salary. These signings at these prices are not nothing since there is such limited space to spend money and still be able to field a competitive team. There still needs to be a catcher on the roster, as well as a shortstop, starting pitcher(s) and a center fielder. So how much money do they still have to spend?
Without a public acknowledgment of how much they intend to spend, we can’t know what the ledger will final settle at. Using several contract sites, we can at least look at what they have spent so far. Roster Resource, available at Fangraphs, has pegged the team at about $152 million in payroll thus far. Cot’s Contracts, available at Baseball Prospectus, estimates the team has spent around $137 million thus far. While it would be nice to go with the smaller number and start screaming about how much money they still have left in their wallet, it is worth noting that at Cot’s, they have not factored in the salaries for the pre-arb players, only totaling the guaranteed money that has been reported for players on the 26 man roster. Roster Resource has taken the pre-arb players and added about $10.2 million in estimates for 2021, showing why there is around that much of a difference between their two totals. So, for those reason, we are going to stick with their total rather than Cot’s.
If the team truly has spent about $152 million so far, that would leave them about $30-35 million short of what they spent in 2020 before the prorated salaries were factored in. With the reports that they are going to slash payroll, that might be worrisome to some who really want them to add someone like J.T. Realmuto and another big name player at shortstop (I’m looking at you, Didi). It would signal that the reported Realmuto offer is probably going to be the only big contract they are giving out this season unless someone like Gregorius and his market falls to a point the team couldn’t ignore it any longer. Remember, they are cutting payroll. They have said as much. However, the question then becomes what payroll are they slashing?
The competitive balance tax threshold for 2020 was $208 million. When salaries were prorated last year, their tax number was not. So while someone like Bryce Harper was paid only ~$11 million last year, a fraction of what his salary was supposed to be, his tax number was still $25,384,615, the average annual value of his contract. Armed with knowledge, we jump back to Cot’s, who estimates that the team CB tax number was about $207,646,782, a couple hundred thousand short of having to pay the tax. That was something ownership found to be odious, which also explains why extra help was not added to the team last year.
So now we ask this question: are they slashing actual salary for 2021 or slashing that CB tax number? It could actually make a big difference as, jumping back to Roster Resource, the team currently sits at roughly $156 million, a healthy margin below the $208 million number. If this is the case, there is still a lot of money to spent, but we just don’t know. What we can pretty fairly predict is what contracts for players like Realmuto will look like if they are signed. They’ll likely be a low 2020 number to keep the budget more in line with what they are looking to do this year while also making sure that the AAV doesn’t push them up against the CB tax threshold. There is some substantial salaries coming off of the books next season when Andrew McCutchen, Hector Neris, Odubel Herrera and Bradley account for around $40 million in payroll falling off before payouts are factored in, so the salary of Realmuto in his theoretical contract could see a jump next season. It’s a lot to think about.
Without some straightforward answers about what they’ll spend, we’re going to be left in the dark. Since we know we won’t get those types of answers, we can only speculate. A decent guess would be that they have only around $20-25 million left to spend on the rest of the roster and that some holes (center field, starting pitching) aren’t going to addressed by a big ticket item from the outside. The more likely avenue would see the team giving either a minor league deal or a low salaried guaranteed deal to a starting pitcher and letting Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn battled it out again for the center field job. There could still be a surprise left in the bag, but these are the likely avenues.