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The Phillies must go over the luxury tax to save Bryce Harper’s prime

With a farm system still years away, John Middleton has no other choice.

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MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Miami Marlins Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

This off-season, Phillies ownership must answer a simple question.

Do they want to go to the playoffs during Bryce Harper’s prime?

Lest anyone forget (and make no mistake, no one at 1 Citizens Bank Way is forgetting), Bryce Harper will play in Philadelphia for another decade and earn $248 million more over that span. He turns 29 next season and has already burned through his age 26, 27 and 28 seasons wearing a Phillies uniform.

He has yet to reach the postseason.

Harper will likely win the National League MVP award after he led MLB with a 1.044 OPS and posted the 2nd-best fWAR (6.6) of his career. The odds are better than not this will have been his best season in a Phils uniform and the best the Phillies could do was an 82-80 season in which they failed to take advantage of baseball’s easiest schedule over the final six weeks.

Zack Wheeler could also win the NL Cy Young Award after a dream season in which he became the first Phillies pitcher to lead the league in strikeouts since 1996 (Curt Schilling) and posted the 2nd-best fWAR (7.5) in the National League. It is highly probable he won’t be able to duplicate his 2021 season again moving forward, although one hopes he continues to pitch like an ace-level starter for the next few years at least.

After Sunday’s season finale, Harper stated the obvious: the Phillies did not get nearly enough help from their young players and farm system this year (quote via Todd Zolecki).

“But we can’t just keep going out and buying and buying and buying. We need homegrown talent. When you look at teams that have homegrown talent, those are the teams that have success. I think as a whole, we need our Minor Leagues to be better. We need guys to come up from the Minor Leagues and have success. Not have to go up and down. Have success in our bullpen. Have success in our lineup. We need right-handed bats on our bench. We need a good bench. Guys that can play every single day. We need dogs, man. I’ll tell you what: We need some dogs.”

Harper’s second point is irrefutable. The Phillies got a combined 0.3 fWAR from Scott Kingery, Mickey Moniak, Adam Haseley, Luke Williams, Rafael Marchan, Roman Quinn, Matt Vierling and Nick Maton. Vierling and Maton (0.5 fWAR) were tied for 9th-highest on the Phillies, with Marchan (0.2 fWAR) the only other Phils prospect on the positive side of the ledger.

But none of it is going to be a quick fix. Over the weekend, the Phillies fired hitting coach Joe Dillon and infield coach Juan Castro, and Pedro Guerrero Jr. is not expected to return as as assistant hitting coach. Dave Dombrowski also hired Preston Mattingly to be the new director of player in development, the start of an overhaul to a farm system that is in dire need of repair, as Matt Gelb’s article in The Athletic so ably noted.

No one knows if these changes will affect any immediate change, but it probably won’t.

There are miles to go before the Phils’ pipeline starts churning out quality, young talent, if ever. As principal owner John Middleton noted at the start of the season, player development has been an issue for this franchise for almost its entire 138-year history. The only two glory runs, 1976-83 and 2007-11, were driven by homegrown stars Mike Schmidt, Bob Boone, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels.

It will likely take as little as 2-3 seasons, and likely more, in order for real progress in the minor league system to be seen at the big league level. By that time, the primes of Harper, Wheeler, J.T. Realmuto and Aaron Nola will be over.

And that is why Harper’s first point is off-base. If the Phillies cannot rely on young talent to make an impact over the next 2-3 years (and they can’t), the Phillies must “buy, buy, buy.”

Middleton must greenlight Dombrowski to go over the luxury tax .

This year, we saw what happens when Phillies management tries to have their cake and eat it, too. Yes, the Phils’ payroll was north of $200 million and was the 5th-largest in baseball. None of that is in dispute. But it became clear at the trade deadline the team did not have enough horses to finish the race and, instead of going over the tax, Middleton tried to add around the margins with Ian Kennedy, Kyle Gibson and Freddy Galvis.

Yes, they stayed under the tax. No, they did not make the playoffs.

The Phillies have had one of baseball’s highest payrolls since 2019, and yet have been unable to break free of the orbit of the enormous red star called .500 during that time. When you are a top-heavy team with nothing coming from the pipeline, drastic action must be taken if you want to truly become a contender.

Bohm, Kingery, Haseley, Quinn, and Monaik all either underperformed or were not trusted to be major contributors to the ‘21 team. Vierling and Maton were decent, but no one is giving them a starting job next season. The hope is Bohm and Kingery return and contribute in 2022, and perhaps Bryson Stott breaks the recent lackluster performance of Phillies position prospects. But even if he does, good teams need more than one guy.

And let’s not forget the pitching staff, which saw Ranger Suarez emerge as a rotation mainstay for next year but was forced to pitch a bullpen game every fifth day because there were just four big league caliber starting pitchers in the entire organization.

That’s inexcusable.

The Phillies are pot committed. In the last few off-seasons they’ve signed Harper to a 13-year, $330 million deal, Wheeler (who is 31 years old now) to a five-year, $118 million deal, Realmuto (30) to a five year, $115 million contract, and Nola to a four-year, $45 million deal. They’ve set their course. These players likely have 2-3 years of upper echelon quality baseball left, and if the Phils get more than that, they should consider themselves lucky.

Supplementing these players with young, home-grown talent, would undoubtedly be the preferred method of team building and, make no mistake, Dombrowski should be aggressive this off-season trading for young players on teams that will not be able to protect them on their 40-man rosters. Teams with farm systems teaming with players won’t want to expose many of them to the Rule 5 draft and will look to be dealing. Dombrowski should be all-in on taking advantage of their largesse.

Three years ago, the Phillies signed Bryce Harper because they wanted a true superstar in their everyday lineup through his mid-20s to help usher them into the playoffs. It hasn’t happened and he needs help.

If Middleton doesn’t want to waste the money he’s already spent, he has to spend more than he wants to until the young, cheaper talent is ready for the big leagues.

Otherwise, the Phillies will be trapped where they are now forever.