Quick: when you think of John Middleton, what do you think of?
Before this weekend, was it “reluctance to go over the luxury tax”? Because if you’re like a lot of other people that follow the team, that’s probably what first sprang to mind since Middleton became the majority owner of the team. It’s been a running joke for a few years now, how the owner that showed up with the adjective “billionaire” behind his name in a Google search wouldn’t spend a few million in luxury tax expenses to possibly make that million back in playoff revenue at a few home gates.
It’s with good reason too. Whenever the team was in active pursuit of free agents or working the phones at the trade deadline, we’ve always heard from sports columnists and national pundits alike the phrase “stupid money” when it comes to Philadelphia and how the team was going to spend it. As much as he might have wanted to distance himself from that line of thinking, Middleton had no other finger to point to but himself since he was the one that uttered the immortal words in an interview that followed the disappointing 2018 season in which the team fell apart late in their bid for a playoff spot.
“We’re going into this expecting to spend money,’’ Middleton told USA TODAY Sports. “And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.’’
Middleton laughed, then said without smiling: “We just prefer not to be completely stupid.”
It’s these words that have haunted Middleton in the team’s ultimately futile quest to break their playoff drought in the days since that conversation. He would go on, of course, to ink Bryce Harper to a 13 year, $330 million contract in the weeks after that interview that did put his money where his mouth was at the time, but in the subsequent days, weeks, months and years, there was a clear directive from the owner’s box to avoid paying the luxury tax at all costs. No matter how close the team looked like they were to a playoff spot, no matter how much a difference a particular player might make in the team’s playoff chase, that luxury tax was not to be paid.
That directive, along with poor play on the field, contributed to the team not being able to make the playoffs when they were very truly within reach. 2019 saw the team in first place by mid-June, but needing reinforcements in the pitching rotation if any run was to be had. Names like Matthew Boyd, Zack Grienke and Robbie Ray were named as possible targets, but ultimately the team chose to stay the course, forgoing paying real money to get the needed help and tanking once the calendar turned to September. 2020 was the shortened Covid season and profits were smaller than MLB owners were used to, but even then, the team could have made a run at the playoffs since they were expanded to eight teams and almost literally everyone could get in. The bullpen was in dire straits, imploding on an almost nightly basis, but instead of simply paying money to get that relief they desperately craved, the team parted with a pitching prospect that could be helping these days in order to pay down the cost of the two relievers Matt Klentak ultimately acquired. Even last season, the team pursued trade targets that would ultimately bring them within sniffing distance of the luxury tax and offer just a hint of help for the playoffs, but didn’t get the truly game changing talent they needed to get over the hump since they had no desire to go over the tax.
It’s been a frustrating mantra of the team to stay under the previous threshold of $210 million, especially since going over it could possibly have helped the team make the playoffs and grab some of that precious playoff profit so many other teams take advantage of.
This year, though, it seems the winds have changed.
Signing Jeurys Familia, Odubel Herrera, Brad Hand, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos has not only brought them over the luxury tax, it’s vaulted them well past it to the point of some wondering “Why stop now?” It’s injected enthusiasm into a team that, quite honestly, hasn’t deserved of late with their play on the field. Without the two major players having even been introduced, the team suddenly has an interest in it that is palpable in its feeling. All of this coming to fruition just because the team spent money that its market dictated it could spend.
However, before any gets any ideas of apologizing to John Middleton for all the jokes, all the scorn he’s brought, all the anger and frustration and ill will directed at him, let’s take a step back and try a different tack. We should not be apologizing to him. Instead, we should simply acknowledge that he has finally decided to do what an owner is supposed to be doing in the first place: putting the best team on the field that his organization possibly can.
We know that owners must toe the line between making the fans happy and making the minority investors happy. People put money into sports franchises because they are pretty clearly a money making machine. Ignoring what Rob Manfred said about it not being a good investment, we’ve seen pretty clear evidence that being included in a baseball ownership group is good for the bottom line. But owners also need to realize that what fans want is something good to watch on the field, something worth spending what little extra cash they might have on the team. The best way to do that is by putting good players on the field, molding a team that can compete for playoff position year in and year out. It’s their duty to do so, whether they want to admit it or not. The fans should not be apologizing to Middleton for saying mean things online, they should be acknowledging with happiness that he’s gone over the luxury tax and instead uttering the phrase, “It’s about time.”
The thing is, Middleton does spend on this team. Investing in players like Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Zack Wheeler, heck you could even argue Didi Gregorius, showed ownership’s willingness to spend money when the right opportunity presented itself. It’s very difficult to call Middleton “cheap” when he given the thumbs up to these types of signings. The problem is that for a few years now, the goal of making the playoffs seemed so close, so within the team’s reach if only they just added the right mixture of players to what was already in the clubhouse, even if it meant maybe paying a few million, heck even a few thousand, in luxury tax money. To see that dream slapped down with a giant rubber stamped “No” simply to avoid paying that money was just...disheartening. It’s created a feeling distrust of ownership, a feeling of “I’ll believe it when I see it” that has permeated the fanbase that is completely justified.
These signings are the first step in helping to show that ownership sees an opportunity this year to field a team that can bring October baseball back to the fanbase and has given the greenlight to assemble a roster that has the potential to do so. For once, John Middleton is doing the sensible thing: spending money to make a winner.