Phillies principal owner John Middleton has not been the most popular sports figure in Philadelphia over the last few years.
A lot can change in a short amount of time.
Just one year ago, Phils fans were not happy fans. From the heights of a 102-win season in 2011, to the depths of a gruesome rebuild and the Sisyphusian routine of 2018-2021 in which the team fell agonizingly short of the playoffs over and over, Middleton bore the brunt of fans’ ire over his refusal to spend over the luxury tax. In fact, it was just one year ago thatThe Athletic’s Matt Gelb reported Middleton had instructed team president Dave Dombrowski not to exceed it yet again.
“Dombrowski would not elaborate on his revised budget, but sources indicated ownership had authorized Dombrowski to spend as he saw fit — so long as he did not exceed a $230 million budget. That did not mean the Phillies would spend right to that number, but it was permitted.”
No doubt, a $230 million budget should be enough to end a 10-year postseason drought, but it was still depressing that there appeared to be a ceiling on how badly Phils ownership wanted to break it.
Then, the lockout ended and everything changed.
The Phillies signed Kyle Schwarber to a four-year, $79 million contract and then, in a true shocker of a moment, went over the luxury tax for the first time in franchise history by signing Nick Castellanos to a five-year, $100 million deal.
In the blink of an eye, a red line had been crossed.
Fast forward to Clearwater, 2023. After finally breaking their decade-long curse, the Phils managed to shock the baseball world with their franchise-altering run to the World Series, ultimately falling short in six games against an incredible Houston Astros squad. This off-season, they spent about $400 million on contracts for Trea Turner, Taijuan Walker, Craig Kimbrel, Gregory Soto, Matt Strahm and Josh Harrison. After signing extensions with Jose Alvarado and Seranthony Dominguez, their ‘23 payroll currently sits at around $243 million, according to Fangraphs’ Roster Resource, about $7 million shy of the second luxury tax threshold, and it seems all but certain they’ll cross that number too.
Gone are the days of Middleton asking teams to eat salary in trades in order to stay under the number. Last year’s magical run to a National League pennant has seemingly lit a fire under him, to the point he’s suddenly talking like an overenthusiastic podcaster rather than a typical MLB owner.
It’s clear Middleton is having a blast owning this team right now.
If I were an owner, this is the kind of stuff I’d probably do, in addition to running up a $260 million payroll. https://t.co/CExqAfbiAz— John Stolnis (@JohnStolnis) February 18, 2023
Middleton’s comments are 100% on point, but they would ring hollow were they not backed up by actions. He (as well as the other minority owners who also have a very large say in what gets spent and how) has proven he’s ready to do whatever it takes to win a World Series.
Does that guarantee they’ll win one? Of course not. Like in 2011, this and future Phillies teams may be better than last year’s group and still not get as far. That’s baseball. Heck, that’s sports.
What Middleton and the ownership group have done is give this team a real chance to be a bona fide World Series contender for the next few years. It’s all you can ask for.
Middleton’s comments were also eyebrow-raising in that they appeared to be a shot at MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who last week passive aggressively chided the “small market” San Diego Padres for spending so much money on their payroll (via USA Today).
“The trick for the smaller markets has always been sustainability. Hats off to (Chairman) Peter Seidler. He’s made a massive financial commitment personally to make this all happen. “The question becomes, ‘How long can you continue to do that? What happens when you have to go through a rebuild?’ But they have done a really, really good job of capitalizing on their talent to drive their revenue...
“Look, you can’t look at what happened in the offseason and not be concerned about the disparity,’’ Manfred said. “It’s a topic of conversation.
“The Padres are going to lose money, but the question is what are you going to do next.’’
Oh I dunno, win the World Series?
There are a cadre of owners in those supposed small markets determined not to compete despite receiving revenue sharing as well as their share of network television and streaming contracts revenue. They’re trying to prove a point, that the deck is so stacked against them that baseball’s economics must change, all the while leaving their fans trapped in their own little sports dungeons waiting for someone else to come along and buy their team so they can see daylight once more.
While baseball’s economics probably do need to change, it should not come at the expense of owners spending money on payroll. Can all owners afford to spend like Steve Cohen? Of course not, but more owners should be able to spend like John Middleton, or at the very least, the St. Louis Cardinals.
All teams go through rebuilds. One cannot maintain a $270 million payroll forever. There will be a time when this team ceases being great and must start over. We all accept that. But once the rebuild is over, you want an owner who will aggressively pursue success, who views the team he owns not as an asset from which to squeeze out every last cent of profitability, but something upon which to build a legacy, both for himself and the city.
How do you build a legacy? Not by showing the world your Excel spreadsheets filled with black numbers. By winning championships.
John Middleton said he wants this Phillies team to be regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time. Not in franchise history, but baseball history, and he understands that spending money to put a great team on the field serves both his interests, and the city his team represents.
Phillies fans are fortunate he’s come to that realization.