Stupid money? How the Phillies are proving it's more important to be bold than smartESPN PLUS $ MATERIAL
THERE IS NOTHING elegant or innovative about the Philadelphia Phillies' roster. It has been constructed with all the brute force of a Bryce Harper home run.
Harper? Signed as a free agent for 13 years and $330 million.
Zack Wheeler? Signed as a free agent for five years and $118 million.
J.T. Realmuto? Originally acquired in a trade and then re-signed as a free agent for five years and $115.5 million.
Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos? Signed as free agents this past offseason for a combined $179 million.
Back in November of 2018, John Middleton, principal owner of the Phillies, announced the team was ready to spend big money in free agency, "and maybe even be a little stupid about it." The franchise had just suffered its seventh consecutive non-winning campaign. His comment wasn't about being reckless; it was about taking some bold initiatives.
Four seasons and $742.5 million in contracts (for those five players alone) later, Middleton's stupid money suddenly looks like smart money: The Phillies ended the second-longest playoff drought in the majors, then steamrolled through the National League playoffs with the help of Harper's dramatic series-winning home run against the San Diego Padres. On Monday night, more than 45,000 fans will pour into Citizens Bank Park as the city hosts its first World Series game since 2009.
For two games against the Atlanta Braves and three against the Padres this postseason, the ballpark has been an electric, rollicking stadium full of towel-waving Phillies fans clad in Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton jerseys, in Chase Utley and Cole Hamels jerseys and in Harper and Schwarber jerseys. When Harper mashed his home run, the stadium -- and the entire city -- erupted in a roar of joy.
Isn't this what you should want as the owner of an entertainment product? To win? To have nights like that? As Phillies players poured beer and champagne on one another in the middle of the clubhouse to celebrate their trip to the World Series, their victory anthem "Dancing on My Own" blaring on the stereo, Middleton stood off in the corner giving an interview.
He was asked about Harper.
"I think maybe we underpaid him," he said.
THE PHILLIES WEREN'T always big spenders, though. After making five straight postseason appearances from 2007 to 2011, the franchise entered a rebuild and attempted to win the way many baseball owners would prefer to operate these days: with inexpensive young homegrown players and a low payroll.
Once the Utley-Hamels-Jimmy Rollins-Ryan Howard generation faded away, the team's payroll plummeted from one that had consistently been in the top five in the majors to as low as the 26th in 2016. The wave of prospects who were supposed to become Philadelphia's next core never materialized, and the on-field product was terrible: 63-99 in 2015, 71-91 in 2016, 66-96 in 2017.
It was time for a new plan -- one that involved a lot of money.
"This is a strategy we've had to pursue because, frankly, our scouting and player development had been so bad for so long, the farm system was barren," Middleton said as he stood on the field watching the Padres take batting practice before Game 3 of the NLCS. "You look at our collective draft WAR from, say, 2005 to 2015, and compare it to every other team's collective draft WAR, we're dead last. And not by a little bit."
The Phillies were stuck on the bottom after can't-miss prospects like Domonic Brown, Anthony Hewitt, Larry Greene and Maikel Franco failed to deliver on their hype. Midway through the down years, Philadelphia even tried turning over its front office by replacing general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. with Matt Klentak, and the system did improve on paper. But that success in the minors never turned into wins in the majors and, instead, the Phillies remained stuck in mediocrity after going 80-82 in 2018.
"If you roll the clock back to the end of '15, when we hired Andy [MacPhail] and Matt [Klentak], and started revamping things then, if you look at '17 and '18 and you look at our minor league system, we were great," Middleton said. "We were winning at all levels, we were younger than the average age at all levels, and we looked at that and said we're right on track and exactly where we should be. Nobody came up here and did anything. So that was the most frustrating part."
At that point, the Phillies owner had a choice: He could try to make his team into a winner by pouring resources into the big league roster or sell his city on yet another lengthy rebuild. Except in his mind, there was no decision to make.
"That was the reason, when I looked at that reality, that's why we had to do what we've done. We can't start over. I just think as a fan, it's asking a lot to keep treading water and holding on and to support us while we rebuild for seven or eight years. As an owner, you have to give the fans something. Give them hope. Give them a reason to come here and get excited."
Soon enough, Middleton did just that.
The Phillies signed Harper heading into the 2019 season and acquired Realmuto and Jean Segura in trades for prospects Sixto Sanchez and J.P. Crawford. Wheeler signed before the 2020 season, and Dave Dombrowski was hired after that season to head baseball operations, replacing MacPhail and Klentak. Dombrowski re-signed Realmuto, signed Schwarber and Castellanos after the lockout this spring and then improved the team at the trade deadline, acquiring Brandon Marsh to fill a big hole in center field and adding depth in starter Noah Syndergaard, reliever David Robertson and infielder Edmundo Sosa.
"There's not that many of us here that were here in 2017," first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. "But I think all of us would say that the changes that have been made throughout the last four, five, six years were all made with a purpose. The purpose started with John Middleton, who wants to win more than anything in the world. You've seen that over the last couple years. We always have a chance to win."
Middleton, in turn, gives credit to Dombrowski, comparing him to Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame general manager who built the 2008 World Series champion Phillies.
"Pat made a really interesting comment to me a number of years ago. ... He said, 'John, you want to always look for people who have been with winning organizations, because the decisions you make when you're in a winning organization are just different -- you have different challenges, you have different opportunities, you have different standards, you have different goals.' Dave thinks the same way. He sizes things up. He's very incisive. Everything he thinks about is, 'Does this get me to the World Series?'"
Dombrowski has now built World Series clubs for four franchises: the Miami Marlins, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox and Phillies, winning it all with the Marlins in 1997 (and constructing most of their 2003 championship team as well, although he had left for Detroit by then) and the Red Sox in 2018.
Brian Bannister, now the San Francisco Giants' director of pitching, worked under Dombrowski in Boston. After the Phillies won the NLCS, he wrote a series of tweets explaining what makes Dombrowski such an effective executive, starting with "He has a tremendous pulse on his organization." Perhaps the key statement, however: "He believes in blue-chip players."
It seems like a simple approach to building a baseball team, but as Bannister emphasized, today's game is often about who wins trades, who has the best WAR or other metrics. Dombrowski's entire history is about acquiring star players.
The '97 Marlins won with Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Bobby Bonilla and Moises Alou -- all veteran players acquired in trades or as free agents. With the Tigers, he signed Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez as a free agent -- coming off a 119-loss season -- and traded for Miguel Cabrera, and later signed Prince Fielder. (He also drafted Justin Verlander and traded for a young Max Scherzer). With the Red Sox, he signed David Price and J.D. Martinez and traded for Chris Sale.
Yes, Dombrowski gets his owners to spend money -- but he convinces them his plan will work, like signing both Schwarber and Castellanos. Some teams saw Schwarber's defensive limitations; Dombrowski saw a hitter who could put runs on the scoreboard. And, hey, 46 home runs -- Schwarber's NL-leading total -- is 46 home runs.
"His comment to me was, 'John, I've had teams like I'm proposing to you, in Detroit, that were hit-first teams, but with these guys we can win,'" Middleton recalled.
Harper has said he knew when he signed it was going to be a building process, but he had faith that Middleton would continue to spend money.
"I'm grateful for this organization," Harper said after clinching the NLCS. "What they've done for us this year, being able to go out and get Dave Dombrowski, to make the moves they needed to make. I said it earlier in the earlier rounds, this is kind of his baby right here. This is kind of his first year of what our team kind of looks like now that we've had free agency after COVID, all that kind of stuff."
And those moves they needed to make? They've been paying off this postseason.
Harper has led the way, hitting .392 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 13 games. Schwarber had three home runs in the NLCS. Realmuto has three home runs, including the go-ahead home run in the 10th to beat the Astros in Game 1. Wheeler, while struggling in a Game 2 loss to the Astros, still has a 2.67 ERA in five starts. Castellanos drove in five runs in the Braves series and has made two game-saving diving catches in right field.
"We're built for October because of the team that we do have," Harper said. "We've got two horses in the bullpen for us. We've got three up front for us as starters and the five guys at the top of our lineup and then down to our rookies."
DESPITE HAVING THE sport's fourth-highest payroll, the Phillies aren't some kind of superteam. After all, they went just 87-75 in the regular season and got in as the National League's sixth seed. Under the old five-team format, they wouldn't even have made the playoffs, and we would instead be talking about the now-longest postseason drought in the majors. When the Los Angeles Dodgers, Braves and New York Mets all failed to reach the NLCS, it reopened the ongoing debate about a playoff system that allows teams like the Phillies -- and not the ones that dominated that regular season -- to reach the World Series.
A team like the Phillies making the World Series isn't anything new. Just last year, the Braves won with 88 wins. The 88-win, wild-card Giants beat the 89-win, wild-card Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series. Even in the four-teams-per-league format, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series after going 83-78 in the regular season.
It's also true that the Phillies have been an excellent team since early June, when they fired manager Joe Girardi after a 22-29 start and replaced him with bench coach Rob Thomson. Including the playoffs, they've gone 75-49 under Thomson, a .605 winning percentage that extrapolates to 98 wins over 162 games.
"I just go back to spring training when Dave went out and John and [general manager] Sam [Fuld] went out and signed Schwarber and Castellanos and the bullpen pieces that we added," Thomson said. "I just felt like coming out of spring training we had a really good club. We got off to a slow start, and it just kind of snowballed. Then they started to pick it up and never looked back."
That's kind of the point with the Phillies: Just make the playoffs and anything can happen.
The new postseason format should encourage owners to spend money in order to push for a few extra wins. Yes, there is risk; not every move is going to work out -- Castellanos didn't have a good season, his OPS dropping from .934 to .694 -- and it's certainly easier to sign free agents when you're a big-market team like the Phillies. But think of the clubs that didn't make that additional big move or two and what might have happened: the Giants, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins -- even teams that made the playoffs, like the Toronto Blue Jays or Cardinals.
"My father always told me, don't worry about money, worry about making a great product," Middleton said. "If you make a great product, money will take care of itself. He told me that 50 years ago, and my whole life has proven that."
During regular-season games, Middleton said he loves to walk around the upper deck. He'll hand out tickets to fans to move to better seats in the lower level or even the owner's box. "I can't do that today," he said as fans started filling the ballpark for a sold-out postseason matchup. "There are no extra seats to give away."
A full stadium for games that matter into the final days of October? That is what you should want as an owner.