Tuesday October 3, 2023

How the Phillies Spent Their Way Into the World Series

  • The Philadelphia Phillies had the fourth-highest payroll in Major League Baseball.
  • The team is finally getting their money's worth.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
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It took 10 innings, but the Philadelphia Phillies handed the Houston Astros their first playoff loss of 2022 on Friday’s first game of the World Series.

The Astros have played in four of the last six World Series, winning the first title in franchise history on the first trip in 2017.

For the Phillies, the narrative is that of a team punching above its weight. A Series berth was unexpected: 2022 represents just the franchise’s third appearance in the Fall Classic since 1994.

A string of recent failures, follies, and disappointments had very few people believing in this team — and the Phillies’ confidence couldn’t have gotten much better after they started the season 22-29 under manager Joe Girardi — who didn’t last long on the bench.

But make no mistake: The Phillies are no underdogs. They might have snuck into the final NL postseason spot on an 87-win season — but as their payroll shows, this season’s theme was always going to be World Series or Bust.

Bigger Spenders

Philadelphia may seem like a small market with a scrappy MLB team, but it really isn’t — the City of Brotherly Love is the sixth-largest in the United States with a population of 1.6 million as of the 2020 census.

Likewise, the Phillies had the fourth-highest payroll in Major League Baseball this season at $255 million, and were only outspent by the usual suspects. 

  • New York Mets ($289.7M)
  • Los Angeles Dodgers ($275.6M)
  • New York Yankees ($264.9M)

The Phillies also outspent the San Diego Padres ($237.7M), the team they beat in the NLCS, and who in recent seasons have themselves crashed the big-contract party.

So contrary to the dominant narrative, it’s not exactly surprising that the Phillies are here: John Middleton’s franchise is the eighth-most valuable in the majors ($2.3B), per Forbes.

The multiyear investments were hiding in plain sight.

  • In 2019, Bryce Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract — at the time of signing, the largest deal in MLB history; his $27.5 million per season after bonuses leads the team. After they clinched a spot in the World Series, Middleton told the NLCS MVP that he underpaid him.
  • Friday’s Game 1 starter Aaron Nola signed a four-year, $45 million extension the same year that includes a $16 million club option for 2023.
  • In 2020, Zack Wheeler signed a five-year, $118 million contract worth $24.5 million per season — second on the team behind Harper.

All three have lived up to their contracts. 

Harper was the 2021 NL MVP, and in these playoffs has posted a 1.351 OPS, .907 SLG, and .419 AVG with five HR and 11 RBI — all the best or tied for the best of anyone playing in the World Series.

Nola’s 2022 regular season was a revelation: a career-best 0.961 WHIP, 8.10 K/BB, and 6.3 pitcher WAR — the latter two were MLB bests. 

And Wheeler has paid off big in the playoffs: Through his first four career postseason starts, the 32-year-old has a 0.51 WHIP and 1.78 ERA.

The Dombrowski Effect

Yet even with that stable of players, the Phillies weren’t getting it done.

Enter Dave Dombrowski.

When the longtime baseball executive became the club’s new president of baseball operations in December 2020, he brought with him a reputation for catching lightning in a bottle — though often at the expense of long-term viability.

  • Dombrowski won his first World Series in 1997 with a Florida Marlins squad of expensive free agents.
  • He delivered two AL pennants with the Detroit Tigers in 2006 and 2012.
  • In 2018, his Boston Red Sox won the World Series with the most wins (108) in franchise history behind several high-cost players.

With the exception of the 2003 Marlins — Dombrowski gets credit for many of the young players on that team — none of his former teams have been back to the Fall Classic since he left and have combined for just four postseason appearances after his departures.

One of his first moves in Philly was re-signing superstar J.T. Realmuto, who had declined the team’s qualifying offer, to a five-year, $115.5 million contract — the largest deal ever for a catcher.

After a disappointing 2021 campaign — the Phillies’ 10th consecutive year missing the playoffs — Dombrowski signed sluggers Nick Castellanos (5 YRS, $100M) and Kyle Schwarber (4 YRS, $79M) to $20 million-per-year pacts.

Those acquisitions have been crucial to the Phils’ playoff run, but perhaps the final piece of the puzzle was first-time manager Rob Thomson, who was handed the reins after Philadelphia fired Girardi.

The Phillies went 65-46 the rest of the season and have lost just two postseason games under Thomson. 

Now, they’re up against a team that might seem like economic juggernauts — but again, the reality doesn’t match the narrative.

The Astros’ Approach

With fewer big signings, the Astros are the current model for how to consistently compete with a middling payroll. Their 106 wins were the second most in franchise history, and only second this season to the Dodgers (111), who spent $82.7 million more.

The team won its fourth American League pennant since 2017 with a payroll of $192.9 million,  ninth-highest in the league. Over that stretch, the team gradually lost ace Gerrit Cole, outfielder George Springer, and shortstop Carlos Correa, but the team hasn’t missed a beat due to an uncanny ability to draft and develop excellent players.

Because MLB players have no ability to negotiate salaries beyond league minimums in their first three seasons, the Astros have managed to secure incredible value at bargain prices from their young players. Several of the team’s top players made under $1 million in 2022, including:

  • Yordan Alvarez, the team’s regular-season MVP, per Fangraphs, produced a 6.6 WAR, despite providing little defensive value.
  • Outfielder Kyle Tucker notched a 4.7 WAR.
  • Rookie Jeremy Peña, Correa’s replacement at shortstop, won the ALCS MVP. He recorded a 3.4 WAR on the season with solid hitting and stellar defense.
  • Starting pitcher Christian Javier turned in an impressive 2022 with a 2.54 ERA over 148.2 innings.

Javier’s rotation mates Framber Valdez ($3M) and Luis Garcia ($1.25M) joined ace Justin Verlander ($25M) — the AL Cy Young favorite with a stunning 1.75 ERA — to form arguably MLB’s best pitching staff.

While the team has gotten tremendous bang for its buck from its younger players, it isn’t fully dependent on them. The Astors have infielders Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman on long-term extensions that pay out a respective $23.4 million and $20 million per season.

The result: 541 wins over the last six seasons, again second to only the overspending Los Angeles Dodgers.

Building a Winner

The top five spenders in 2022 all made the playoffs. That’s not exactly shocking — money buys stars (just ask the Phillies), and stars usually lead to wins. 

Then again, numerous teams proved that money isn’t everything

  • The Los Angeles Angels had the 10th highest payroll in 2022 at $193 million, but still couldn’t build around two generational talents in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. 
  • The Tampa Bay Rays are perennial contenders — despite regularly being among the most frugal teams ($104.3M payroll, 25th in the league). 
  • The Cleveland Guardians ($82.1M, 28th) spent less than Tampa, won the AL Central, and took the Yankees to five games in the ALDS.

Still, only four of baseball’s bottom 10 spenders in 2022 — the Rays, Guardians, Mariners, and Orioles — produced winning records.

It is possible to win without big-ticket free agents, but you have to continually hit on prospects and undervalued players — and only the Rays, Dodgers, Astros, and perhaps the Atlanta Braves do that.

The Dodgers and Braves are the last two World Series champs, and the Astros won three years prior, but each only has one championship this century, despite many playoff appearances. Certain teams have figured out a successful formula over 162 games (including the Yankees and Cardinals), but none have cracked the code for consistently winning a seven-game series.

The Astros are further along the road when it comes to long-term winning, but the Phillies have officially cracked open their championship window.

With the second-most money in contract commitments going into the coming free agency bonanza, they plan on keeping it open for a while.

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