Phillies owner John Middleton believes that his team is ready to start winning again, Mike Sielski writes in an article for Philly.com. It appears as though the franchise is actively looking to end its five-year run of fourth- and fifth-place finishes, based on some of Middleton’s comments about their budget and spending plans. Here’s what he had to say following a news conference introducing recent signee Carlos Santana.
Yeah, I think we’re close. They came to us with a budget, and we said, ‘Guys, if you want to put that number in for the budget, that’s fine, but don’t live with that. If something comes up, and it breaks the bank relative to the budget, and you don’t pursue it, we’re going to be upset.’ And they know that.
Sielski writes that Middleton wants to spend money, and doesn’t want the “small-market, too-thrifty label that the franchise slapped on itself a generation ago.” Middleton certainly isn’t the type of owner that has tremendous patience for losing, but the piece sheds some light on how he views the team’s rebuilding process. In a colorful analogy, he compares the team’s progress to a duck swimming on top of water. While the Phillies haven’t been making much progress on the surface, there’s certainly been a furious process underneath that’s not visible to the public eye.
A large part of that process has come in the way of a typical rebuild for a baseball team: trade away current major-league assets for future potential, accept a losing record and the high draft picks that come with it, and be patient throughout the process while focusing efforts on the development of future stars. But another significant part of the club’s rebuild has come in the form of a transformation of the way the club operates. As Sielski notes, the team has focused on creating and maintaining a successful analytics department.
Indeed, the organization has made some changes to their front office in recent years that reflect a shift in baseball philosophy. For example, in January of 2016, the club gave major promotions to two analytically-minded members of its staff. Scott Freedman, who was hired as a baseball analytics manager in 2013, was made director of baseball operations. They also promoted talented analytics intern Lewis Pollis, then 23 years old, to a a full time role in baseball research development. Pollis is a graduate of Brown University whose senior thesis on MLB front office personnel was published by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and widely-read throughout the baseball industry.
The above moves and more are evidence of Philadelphia’s “underwater” moves to push the club towards sustainable success for the long-term. It seems as though Middleton’s comments and the Santana signing are major signals that the Phillies are ready to come out the other side of their rebuild. Budding stars such as Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola, Jorge Alfaro and others look primed to lead the club towards a winning season at long last, and a number of highly-touted prospects in the club’s farm system should keep them in contention for years to come. As Sielski points out, the timing is great for them; the Marlins are entering a full teardown of the major league roster, the Mets appear unwilling to spend big, and the Nationals may be nearing the end of their window of contention. Even the Braves, who are beginning to look good at the MLB level, just watched their farm system and front office get thrown into disarray after former GM John Coppolella circumvented MLB’s international signing rules.
Perhaps most significantly, Middleton describes the asking prices for Chris Archer and Gerrit Cole as “an arm and a leg.” While fact that the Rays and Pirates are asking a lot for their starting pitchers doesn’t come as a surprise, the news that the Phillies GM Matt Klentak has been involved in discussions for those players points to a genuine desire to get back in the mix for an NL East pennant. It’s clear that an acquisition of Archer or Cole would involve giving up significant assets for a major-leaguer with only two years of team control remaining. Of course, it’s easily possible that inquiries on these pitchers were simply due diligence, but a particular quote from the conference suggests that the Phillies would move on one of them at the right price. “I’ve got a deal over here, and it’s a bad deal,” Middleton said, quoting Klentak “I think if I tweaked it this way, it would be a good deal. I’d be willing to do this deal, not their deal.”
I recently noted in MLBTR’s offseason outlook for the Phillies that their rebuilding process had begun to bear fruit and that they looked to be on the rise. But signing Santana to a three-year deal and exploring trades for pitchers who become free agents after 2019 both reveal an aggressive, win-now mindset. With this information in mind, the rest of the offseason carries an added level of suspense for Phillies fans. It will be fascinating to see what other moves they make in an attempt to add wins in the short term.