On several occasions over the past decade, the Phillies have shown a willingness to spend among the league’s elite. However, because the Phillies were recently amid a full-fledged rebuild, the big-market club took major steps backward in the spending department. Last year, with Philadelphia aiming to make a sizable leap in the standings, the team began with a modest $95MM-plus in commitments. Two expensive signings from last offseason – right-hander Jake Arrieta (three years, $75MM) and first baseman Carlos Santana (three years, $60MM) – easily served as the Phillies’ priciest players in 2018, and the duo did help the team make legitimate progress. The Phillies notched their best record since 2012 (80-82), totaling 14 more wins than they amassed in 2017, but they finished under .500 for the sixth consecutive season and extended their playoff drought to seven years.
Santana is now on the block, though his potential exit isn’t a sign that the Phillies are looking to cut costs. Quite the contrary, actually, as owner John Middleton has publicly declared that the Phillies won’t be bashful when it comes to doling out money. In fact, while discussing the Phillies’ offseason plans on Friday, Middleton proclaimed that “we’re going into this expecting to spend money. And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it. We just prefer not to be completely stupid.”
Even before Middleton made it known that Philadelphia’s looking to go big-game hunting, expectations were that the franchise would spend aggressively this winter. After all, the open market now features two of the most enticing free agents ever in outfielder Bryce Harper and infielder Manny Machado. Combining the Phillies’ spending capabilities with the lack of guaranteed money on their books beyond 2020, pursuits of both Harper and Machado have seemed like foregone conclusions. Both players stand a strong chance of surpassing the richest contract in baseball history – the 13-year, $325MM extension outfielder Giancarlo Stanton signed with the Marlins in 2014 – and the Phillies are among the teams truly capable of spending that type of cash. What’s more, if any one organization is going to sign both Harper and Machado, the Phillies are on a very short list of realistic possibilities.
The need for Harper, Machado or both in Philadelphia is obvious, as either player would clearly boost a position player group which ranked 22nd in runs and 23rd in fWAR in 2018. The Phillies’ 48 hitters accounted for 12.4 fWAR, while Machado (6.2) and Harper (3.5) combined for 9.7 by themselves. The two 26-year-olds have been among the game’s most feared hitters throughout their decorated careers, though Machado has also provided plenty of value as a third baseman. The former Oriole and Dodger would do the same in Philadelphia, which got so-so production at the hot corner from Maikel Franco, current free agent Asdrubal Cabrera and J.P. Crawford, among others, in 2018. Franco’s now penciled in as the Phillies’ 2019 starter at third, but that spot’s ripe for an upgrade.
Philadelphia is seemingly even worse off at shortstop, Machado’s preferred position and where he spent the majority of last season. Machado didn’t have a banner year defensively, but he did place first among shortstops in wRC+ (141) and second in both home runs (38) and fWAR. The Phillies, on the other hand, received a microscopic 0.7 fWAR from shortstops Scott Kingery, Crawford, Cabrera and Pedro Florimon, and their combined wRC+ (74) was barely more than half of Machado’s.
Fortunately for the Phillies, their 2018 outfield wasn’t as toothless as the left side of their infield. That doesn’t mean it’s an area of strength, however. Aside from slugger Rhys Hoskins, who overcame horrific defense to log a respectable fWAR (2.9), the Phillies got mediocre or worse overall production from outfield regulars Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams, Roman Quinn and Aaron Altherr. Going forward, Hoskins may shift to first base, which explains the team’s willingness to trade Santana and could increase the need for Harper or another high-end outfielder. Harper, like Hoskins, had a year to forget in the field. Defensive ineptitude has hardly been the norm for Harper since he debuted in 2012, though, and he made up for it to an extent by notching another quality year at the plate.
Signing Harper would improve the Phillies’ near-term chances of returning to contention, and there’s an added bonus: Landing him would be a blow to the division-rival Nationals, Harper’s only team to date. The Nats, the reigning NL East champion Braves and the Mets will each push for supremacy in the division next season, but the Phillies could wind up as the favorites if general manager Matt Klentak uses Middleton’s money effectively this winter. While there are plenty of avenues Klentak could explore that don’t involve Harper or Machado, speculation about those two heading to Philadelphia will persist until they officially come off the market.