The Phillies Rebuild is Over
The Phillies are back, baby. This is a shocking turn-around from Andy MacPhail’s end-of-season press conference wherein he insisted the Phillies were unlikely to invest in players and instead would invest in ballpark improvements and fan experience. Well it appears the team’s research showed that the fan experience is best at Citizen’s Bank Park when the Phillies are good.
So they spent $169.2 million in free agency this year, the second-most behind only the Cubs and their fancy new Yu Darvish, adding veterans Carlos Santana, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, and most notably Jake Arrieta. Best of all (from the team perspective anyway), as editor Matt covered in the immediate aftermath of the Arrieta signing, these contracts are set to expire before many of the Phillies’ core pieces even hit arbitration, let alone free agency. This enables the Phillies to dive headfirst into the 2019 free agent class without fear of a bloated payroll.
The only issue (again, from the team’s perspective) is the unusual opt-out included in Arrieta’s deal. After making $30 million and $25 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively, Arrieta can opt out of the final year and $20 million of his deal. However, if Arrieta does opt out, the Phillies can unilaterally decide to keep Arrieta for three years and $60-80 million, depending on incentives. This would bring the total cost of the deal to somewhere between $115 and $135 over five years. These final three years will be Arrieta’s age-34 through -36 seasons.
This represents a potential pitfall for the Phillies in the coming years. If these next two seasons go as well as Phillies fans hope, Arrieta will opt out of the last year of his deal and look for one last free agent contract. The Phillies will be tempted to exercise their three year deal to retain Arrieta’s services. The modal outcome of that decision would be a mistake. The late Roy Halladay (man, that’s hard to write) and Cliff Lee demonstrated that for us just a few years ago. Paying big money for Arrieta’s decline could hamper the Phillies plans as their home-grown players get expensive in arbitration and free agency.
But that’s a problem for the future. The Phillies rotation has long been considered a liability; with this signing, the FanGraphs positional depth chart has the Phillies starters in the middle of the pack. Though I’ll note that FanGraphs projects the Phillies for just 73 wins, Baseball Prospectus now projects the Phillies for an 81-81 record, one year after winning just 66 games. With an improved bullpen and some lucky breaks, this team could compete for a wild card.
Most importantly, though, this deal announces to the league that the Phillies are no longer rebuilding. The Phillies got one of the top free agents in baseball this offseason, a former Cy Young winner and World Series champion. With the Mets rotation still facing injury questions, the Braves still rebuilding, and the Marlins still Marlinsing, the Phillies should have one of the easier schedules in baseball in 2018. Along with this offseason’s spending spree, a winning season would put the Phillies on the map for one of the 2019 superstar free agents.
From there, the sky is the limit.