Phillies' Andy MacPhail must not fear unicorns or long-term pitching contracts

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta will be a free agent after the postseason. At 31, he is the type of pitcher Phillies president Andy MacPhail is apprehensive about signing to a huge contract. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Andy MacPhail acknowledged it was a great question and it was, in fact, the best one asked during his 37-minute session with the media Tuesday morning at Citizens Bank Park.

Early on in his tenure as the team president, MacPhail established his philosophical reluctance to spend big money on a long-term contract for a free-agent pitcher over the age of 30. You could almost visualize him spitting up his morning Cheerios two offseasons ago when a 32-year-old Zack Greinke signed a six-year contract worth $206.5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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Phillies president Andy MacPhail reiterated his reluctance to pay big money for free-agent pitching at a Citizens Bank Park news conference Tuesday. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Asked if he had revisited his philosophy at a time when the thing the Phillies need most is a proven veteran starting pitcher, MacPhail immediately shook his head no before acknowledging that at some point he might have to swallow his breakfast cereal and agree to the kind of deal he loathes.

“But it’s not my favorite place to be,” MacPhail added. “We get inundated with stories across the game about everybody is looking for starting pitching. Just get two quality starters and we’ll be all set. Well, you might as well look for a unicorn at the same time. It’s tough.”

The unicorns are out there. They’re expensive, they’re fragile and they’re exactly what a team like the Phillies should go after if general manager Matt Klentak truly believes his team has rounded third and headed for home in the rebuilding process.

“You don’t want to be paying for past performance,” MacPhail said. “That’s often what you’re confronted with – someone who has probably logged over 600 innings in the last three years and been a great pitcher and now we’re on the wrong side of 30 and here we go.”

Teams with the Phillies’ resources cannot play with scared money. MacPhail listed the various ways a team can spend its money and said this is a good time for the Phillies to invest in things like an expanded analytics department and ballpark amenities because they have a young team that does not require an inflated payroll. He said a new field and better lights are on the to-do list for 2018. Those things are all nice and important, but better baseball is all the vast majority of fans care about.

After reminding us that it was not so long ago that the Phillies consistently checked in with one of baseball’s highest payrolls, he said it was unlikely they would return to that status next season. According to, the Phillies ranked 22nd in payroll this season, which was fine given the fact that they were mostly a young team with only one player – center fielder Odubel Herrera – on a multiyear contract.

But everybody, including MacPhail, agrees that the Phillies are a team on the rise.

“Our run differential last year was the worst in baseball at [minus] 186 runs,” MacPhail said. “We’ve cut that in half to 92 and over the second half our run differential was zero. We were essentially a .500 club [after the all-star break]. We were also the second-youngest club in baseball. … Only the Padres were younger. So we righted ourselves with the younger group.”

Now, they need to supplement that youth with a veteran free-agent pitcher. All the big-market teams do it and so do some of the ones in smaller markets.

Greinke, for example, was 17-7 with a 3.20 ERA in his second season with the Diamondbacks and is a huge reason why they returned to the postseason for the first time since 2011.

Max Scherzer was 30 when he signed for seven years and $210 million with Washington in January 2015 and he could be about to collect his second Cy Young Award. Win one World Series with him and it will not matter much if he is out of gas at the end of the contract.

Was CC Sabathia worth the nine-year, $202 million deal he signed with the Yankees before the 2009 season? MacPhail might not think so because he had a three-year stretch from 2013 through 2015 during which he went 23-27 with a 4.81 ERA. But he also helped them win a World Series in his first season and finished 120-73 with a 3.75 ERA in his nine seasons.

Regardless of how much money any team spends on analytics, there is no way to know when a star pitcher is going to run out of gas. It seemed to make no sense for the Minnesota Twins, coming off a 70-92 season in 2014, to pay 32-year-old Ervin Santana $55 million over four years. But guess who was on the mound for the Twins Tuesday night against the Yankees when the team made its first postseason appearance since 2010?

If you had to choose between better lights or a unicorn at the top of starting rotation, the people who populate the stands would always choose the unicorn. The Phillies are in a position to have both and now is the time to pounce on a starting pitcher.