The optic was not good, but it belied the truth. Yes, the Phillies arrived in spring training with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and that is not where they belong.
Early in spring training, team president Andy MacPhail trumpeted the millions and millions of dollars being spent to upgrade things such as the scouting and analytics departments as well as ballpark accommodations. It rang hollow because the patrons at Citizens Bank Park care far more about the product on the field and they were smart enough to look at the Phillies' roster and know that they were short on pitching, the most important department for every team in baseball.
MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak knew that they would not have to do a lot of tugging on managing partner John Middleton's arm to pry his wallet away. The now-visible owner of the Phillies was enamored with Jake Arrieta from the start of free agency, but he displayed the patience needed for Klentak to negotiate a favorable deal with hard-bargaining agent Scott Boras.
So now we can put to rest the notion that the Phillies are cheap. It is something they have not been for a long time and will not be as long as Middleton is the man at the top of the organization. After Arrieta's introductory news conference Tuesday in Clearwater, Fla., Middleton said the pitcher's signing should send a loud and clear message to the masses.
"I think it's a message frankly to everybody," Middleton said. "It's not just the [future] free agents. I want everybody in our organization to understand what our mission is and how we're supposed to go about doing it. I want the coaching staff, I want the front office, I want the fans, I want other players, I want even other baseball organizations to know that we're serious about winning and we're going to do what it takes to win."
Phillies fans can be forgiven if they did not see this message coming through loud and clear at the start of spring training, because so many of them lived through a time when the team did do things on the cheap. In the last 30 years, the Phillies have been in the top 10 in payroll only 10 times, according to baseballcube.com. They were in the bottom 10 nine times during that same stretch, and seeing the team near the bottom again undoubtedly raised concerns. In truth, it was just part of the rebuilding process.
Anyone who has spent any time with Middleton knew that the Phillies' payroll was going to rise in the near future, and the signings of Arrieta and first baseman Carlos Santana are just the beginning. Middleton noted that when you combine the money spent on Arrieta, Santana and relievers Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter, the Phillies have dished out the second-highest total in free-agent dollars this offseason. Those four received a combined $169.25 million. Only the Chicago Cubs spent more.
The Cubs put most of their eggs in Yu Darvish's basket, paying him $126 million over six years to assume the spot vacated by Arrieta in the rotation. It will be interesting to see how those two signings compare in three years.
Far more interesting will be watching where the Phillies and their payroll are headed in the coming years. With the addition of Arrieta, the payroll now stands at $80.8 million and the possibility of a playoff berth is realistic. Combine that with a young roster and a well-stocked farm system, and the Phillies are in a position to be big spenders when the most sought-after crop of free agents is expected to hit the market after this season.
It's not insignificant, either, that Arrieta is a Boras client. It's no secret that the Phillies have had strained relations with Boras, dating all the way to the failed negotiations with J.D. Drew after the team took him with the second overall pick in the 1997 draft. The team and the agent also had a heated disagreement over a negotiation that eventually led to Ryan Madson's leaving the Phillies after the 2011 season.
Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper figures to be the biggest prize on the next open market and he, too, is a Boras client.
"Sometimes organizations want to portray to the player community things that are important to players …," Boras said. "Jake goes to Philadelphia and has a physical and the Middleton family has their plane there waiting for him. A lot of organizations don't do that. He arrives down here, and everyone from the staff is here to meet him late at night at the airport."