Updated: Thursday, December 21, 2017, 1:35 PM
John Middleton, the Phillies’ principal owner, freely admits that he has been conflicted over these last few years, that there has been a war raging between his heart and mind, between his desire to win right now and his recognition that the Phillies needed to rebuild their organization.
No major-league franchise has lost more games since 2012 than the Phillies, and for an owner who famously confessed to Ryan Howard, in the wake of the team’s 2009 World Series loss to the Yankees, that he wanted his bleeping trophy back, this last half-decade has been the greatest test of his resolve to chase a championship the right way.
Middleton wants to spend money. He doesn’t want the Phillies of 2018 to wear the same small-market, too-thrifty label that the franchise slapped on itself a generation ago. And these long, hard summers of late made it all the more satisfying to him to sign Carlos Santana: a player who, in both production and perception, signifies that it’s time to take the Phillies seriously again.
“Of course it’s a factor,” he said after Santana’s introductory news conference had ended, referring to the Phils’ failure to win more than 73 games in any of the last five seasons. “But you still have to have a plan, and you have to adhere to it. I think what you don’t have to do is make a knee-jerk reaction to losing and go out and do something stupid for the sake of doing something. That’s really a bad thing to do.”
That was a really encouraging thing for him to say. At least, it should be. From the moment Middleton took on a more visible and powerful role within the Phillies’ ownership group, it’s been fair to fear that, in his desperation to win, he would push the franchise to be reckless, to be as short-term in its thinking as it had been for too long under Ruben Amaro Jr.
Having an owner who’s willing to throw money at every problem sounds marvelous, until he demands that you throw money even at the problems that money can’t solve.
More than anything, the Phillies needed a radical transformation in their baseball philosophy. They needed to modernize. They needed to create and maintain an analytics department, to replenish their farm system and revamp their scouting staff after a dormant decade of prospect-hunting, to upgrade their international scouting infrastructure to better mine Latin America and Asia for talent.
They have worked toward all of those aims, if not completed all of them. It made little sense for Middleton to hand his wallet to team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak and have them start handing out cash to free agents before the entire organization had a solid foundation again.
“Yeah, I’m impatient,” Middleton said. “But we were making progress kind of like a duck, I guess. On the surface, you’d see one thing, but underneath the feet were going like that.”
At the end of that sentence, he flapped his hands up and down in a paddling motion.
“We’re doing that under the water with the scouts and the player-development stuff. It wasn’t producing results on the surface, but we’re getting there.”
It was that feeling, and a set of circumstances particular to this offseason, that helped persuade Middleton, MacPhail, and Klentak that the time was right for a full-bore pursuit of a player such as Santana — and, if necessary, to pay a premium for him.
Look around the rest of the National League East. The Marlins just traded away the reigning league MVP, Giancarlo Stanton, for a meager collection of prospects. The Mets seem as reluctant to spend today as they were when their ownership’s financial ties to Bernie Madoff were fresh news. The Braves, for circumventing Major League Baseball’s rules for international signings and bonuses, have seen their front office and farm system gutted. The Nationals could lose Bryce Harper to free agency next year.
Given those conditions, there’s an opportunity now for the Phillies, and both Middleton and Klentak said that the organization’s decision-makers saw it, acknowledged it, and, to a degree, were motivated to sign Santana to a three-year, $60-million deal because of it.
“Yeah, I think we’re close,” Middleton said. “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.”
Now the notion that the Phillies can go after a starting pitcher such as Chris Archer or Gerrit Cole isn’t just idle speculation, or a question that Klentak can try to smokescreen away with talk of keeping four starting-caliber outfielders on the roster. It’s something Middleton can cite as a specific, tangible goal.
“What Tampa’s asking for Archer or what the Pirates are asking for Cole, I don’t want to say it’s extortion, but it’s an arm and a leg,” he said. “So Matt looks at us and says, ‘I’ve got a deal over here, and it’s a bad deal. 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.’ And if he can get our deal, he’ll do it. And if he can’t, he’ll come to us and say, ‘I don’t want to do it.’”
He continued to use the first person as he continued talking.
“Look, I always want everything done yesterday,” he said. “So am I going to ask Matt a hundred times between now and spring training to give me an update on the pitching front? Of course I will.”
It would be against his nature to do otherwise. John Middleton had to learn to be patient, and he deserves credit that he did. But he has been waiting more than eight years to get that bleeping trophy back, and he’s damn happy that he and his baseball team are back in the game.