A stroll earlier this week through the lobby of a Disney World resort during baseball’s annual winter meetings elicited raised eyebrows. The Phillies? Tommy Hunter? They paid an $18 million premium for an unheralded setup man when the free-agent market was filled with decent relievers who signed for less or similar amounts?
That is something a contender does — not a team a few months removed from a 96-loss season and one still committed to a long-term plan. The Phillies spent $92.25 million this week, capped by a $60 million deal for Carlos Santana, to kickstart a comatose offseason. They signed two relievers and a first baseman. Those additions will not alone make them contenders. They could have filled those positions from the inside with younger or cheaper players.
The Phillies would have to improve by 20 wins, at least, to be contenders in 2018. That is not probable. A 10-win improvement would be significant on its own. The free-agent additions, sprinkled among a core of young players, could engineer that.
This is still all about next offseason.
The last week made the Phillies relevant. It did not make them great again. But they are now a credible player for premium talent. Did they have to overpay now to prove their intentions for next winter’s superstar free-agent class? Perhaps. The money was less a concern for a club that has much of it to spend. They were happier to reach shorter agreements with higher annual dollar values, deals that will not restrict the Phillies even if they flop.
The Santana deal conjures memories of another Cleveland first baseman, Jim Thome, signing to help christen a new ballpark. It is reminiscent of the Washington Nationals’ emboldened decision to lure Jayson Werth with seven years and $128 million. Santana is a rung below; he does not have the same star power. But it is an example of an unproven team signing a veteran player to a sizable contract to provide credibility with other free agents, leadership in a young clubhouse, and a middle-of-the-order presence.
It is an olive branch, in essence, to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.
The Phillies have planned a great deal around the free-agent class that hits the market after the 2018 season. There are no guarantees they sign one of the top available players. But a few big-dollar commitments now and a real improvement in the standings in 2018 would not hurt their chances.
They are banking on both Machado and Harper reaching free agency, which appears to be a safe bet. Baltimore is shopping Machado in a trade but will not grant an exclusive window to negotiate a contract extension because it is believed Machado is not interested in any such talks. He intends to be a free agent and engage in a competition with Harper for the richest contract ever signed.
Any team that acquires Machado this offseason — and it’s still unclear whether he’s even moved — would be doing it with the knowledge he is a rental player. He makes sense for a contender, looking to upgrade in the immediate, and less worried about Machado’s future beyond 2018. That does not fit the Phillies.
When Matt Klentak was hired as general manager, one of his first tasks was to study the models of successful rebuilding teams. It was a detailed presentation he later made to his two bosses, team president Andy MacPhail and owner John Middleton. Klentak has been steadfast in his desire to stick to a plan, no matter the setbacks or slowness. That plan was to accumulate as much young talent as possible, allow that talent to grow in the majors, then strike for some major acquisitions.
The Santana signing alters the equation, although it is possible Klentak has merely followed a specific model all along. The Houston Astros won 70 games in 2014, a bit of brightness after three straight 100-loss seasons. They responded in the winter between 2014 and 2015 by signing two relievers (Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek) to multiyear deals and infielder Jed Lowrie to a three-year, $23 million deal.
The Astros did not jump to 86 wins in 2015 and a wild-card berth because of those acquisitions. They helped. More important: Their young core improved at a rapid rate. It is dangerous to infer the same thing will happen with the Phillies. The Santana deal is of a higher caliber than Lowie’s, but the thinking behind them is similar. Both players were lineup upgrades on palatable deals that would not handcuff the franchise’s spending power later.
And the relievers? They can turn the close, toss-up games that are decided with one pitch. Only Gregerson was a part of the Astros’ eventual championship team, and even he did not fill a huge role. But he helped nudge Houston there.
There is so much left for the Phillies to accomplish. Their rotation is jumbled, without many assurances and lacking a quick fix. There is doubt about some of the young position players. But the path toward a winning team is a little clearer this week than it was last, and that is significant.