It feels like it felt 15 years ago.
This week in March 2003, 50 Cent was killing it on the Billboard charts, the second installment of “Lord of the Rings” was still killing it at the box office, and first baseman Jim Thome and starting pitcher Kevin Millwood were killing it at Phillies spring training.
The Phils signed Thome in early December of 2002: seven years, $85 million. Two weeks later, they traded catcher Johnny Estrada for Millwood, whose projected $10 million arbitration award was too rich for the Braves (Millwood got $9.9 million). After the 2002 season, which featured a fractious trade of star third baseman Scott Rolen, the Phillies had shown their fans they were willing to spend big money. Overnight, they were perceived as contenders in the National League East.
Fifteen years later, in mid-December of 2017, the Phils signed first baseman Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract. On Sunday, Jake Arrieta agreed to a three-year, $75 million contract. Overnight, they are perceived as playoff contenders.
“Same excitement,” former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said in a text. “Sends a strong message to players and fans about winning.”
This is a spring full of messages, none louder clearer than the “Be Bold” mantra of innovative new manager Gabe Kapler.
Sadly, boldness doesn’t beget aptitude.
Thome and Millwood didn’t really make the Phillies playoff contenders then, and that team featured established players like Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal, Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins.
Arrieta and Santana don’t really make the Phillies playoff contenders now, either. The Phils have solid major-leaguers at first base, second base and center field, but none of them hit for exceptional power. They have wondrous potential in Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Altherr, and Nick Williams, but that trio has played an average of 112 big-league games.
That’s OK. Contention isn’t the point at this moment; not exactly. This team is composed almost entirely of question marks wearing numbers on their backs, but now this team has an anchor in the lineup and an anchor in the rotation.
“Jake Arrieta coming to Philadelphia has injected a great deal of life into the clubhouse, into our coaches room, into camp,” Kapler said. “The city of Philadelphia is probably pretty excited right now, and we’re excited right along with our fans.”
Thanks to Arrieta and Santana, the Phillies have shown their fans the money. Thanks to Arrieta and Santana, the Phillies are just a little more ready to be relevant.
“It shows that the turning of the tide is a lot sooner than I think we all thought,” said Jerad Eickhoff, whom Arrieta will replace as the No. 2 starter, behind Aaron Nola. “It makes us a lot better. You’d be crazy to think it doesn’t.”
Sure, they’re better with Arrieta. They won 66 games last season, for Pete’s sake. But are they good?
Probably not. In fact, they probably weren’t close to being good before they signed Arrieta. A 10-game improvement would have made them a 76-win team. Did they already have 10 more wins in them? Beyond signing Santana, the Phils had upgraded the middle of their bullpen, but mostly they hoped their young talent would continue to develop.
So yes, they’re better. They’re probably not good enough to matter in the last week of September, but they’re good enough to matter past Labor Day.
And Arrieta is good enough to sell tickets, just like Thome did. The Phillies haven’t finished higher than seventh-worst in MLB attendance since 2014.
The situations aren’t identical.
For one thing, the Phillies are now in the middle of a full rebuild; in 2003, they were a .500 club.
Fifteen years later, the newcomers’ roles are reversed. Thome made Millwood’s addition more relevant, but this time the pitcher is the stud who amplifies the hitter’s value.
The similarities are remarkable.
Arrieta, 32, is two seasons removed from winning a Cy Young Award over Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke. Thome, who was 32 in 2003, had finished seventh on the two previous MVP ballots, behind a slew of players later connected to performance-enhancing drug use.
Age matters, of course. Arrieta throws two fastballs, and both lost about 2 mph last season, which is one reason no team seriously considered his reported Scott Boras-ian contract demands: seven years for at least $180 million. Guess it never hurts to ask.
Age mattered with Thome, too.
In his last three seasons in Cleveland, Thome averaged 46 home runs, 116 RBI and hit .287 with an OPS of 1.026, which earned him those MVP votes. In his first two seasons with the Phillies, he averaged 44 home runs, 118 RBI and hit .270 with an OPS of .967. He finished fourth in MVP voting in 2003 and was an all-star in 2004. He was hurt for most of 2005, the year he turned 35.
In Arrieta’s last three seasons with the Cubs he went 54-24 with a 2.71 earned-run average, which is the second-best among regular starters in that span; only Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers is better. Arrieta struggled early in 2017: 9-9 with a 4.35 ERA in his first 18 starts, and he surrendered 14 homers, just two fewer than he allowed in all of 2016. This would be more alarming had he not rebounded in his last 12 starts: 6-3, 2.28 ERA, nine homers.
Arrieta’s home-run rate remained constant down the stretch in 2017. That’s the most concerning aspect of his current profile. He’s a ground-ball pitcher who is suddenly giving up bombs, and he just signed a three-year deal to pitch at Citizens Bank Park, a home-run factory. The Bank delivered the most homers in baseball in 2016 and 2013 and haven’t been out of the top seven since 2013.
Arrieta’s certainly going to be an upgrade over Jeremy Hellickson, who was 6-5 with a 4.73 ERA in 20 starts last season before he was traded. Santana’s OPS was almost 100 points better than what Tommy Joseph managed in his first full season, and Santana is a superior first baseman.
Thome led the league with 47 bombs in 2003, the last season the Phillies played at Veterans Stadium, a park stingy with its homers. The player he replaced, Travis Lee, had hit 13. Millwood went 14-12 with a 4.01 ERA in 35 starts a year after Robert Person was 4-5 with a 5.44 ERA in just 16 starts.
But, 15 years ago, what did that production mean?
It meant six more wins in 2003 than in 2002.
What did it mean in March?
It meant that, for the first time since 1994, the Phillies were relevant again.