Last winter, the Phillies’ offseason would be defined by their ability to land either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. They had the money to sign one of baseball’s superstar talents. They just had to make it happen. And they did.
A year later, the success of the offseason will hinge on the team’s ability to remake its starting rotation. There were plenty of reasons the 2019 Phillies failed to reach the postseason, but the struggles of their starting pitchers top the list. Just one starter finished with an ERA better than 4.22 and only the Rockies rotation allowed more home runs among National League staffs.
Signing Zack Wheeler is not enough to cure the team’s ills, but it was a solid start to an offseason that will be built around pitching.
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The Phillies, for the second straight offseason, showed their willingness Wednesday to spend, as they issued just the fourth $100 million contract in franchise history to land Zack Wheeler.
The addition of Wheeler, who instantly improves a struggling starting rotation, was the team’s first major move of the offseason, but it is far from the last one the Phillies need to make. They still need another starting pitcher. They need reinforcements in their bullpen. They need an infielder after moving on this week from Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco. And they could use some additions to their bench.
But filling all of those holes will come at a cost. And the Phillies — despite having a billionaire owner who wants to win — might be nearing their limits. The Phillies have never paid baseball’s competitive-balance tax, but they might be unable to avoid it this offseason if they want to field a postseason contender.
The team’s payroll, according to FanGraphs, is estimated to be $192 million, after the signing of Wheeler, when calculated for luxury-tax purposes. That leaves the Phillies with roughly $16 million to spend this offseason before reaching the competitive-balance tax threshold. It’s hard to imagine $16 million solving all of the team’s problems. So it could be tax season in South Philly.
If the Phillies’ payroll exceeds $208 million, they would be charged a 20% tax on all overages. If they exceed the threshold by $10 million, they would be charged an extra $2 million.
A season later, the penalty would increase to 30% if the Phillies are unable to keep their payroll to less than $210 million. But it would be possible for the Phillies to fall under the tax in 2021 because they’ll shed $36.5 million in salary by the departures of Jake Arrieta and David Robertson. The Phillies could pay the tax for just one season.
“Here’s what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team. That’s not going to happen,” managing partner John Middleton said after the season.
“I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”
The Phillies plan to make a push for Didi Gregorius, the shortstop coveted by Joe Girardi from his time in New York. Gregorius made nearly $12 million this past season, making it hard to see how the Phillies could sign him plus an impact starting pitcher and keep their payroll south of $208 million.
Exceeding the tax threshold does not mean the Phillies have to spend wildly and land Gerrit Cole, but it would allow them to sign a pitcher such as Madison Bumgarner and finish their offseason by solidifying their bullpen while still allowing themselves to add salary in the summer when a need arises.
But if the Phillies limit their spending, it’s hard to imagine them being able to do enough this offseason to enter next season with a team expected to pass Washington or Atlanta. If so, another postseason would be expected to go on without them.
The Phillies need a little more than Wheeler, Bob Brookover writes, to get where they want to go. Brookie makes the case for the Phillies to go after Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, or Dallas Keuchel if they are unable to land Cole or Stephen Strasburg. “For now, they have Zack Wheeler. It’s a nice start, but nothing more,” he writes.
The Phillies have been reluctant to give long-term deals to starting pitchers, so Scott Lauber explains why the Phillies were willing to sign Zack Wheeler. They no longer had a choice, Lauber writes, as Matt Klentak said this offseason that it’s time to win and everyone knew they needed pitching.
Cole Hamels would have been a nice fit with the Phillies, but the 2008 World Series MVP signed a one-year deal Wednesday to join the rival Braves. Hamels still owns a home in Delaware County and has been open over the last year about returning to the Phillies. Instead, he’ll compete against them.
Monday: The winter meetings begin in San Diego.
Thursday: The Rule 5 draft ends the meetings, noon.
Feb. 11: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
Feb. 16: The rest of the Phillies roster reports to Clearwater.
Feb. 22: Phillies play Tigers in the first spring training game, 1:05 p.m.
Zack Wheeler’s average fastball velocity last season was 96.7 mph, the fifth-highest among major-league starters who threw at least 500 fastballs. He trailed Noah Syndergaard, Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, and Jacob deGrom. That’s good company.
Phillies starting pitchers last season had an average fastball of 92.1 mph, which ranked 14th in baseball. That number should increase in 2020 thanks to Wheeler.
Send questions by email or on Twitter @matt_breen.
Question: Any update on the medical staff? Just curious since it was basically a footnote when Scott Sheridan and Chris Mudd were let go. — Mike R. via email.
Answer: Thanks, Mike. The Phillies have yet to replace Sheridan or Mudd, whose contracts were not renewed after the season. Sheridan had been with the Phillies since 2003 and was the team’s head athletic trainer since 2006. Mudd joined the Phillies in 2004 and spent 10 years in the minors before joining the big-league staff in 2014 as an assistant athletic trainer.
The Phillies will have to replace both of them before spring training. Klentak was asked about their departure last month at the general managers’ meetings.