I don’t know how many business classes Bryce Harper took during his one year at the College of Southern Nevada, but he seems to have a pretty good handle on the economics of baseball’s labor market. More so, at least, than the contingent of fans and media who have spent the last five years convincing itself that there is some sort of cheat code available to the Phillies that would allow them to erase a decade-plus of development failures and roster mismanagement. Tap the A button once, the B button twice, then enter John Middleton’s routing number and, boom, Larry Greene and Cornelius Randolph are suddenly sitting at home wondering what it would have been like to play for the 2020 world champs.
This line of thinking is evident in the fanciful notion that the Phillies would be well served making an aggressive play for one of the blue-chip third basemen that maybe, kinda, sorta, could be available via trade given the right price. Earlier in the offseason, the headlines revolved around Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, mostly because he stopped just short of hiring a prop plane to circle lower Denver towing a banner with the letters GMTFOH. In recent days, though, attention has turned to Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, whose hometown connection to Harper gave reporters a clever opening to ask the $330 Million Man for his thoughts on trading for the star.
Harper’s response: "I mean, you have to have certain guys on your team that make less money to also have guys that make more money, as well. Kris, of course, you want an All-Star-caliber player, but we have [Alec] Bohm. We have a big-time third baseman and we were able to get him in the draft. Of course, any time you’re able to add an All-Star-caliber player, you’re going to want to add an All-Star player. But you have to be able to know you developed a player in the minor leagues that can also help you at third base, and Bohm could be that guy for us. He could come up and be one of the best third basemen in the second half or whatever it is. ... But I can’t give up Spencer Howard and Bohm, and possibly give up our whole future, for a year-and-a-half of KB if we don’t sign him to an extension. And I know there’s a guy in there that we need to sign to an extension. I think having a guy like J.T. [Realmuto] for the next six years would help us.”
Frankly, Harper did a more-than-adequate job of articulating the potential folly of trading for Bryant. But let’s try to add some concrete numbers to the mix.
While the acquisition of Bryant and his $18.6 million salary would put the Phillies into luxury-tax territory, that alone wouldn’t be a dealbreaker. The Phillies should enter the season with a payroll that is just shy of the $208 million competitive balance tax threshold once their arbitration cases with J.T. Realmuto and Hector Neris are settled. The bulk of Bryant’s salary, then, would be subject to a 20% tax, provided the Phillies did not go more than $20 million over.
As a onetime fee, that’s not crippling, especially when you consider the fact that Bryant is probably earning below market value. The biggest financial implications are in future seasons. As Harper mentioned, the Phillies’ five-year budget also needs to account for anywhere between $18 million and $22 million in annual salary for J.T. Realmuto, whom the club would like to sign to a contract extension before he reaches free agency after this season. The floor for Realmuto is likely the four-year, $73 million contract that Yasmani Grandal signed with the White Sox as a free agent this offseason.
Rhys Hoskins should get a healthy pay bump in each of his final three seasons under team control. Along with $20 million-plus for Bryant in his final season before free agency, the Phillies would have payroll commitments in the neighborhood of $170 million for 2021 before the offseason even arrives. That would leave them with just $40 million in spending room to fill out 15 roster spots and remain under the tax threshold, after which they would be subject to a 30% tax. That’s with two starters and zero relievers under contract, mind you.
That might be a tenable situation if the Phillies’ farm system was bursting at the seams with major league-ready talent. But it’s worth noting that the Cubs are unlikely to give Bryant away to a National League rival out of the kindness of their hearts. Acquiring him would almost certainly require the Phillies to part with two or more of the players who would otherwise be counted on to fill in those remaining roster spots at below-market salaries. And that could leave them needing to spend even more money to fill those spots from the outside. At some point, the house collapses.
Want to know why the Dodgers were able to trade for Mookie Betts? Because last season nearly 80% of their Wins Above Replacement at the plate came from players who were on their rookie contracts. Their top three hitters combined to produce 18.7 WAR while earning a combined $5.2 million in salary. That’s almost twice as many WAR as the Phillies got from their homegrown hitters, with Scott Kingery (3.0), Cesar Hernandez (2.5), Adam Haseley (1.7) and Hoskins (1.5) accounting for the lion’s share.
The reality that the Phillies cannot escape is that they will not join the ranks of the perennial contenders until their pitching staff and lineup are built on a foundation of young, homegrown players who are earning rookie-contract salaries. They need Kingery to be Cody Bellinger, and Hoskins to be Max Muncy, and Alec Bohm to be Corey Seager. They need Spencer Howard to be Walker Buehler, and Seranthony Dominguez to be Julio Urias. And they need a generation of talent behind those players to develop into future low-cost replacements.