CLEARWATER, Fla. — Say this for John Middleton: He made it rain.
For months leading up to this offseason, rival executives presumed the Phillies billionaire owner was poised to pony up big bucks to accelerate the team’s rise to playoff contention after a long rebuild. Then, in November, Middleton joked to USA Today that he was willing to get “a little bit stupid” with how he spent money in free agency.
Well, the Phillies spent approximately $440 million this winter, $330 million of which is earmarked for the record-setting 13-year contract agreed upon Thursday by star right fielder Bryce Harper. They still have the payroll flexibility to keep adding, too, if they want to sign free-agent lefty Dallas Keuchel or closer Craig Kimbrel.
By going to 13 years for Harper, the Phillies reduced the contract’s average annual value — the most relevant figure for the purposes of the competitive-balance tax — to $25.4 million. Including Harper, the Phillies’ CBT number stands at approximately $187 million, according to independent reporting by philly.com and the salary database at Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Teams won’t incur a tax penalty this year as long as they stay below the $206 million threshold.
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The Phillies’ interest in Keuchel has been tepid for most of the winter, and they are satisfied with the makeup of their bullpen. But if Keuchel or Kimbrel is willing to sign a one-year contract, the Phillies could jump into the mix with an offer. They could also pass and maintain enough room under the tax threshold to add a player before the July 31 trade deadline.
But Middleton’s commitment is clear. The Phillies’ payroll, as calculated for CBT purposes, came in at roughly $114 million last year. At $187 million, they would set a club record and rank among the highest payrolls in baseball.
Asked recently if the Phillies would consider exceeding the threshold, team president Andy MacPhail mostly deferred to Middleton but also said, “I wouldn’t say absolutely, categorically no by any means.”
“Here’s a news flash for you: John wants to win,” MacPhail said. “I think the thing that separates John is that, if we won this year, he would want to win just as much next year and the year after that and the year after that, which is one of the reasons why it is essential to us to make sure we have enough resources to address future needs as they evolve from year to year.”
Harper’s deal doesn’t figure to leave the Phillies hamstrung in future years. For CBT calculations, they have approximately $131 million committed to eight players in 2020, allowing for maneuverability to play in the free-agent or trade markets or perhaps discuss a long-term contract extension with homegrown slugger Rhys Hoskins.
Adam Haseley, the Phillies’ 2017 first-round pick who could one day play in the outfield with Harper, went 2-for-4 with a three-run homer and four RBIs in a 7-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Spectrum Field.
Before the game, manager Gabe Kapler met with Haseley, 2016 first-round pick Mickey Moniak, and other young outfielders in camp to discuss the impact of Harper joining the organization.
“The message was pretty simple: There’s a guy in left field [McCutchen] who’s going to play just about every day; there’s a guy in right field [Harper] that’s going to play just about every day; there’s a lot of competition for the remaining at-bats,” Kapler said. “There’s a lot of opportunity, both on the starting front and also coming off the bench. I shared that with those guys.”