We learned long ago and many times over that the team that wins the offseason does not always win the actual season.
The Atlanta Braves, for example, spent less money during the offseason than any other team in baseball last year and still won the National League East.
That said, the Phillies headed into November as the major-league favorite to win this offseason and they have not done it yet. They leaped into contention Thursday with the acquisition of All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, a move that should be considered among the top five in baseball this offseason.
They have bolstered their bullpen with the signing of David Robertson, a durable and dependable veteran capable of pitching anywhere from the seventh through the ninth innings.
Andrew McCutchen’s addition and Carlos Santana’s departure allowed Rhys Hoskins to return to his comfort zone at first base and might be the trigger for him to take another step forward offensively. McCutchen is not the MVP he used to be, but at the age of 32 he should still have a couple of quality seasons left. At the least, he represents an upgrade for the Phillies.
Speaking of upgrades, the Phillies’ biggest one figures to be at shortstop. Last season, the team’s on-base percentage (. 281) and OPS (. 651) ranked 28th among baseball’s 30 teams at shortstop, and the .235 batting average was 27th. Jean Segura, acquired in the trade that sent J.P. Crawford and Santana to Seattle, ranked first in batting average (. 304), sixth in on-base percentage (. 341), and ninth in OPS (. 755) among baseball’s 20 shortstops who qualified for the batting title.
It’s impossible to argue with Phillies general manager Matt Klentak when he says, “I think we improved pretty significantly,” but that was not the mandate for this offseason. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado or bust was, and those two stubborn kids with their two high-profile agents who despise each other remain as the carrots that will dictate which team wins this offseason.
If the Nationals somehow were able to retain Harper, they would clearly be the winner. In fact, it is fair to say that the Nats, a team that knows all too well that a frustrating season can follow a fruitful offseason, currently have had the best offseason.
They’ve added Patrick Corbin, arguably the best starting pitcher on the free-agent market, and veteran Anibal Sanchez to a rotation that already included Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
The Phillies, on the other hand, have opted to stand pat with their rotation because they believe youngsters such as Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, and Vince Velasquez are about to take giant steps forward and they also believe they have a ton of rotation depth in the minor leagues even after trading top prospects Sixto Sanchez and Will Stewart to the Marlins for Realmuto.
That’s risky business at best, a recipe for disaster at worst.
The Nationals have spent roughly $190 million on free agents this offseason, but they will also trim $57.6 million from their payroll if Harper signs elsewhere because they also shed the salaries of Gio Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, and Tanner Roark since the start of last season.
The Phillies, by comparison, have spent $73 million on the free-agent duo of McCutchen and Robertson, but they have also added $74.5 million in salary with the trade acquisitions of Segura, Realmuto, and reliever Juan Nicasio. Factor in the roughly $41 million they sent to Seattle in the form of Santana and they have spent about $106.3 million to upgrade the roster this offseason.
That’s a significant amount of money, but it probably does not qualify as “stupid” money, especially if Phillies owner John Middleton really meant to say he was ready to spend a boatload of money when he spoke to USA Today early in the offseason.
In addition to the Nats, the New York Mets have also actually spent more money than the Phillies this offseason, mostly because they took on the remaining five years and $100 million of second baseman Robinson Cano’s contract when they made their December deal with Seattle.
That seems like an awful lot for a 36-year-old second baseman, but the Mets did also get a premier closer in Edwin Diaz, who led the majors with 57 saves and posted a 1.96 ERA last season. New York also brought back former closer Jeurys Familia for $30 million and added former Phillies catcher Wilson Ramos for $17.5 million.
The combination of Diaz and Familia could give the Mets the best bullpen in the division to go along with arguably the best or second best starting rotation in the division. And Ramos is a comparable hitter to Realmuto provided he can remain healthy.
The point here is that the Mets and the Nationals can argue right now that they have had better offseasons than the Phillies.
The Braves, with the $23 million addition of Josh Donaldson, the $2 million they spent on aging catcher Brian McCann, and the $6 million it cost them to keep Nick Markakis, are not in the offseason discussion, but, again, they are the defending NL East champions.