Any day now, the final out will be recorded, a World Series champion crowned, and a season that even pie-in-the-sky optimists doubted would be played to completion will end triumphantly in Arlington, Texas.
Then the accounting will begin.
Never mind that Major League Baseball raked in a record $10.7 billion in 2019 and $10.3 billion the year before, according to Forbes. Or that the league secured a seven-year, $3.745 billion extension of its television deal with Turner Sports. Or that players were paid 37% of their salaries in 2020.
Most owners are tightening their belts after revenues nosedived amid a pandemic that shortened the season to 60 games and locked fans out of ballparks. Last week, the Phillies let go five pro scouts and two amateur scouts. Player-development staffers are awaiting word on contract renewals. Non-baseball employees have been offered buyouts, with layoffs likely to follow. The next few weeks will be painful.
Add in, too, the possibility of a work stoppage when the collective bargaining agreement expires after next season, and the business of baseball figures to be more unpredictable than usual this winter. After missing the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season, the Phillies are facing a series of questions, such as:
Who will make the decisions?
The bucks stop with managing partner John Middleton, an increasingly visible presence since 2015. But he insists he “listens to the baseball people,” one of whom, former general manager Matt Klentak, he demoted three weeks ago.
Dave Dombrowski, architect of two World Series winners, is more interested in the Phillies job than the Los Angeles Angels' GM vacancy, according to two sources, but only if he has complete autonomy. That wouldn’t be the case with Andy MacPhail in the role of team president.
MacPhail, 67, has one year left on his contract. In an Oct. 3 Zoom call with reporters, Middleton said MacPhail has previously contemplated “what the world looks like when he steps down.” Wild guess: He didn’t imagine it would be after another playoff-less autumn led to Klentak’s removal, all in the middle of a pandemic.
It might be more likely, then, that the Phillies hire a general manager to work under MacPhail. Kansas City Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo, a Cherry Hill native, is getting consideration again after falling short to Klentak five years ago.
But if MacPhail remains, the Phillies could also stick with interim GM Ned Rice – Klentak’s right-hand man and previously MacPhail’s protege with the Baltimore Orioles – for the 2021 season.
What are the biggest roster needs?
The bullpen. Also, the bullpen. Have we mentioned the bullpen?
After the Phillies finished with a 28-32 record, manager Joe Girardi said, “I don’t think we were that far from being a 35- to a 38-win team.” And he might have been correct, if not for a group of relievers that posted a 7.06 ERA and blew more saves (14) than they converted (11).
So, the Phillies must rebuild almost the entire bullpen, in addition to deepening the rotation behind Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin. They could also upgrade center field, where Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn combined for a .598 OPS.
And with J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius headed to free agency, the Phillies might have holes at catcher and shortstop, respectively.
How much will the Phillies spend?
For luxury-tax purposes, the 2020 payroll is expected to come in at about $207.6 million, a franchise record and only about $400,000 shy of the tax threshold. And the Phillies have $67.5 million coming off the books with 10 free agents.
But given the looming staff reductions and other cutbacks, it’s doubtful that all of that money will be reinvested. The payroll will likely be scaled down, but by how much?
The Phillies have $94.9 million committed to six players (Bryce Harper, Wheeler, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, Nola, and Scott Kingery). Vince Velasquez, Eflin, Andrew Knapp and Rhys Hoskins will combine to make between $12 million and $18 million through salary arbitration. The Phillies could exercise Hector Neris' $7 million option or try to sign him for less in arbitration. The rest of the 40-man roster, including Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard, figures to make a total of about $10 million.
Add in a $6.1 million luxury-tax hit for demoted outfielder Odubel Herrera and roughly $15 million for player benefits, and the payroll is between $145 million and $151 million before any additions are made.
Based on that math, if the Phillies reduce the payroll by, say, 10%, they would have roughly $35 million to $41 million to spend.
So, will they re-sign Realmuto? Or Gregorius?
Word is that Realmuto is looking to smash Joe Mauer’s $23 million average annual salary from 2011 to 2018, a record for a catcher. A six-year, $147 million deal would work out to $24.5 million per year, which would slot Realmuto between Harper and Wheeler as the Phillies' second-highest paid player.
Maybe Realmuto, who rates with outfielder George Springer as the best free-agent position players, can get a better deal in this market. Maybe not. If the Phillies choose, though, they should be able to make a competitive bid.
But the more money that they offer Realmuto, the less they will have to address their other myriad needs.
After making the most of a one-year, $14 million deal, Gregorius figures to draw interest, too, including perhaps from the New York Yankees. He will be looking for a multiyear contract, but doesn’t figure to cost as much per year as Realmuto.
An argument can be made, then, that the wisest course of action would be to spread out the funds among a larger group of free agents, including Gregorius, reliever Alex Colome, catcher James McCann, right-hander Kevin Gausman, lefty Mike Minor.
If, as many within the industry expect, middle-class free agents will feel the pinch of the pandemic more than top-of-the-market players, it might be a strategy worth exploring.