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The Phillies are flunking baseball’s economic game, and free-agent stars can’t save them | David Murphy

No NL team has spent more in free agency over the past three offseasons, and few have less to show for it. The Phillies must find value, or things could get ugly.

Didi Gregorius' modest production in 2021 came at a steep price for the Phillies.
Didi Gregorius' modest production in 2021 came at a steep price for the Phillies.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The scary thing about where the Phillies are at is that their bills have only just begun to come due. Over the past three offseasons, their payroll has nearly doubled, with each offseason seeing an expansion of 10-plus%. Meanwhile, their win total has flatlined, from 80 in 2018 to 82 in 2021. Now, with a projected $145 million in salary committed to just eight players in 2022, the Phillies will be hard-pressed to continue riding the Middleton Money Train just to stand still.

The bottom line reveals a stark truth — free agency is not going to save the Phillies. At least, not if they continue to approach the market the way they have the past four offseasons.

» READ MORE: Phillies’ offseason shopping strategy: Think Costco, not Gucci

With roughly $75 million in breathing room beneath the luxury tax, they need a left fielder, a center fielder, a third baseman, and a shortstop. A playoff-caliber lineup would require two of those positions to be staffed by premium bats: a high on-base percentage leadoff hitter, and a middle-of-the-order power hitter. Even a conservative estimate would require a combined price tag of north of $45 million, leaving the Phillies with $30 million and 15 roster spots to fill. And we have yet to even mention the pitching staff.

Last week, Phillies president Dave Dombrowski was pointing out the obvious when he noted that the organization’s only hope for sustained success was to fix its horrific track record in the minor leagues. But the Phillies’ problems go well beyond the farm system. For close to a decade now, they have been flunking baseball economics to a startling degree. Much of that has to do with their inability to draft and develop low-cost talent.

But the totality of their track record reveals deeper concerns.

Five years ago, a fella named Max Muncy was sitting on a couch contemplating his future when Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi texted him and asked if he wanted a job. The 27-year-old Muncy had just been released by the Athletics, where Zaidi had risen to prominence working under Billy Beane. Muncy accepted a minimum contract, reported to triple A, and began one of the more amazing reclamation stories in recent MLB history.

Over the past four seasons, Muncy has given the Dodgers 14 wins above replacement for a total price tag of about $12.5 million. That’s half of the amount the Phillies are paying Bryce Harper for a single season. While Harper has given the Phillies 12.2 WAR in the three years since he signed, it has come at a cost of about $76 million in payroll space.

On the surface, Muncy looks like little more than a lesson in the maddening amount of blind luck that is baked into building a baseball team. Even after the Dodgers signed him off the couch, even after he resumed raking in triple A, his call-up came as much because of happenstance as it did the shrewd insights of his employer.

Yet you can’t help but notice that these sorts of good hops happen to the Dodgers more than the teams that have spent most of the last few years chasing them in the standings. And the more you look at this year’s postseason field, the more you notice that the presence of players like Muncy offer one of the few common threads that tie together the NL’s five playoff rosters.

Take the Giants, for instance. Late last offseason, San Francisco made a pair of signings that barely registered on the hot stove radar, inking former Phillie Darin Ruf to a minor league deal and onetime Mets up-and-comer Wilmer Flores to a two-year, $6.25 million deal.

This offseason, they added 27-year-old outfielder LaMonte Wade and his 113 career plate appearances in a trade with the Twins that cost them a 26-year-old reliever coming off a season in which he walked 12 batters in 15⅓ innings. In 2021, the trio of Flores, Ruf, and Wade combined for 52 home runs in 1,129 plate appearances, all at the combined cost of about $5 million in payroll space.

Didi Gregorius proved to be a shrewd signing for the Phillies ahead of the 2020 season, but his .284/.339/.488 slash line and 1.2 WAR still came at the cost of $14 million each for 2021 and 2022. Compare that to Flores, who hit .268/.315/.515 with 1.6 WAR in 2020 while earning $3 million. Granted, Gregorius plays shortstop, while Flores splits his time at second, third and first base. But the point stands even if you compare Flores to Jean Segura.

  1. Segura 2020-21: .283/.348/.432, 21 HRs, 4.9 WAR, $29.7 million

  2. Flores 2020-21: .263/.328/.470, 30 HRs, 2.8 WAR, $6 million

Segura’s defense puts him well above Flores, but at a cost of an additional $23.7 million in payroll space over two seasons.

» READ MORE: Protecting Bryce Harper: Power hitter options for the Phillies this offseason

In St. Louis, the Cardinals’ makeshift pitching staff included 32-year-old Kwang Hyun-Kim, who posted a 3.46 ERA in 106⅔ innings in the second year of a two-year, $8 million contract that he signed out of the Korean Baseball League. Meanwhile, their lineup featured 34 home runs and a .912 OPS from 26-year-old Tyler O’Neil, who entered the year with 450 career plate appearances and a .713 career OPS in the three seasons since St. Louis acquired him in a trade-deadline deal for pitcher Marco Gonazales.

The Brewers’ bullpen has gotten huge boosts from veteran relievers Brad Boxberger and Hunter Strickland, both of whom began the season on minor league contracts and finished with ERAs under 3.35 in a combined 109⅔ innings.

But it’s the Dodgers who offer the clearest example of the organization the Phillies need to aspire to become under Dombrowski. In addition to developing homegrown talent like Corey Seager, Will Smith, Cody Bellinger, Julio Urias, and Walker Buehler, the Dodgers have been ahead of the curve on players like Muncy, Justin Turner, and Chris Taylor, all of whom were below-league-average hitters and in the later half of their 20s before blossoming into SoCal stars.

Dombrowski was on the right track last week when he told reporters the Phillies would not spend money just for spending’s sake.

» READ MORE: Young players who must meet Bryce Harper’s challenge with the Phillies in 2022

“Are you really better off getting one big-ticket item or working with a bunch of other things that puts you together to make you better in different spots?,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t have that answer today because we need to work on those things. But, to me, just going out and getting big-ticket items isn’t always the answer in this regard because we have some big-ticket items.”

The reality, though, is that the Phillies need big-ticket items — they just need them at small-ticket prices. It’s a quest they’ve failed to fulfill almost as thoroughly as the development game. Former general manager Matt Klentak had some near misses with Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, both of whom are now members of the Braves’ rotation. But until the Phillies start finding players who outperform their contracts at Citizens Bank Park, they are going to struggle even to maintain this season’s .500 pace.