Gelb: Phillies will go big-market again soon - just not in 2017
OXON HILL, Md. - The Rule 5 draft ended last Thursday morning, someone played that song from The Karate Kid on speakers in a large ballroom, and baseball fled the annual winter meetings. Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox general manager who traded for the best available starting pitcher, joked with Brian Cashman, the Yankees general manager who signed the top free-agent reliever.
OXON HILL, Md. - The Rule 5 draft ended last Thursday morning, someone played that song from
The Karate Kid
on speakers in a large ballroom, and baseball fled the annual winter meetings. Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox general manager who traded for the best available starting pitcher, joked with Brian Cashman, the Yankees general manager who signed the top free-agent reliever.
The rich became richer at last week's meetings. The Phillies thought some more about 2019.
Winning and building at the same time is hard. The Phillies have disparate goals for 2017: They want to improve the product from a season ago, but they do not want to block opportunities for young players. And, with every short-term acquisition, the hidden message has to do with 2019.
The Phillies should be suitors for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado and more; everything is pointing to that as a priority in the 2018-19 offseason. Executives from other organizations who have completed cursory reviews of a complicated collective-bargaining document have concluded that big-market clubs stand to benefit most under the new rules.
Especially big-market clubs with zero financial commitments in 2019, a list that is limited to one team: the Phillies.
Amateur bonus pools are less tied to win-loss records; teams no longer surrender a first-round draft pick to sign a top free agent; and the "soft" cap created by increased luxury-tax penalties could prevent outlier spenders at the very top of the payroll scales. The tax threshold will not rise as high as some in the game anticipated. It will climb from $189 million in 2016 to $206 million in 2019. The Phillies have the financial wherewithal to reach those levels. The other big-market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cubs could be compelled to stay within the same constraints.
Maybe the Phillies sign their Aroldis Chapman in the 2018-19 offseason when Andrew Miller and Zach Britton are free agents. Maybe the Phillies find their Chris Sale in the next two winters, when Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Danny Duffy, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Matt Harvey, and Dallas Keuchel could be available to sign. Maybe they package a bunch of their tantalizing A-ball prospects, once they succeed at higher levels, in a blockbuster trade.
The Yankees are stuck in the middle for 2017, with a rotation that currently projects to include Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, Chad Green, or Bryan Mitchell. New York might have the best farm system in baseball. It will play some of the prospects in the majors while others develop in the minors.
Listen to Cashman, and the message is not all that different from Matt Klentak's.
"They have to perform, they have to stay healthy, they have to continue to get better," Cashman said Thursday to a group of reporters. "Their projections lead to an exciting possibility, but this game's difficult. There's no guarantees. That's why you collect as much as you can collect, and the game itself will separate the men from the boys and the best teams from the worst."
Consider the Cubs, a franchise that all rebuilding big-market franchises will now consider. Here is a list of the multiyear deals the Cubs signed in Epstein's first three off-seasons as the top baseball executive: David DeJesus (two years, $20 million), Carlos Villanueva (two years, $10 million), Edwin Jackson (four years, $52 million), Scott Hairston (two years, $5 million), Kyuji Fujikawa (two years, $9.2 million) and Ryan Sweeney (two years, $3.5 million).
Here is a list of the multiyear deals the Cubs signed in the previous two offseasons: Jason Hammel (two years, $20 million), Jon Lester (six years, $155 million), David Ross (two years, $5 million), Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million), John Lackey (two years, $32 million), and Ben Zobrist (four years, $56 million).
In his first three seasons with the Cubs, Epstein traded for Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, Addison Russell, Travis Wood, Pedro Strop, and Carl Edwards.
The Phillies are not the Cubs, but there are similarities in the plans. The Phillies' charge is to stockpile meaningful young talent in the minors.
"Their strategy," a high-ranking executive from an American League team said, "is prudent."
But being prudent is not often fun. The Phillies - barring a monster offer from another team for one of the Phillies' few young, big-league assets - have shifted to the winter's granular priorities. They have to build a bench. They may sign another reliever. They'll need a veteran catcher to go to triple A as insurance.
Last week, when asked about model franchises, Klentak offered a familiar refrain: The teams that are most willing to stick to their plans and maintain discipline will be rewarded. Klentak, speaking at the GM meetings last month in Arizona, was even more clear about the potential pitfalls of impatience.
"It's something that has proven to be a real challenge for a lot of organizations," Klentak said in November. "When you face your first bout of adversity, there is a temptation to run the other way. That's an area for the Phillies where we need to be very conscious of."
It was a message to the fans, sure. It could have been a message to his boss, Andy MacPhail, or his boss' boss, John Middleton. By all accounts, the Phillies' top three decision-makers have worked in harmony.
There has not yet been real adversity in the MacPhail era. What if the Phillies win fewer games in 2017 than in 2016? It is possible; the Phillies were lucky in one-run games last season. Is it a sign the rebuild has failed? No. The 2017 Phillies will be judged just as the 2016 version was, on the progression of the organization's young talent.
But pressure from sources, both internal and external, could rise. That would be the first legitimate test of Phillies patience.