It's easy to say that the Phillies need to do something. Because they do. Their manager knows it. His boss knows it. And, most significantly, the boss' boss knows it.
The conundrum that they always seemed destined to confront is one that came into clear view on Tuesday morning — literally — when an enterprising Phillies fan in the vicinity of Citizens Bank Park noticed that the scoreboard was illuminated with a picture of Patrick Corbin in red pinstripes. This was a notable observation because Corbin, one of the top starters in the majors last season, is not now nor ever has been employed by the Phillies. He is, however, the top starting pitcher available on the free-agent market, a 29-year-old lefty who finished last season with a 3.15 ERA and phenomenal strikeout and walk numbers. In 200 innings for the Diamondbacks, Corbin averaged 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, a mark that trailed only Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Trevor Bauer, and Jacob deGrom. In short, he is exactly the sort of arm that the Phillies desperately need to pair with Aaron Nola at the top of the rotation. And, for that reason, the news that Corbin was in town for a recruiting visit was significant.
The conundrum lies in the fact that a lot of other teams are aware of the fact that Corbin is a free agent, in particular the Yankees, who have made little secret of their desire to bolster their rotation this offseason. Further thickening the plot is the fact that Corbin grew up a Yankees fan in upstate New York and, just this season, openly discussed the possibility of signing with the team.
"It would definitely be great to play there," Corbin told USA Today in April. "I grew up a Yankee fan. My whole family are Yankee fans. My mom, my dad, my grandpa, everybody. Really, every generation of my family has been Yankee fans. Living up in Syracuse, everybody's a Yankee fan. Not too many Mets fans up there."
In baseball's labor market, talk like this ends up being little more than talk, at least in most instances. Players sign for the highest dollar amount, almost without exception. In this case, though, we aren't talking about a small-market team that would require a player to sacrifice a couple of years or an extra zero. The Yankees were already pretty much assured to be setting the market for Corbin. Thus, any legitimate non-monetary fondness for the team on his part could have significant implications for the Phillies.
Given that both of these teams are unencumbered by cash flow, it is reasonable to assume that the determining factor of the length and value of their best offer to a top-of-the-market player like Corbin will be each club's determination of the maximum amount of payroll space that a team can reasonably allocate to a single player at a given position. In other words, if the in-house actuaries at both the Yankees and the Phillies assign a similar level of risk and expected value to any Corbin deal, there's a decent chance that they will end up with similar offers. In which case, it would be foolish to think that simple midweek charm offensive and splashy scoreboard graphic would end up being all that it takes to convince Corbin to spurn the more talented and sentimental competitor for his services.
In other words, it is reasonable to assume that the Phillies will end up having to beat the Yankees' best offer by a significant margin in order to convince him to sign. Naturally, the Yankees' best offer will be their best offer because they project that any greater offer would diminish their chances at contending rather than enhancing them. After all, market prices are market prices for a reason.
The economics of the thing say that the Phillies can afford to waste more money than the Yankees, who have done a solid job of cleaning up their luxury-tax situation in recent offseasons but who remain well ahead of the Phillies in future payroll commitments. Thus, any deal that the Phillies offer that the Yankees consider cost-prohibitive is not self-evidentially a bad deal.
All that being said, every allocation of payroll dollars comes with an opportunity cost, and every dollar the Phillies end up having to spend on one player is one dollar less that they will have available to them to spend on another. No, it's not our money, but these aren't real dollars we are talking about as much as they are percentages of space beneath the luxury-tax threshold.
There's a good chance that what we have here is a good old-fashioned game of billionaire chicken. There's no question that the addition of Corbin would mark a significant enhancement of the Phillies' chances at contending for a playoff berth next season. One can even argue that it is a necessary enhancement.