For months, the presumption across baseball has been that the Phillies are poised to spend money — big, big money — this winter to acquire the generational superstar who will bridge the chasm between rebuilding and serious World Series contention.
Yet the man who controls the cash remained quiet.
John Middleton did not respond to multiple interview requests since before the All-Star break. He's reputed to be as obsessed with winning as late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner ever was. But other than team president Andy MacPhail's recent characterization — "He's been a little crabby to be around lately," MacPhail said last month — the Phillies' billionaire general partner hadn't been heard from on anything from the late-season collapse to the pursuits of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Middleton finally broke his un-Steinbrennerian silence Friday. Before leaving the Major League Baseball owners' meetings in Atlanta, he told USA Today that he does, in fact, intend to reach deep into his wallet over the next few months.
"We're going into this expecting to spend money — and maybe even be a little stupid about it," Middleton said. "We just prefer not to be completely stupid."
Want to bet that Scott Boras and Dan Lozano, the agents for Harper and Machado, respectively, are prepared to test Middleton's definition of stupidity?
Middleton's comments are meaningful at a time when the markets for Harper and Machado are still developing. Given that both players are seeking contracts of at least 10 years in length and with an average annual value that exceeds Zack Greinke's free-agent record of $34.4 million, it's unclear how many teams are really in the mix. Three of the usual big-market suspects — the Yankees, Chicago Cubs, and Los Angeles Dodgers — have indicated they don't intend to pursue Harper, leaving the Phillies as the apparent front-runner.
Boras often appeals directly to ownership in negotiations for big-name free agents, a strategy that makes sense considering owners hold the purse strings. He developed a better relationship with Middleton when the Phillies signed right-hander Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million contract. Last week, Boras praised Middleton for his commitment to building a winning team.
"He certainly illustrated his zeal and his competitiveness," Boras said. "He wants to get something done in Philadelphia under his ownership. This is a very driven goal of his, a very important part of what he wants to do in the future."
The Phillies haven't had a winning season since 2011 and are three years into a full-scale rebuild under MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak. Despite their epic meltdown in August and September, they still won 14 more games this year than in 2017. They have $69 million committed to only six players for next season, financial flexibility that was planned with this offseason in mind.
Because the Phillies have myriad needs in the infield, outfield, starting rotation, and bullpen, their offseason path can go in several directions. Regardless, though, the centerpiece of their plans would seem to be landing Harper or Machado, who, at 26, have reached free agency at an atypically young age and will therefore be seeking contracts that could exceed 10 years in length.
Middleton's motivation to accelerate the rebuild is well-known throughout the league. Officials from multiple rival teams have suggested, more seriously than not, that he's prepared to offer a blank check to either Harper or Machado and have him fill in the number. There has even been speculation that the Phillies could drop more than $700 million to sign both players.
A Harper-Machado daily double seems unlikely. Klentak has emphasized the importance of taking a long-range view of the payroll. If the Phillies get bogged down with too many unwieldy, long-term contracts, they won't have the maneuverability to address needs in future years, including potential contract extensions for Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins, a point that Middleton acknowledged in his comments to USA Today.
"Every free agent now is apparently my free agent," Middleton said. "As Andy likes to tell me, 'John, we are playing baseball after 2019, so you can't spend every last dime after this year.' You've got to have something in the tank for future years."
Clearly, though, Middleton has directed Klentak to shop for premium talent. Klentak joked last week that the Phillies are "not having any trouble getting meetings" with agents and other clubs. Middleton told USA Today that Klentak "is going to be a busy boy this winter."
"If you look back at the end of the season, we quite frankly collapsed," Middleton said. "But we've gotten better. It's always more fun building and making progress than the beginning of that rebuilding stage. There's a lot of talk in Philadelphia about the offseason now."
So much so that the fan base expects the Phillies to reel in a big fish. Failure to get either Harper or Machado will spark immense disappointment.
"It makes it fun, but there's a lot of pressure, too," Middleton told USA Today. "We're looking at it like, if things break the right way, we could be a really good team next year."
To make that happen, Middleton sounds ready to spare little expense.