In this era of tanking and belt-tightening, a team like the Philadelphia Phillies stands out this offseason for two qualities: They are actually trying to win in 2019 and are actually willing to spend to compete.
This combination, once commonplace but now increasingly rare as teams grow wary of albatross contracts and the competitive balance tax, positions the Phillies as a centrifugal force at the winter meetings. The conventional wisdom of the agents and executives huddled in suites and cluttering the casino floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino is that Philadelphia will probably net one of the two prizes on the free-agent market, outfielder Bryce Harper and infielder Manny Machado.
The pursuit of Harper and Machado forms the overarching storyline of these meetings as each player aims to exceed the $325-million deal of Giancarlo Stanton for the richest contract in baseball history. Kept out of the playoffs for seven years in a row, itching to restock Citizens Bank Park with fans, the Phillies loom as a team willing to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We’re going into this expecting to spend money,” Phillies owner John Middleton told USA Today last month. “And maybe even be a little stupid about it.”
Rationality ruled the day last offseason when Eric Hosmer led all free agents with a $144-million deal. Harper and Machado could each get twice as much, if not more.
The market for each player remains hazy: New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman indicated Monday he has stayed engaged with Machado’s agent Dan Lozano, but downplayed any discussions with Harper. The Dodgers do not appear interested in a reunion with Machado, but may be willing to get creative to lure Harper to Los Angeles. The Chicago White Sox want to spend, but reside far from contention.
The rest of the prominent clubs appear to reside on the sidelines. The Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros lack the need for either player. The St. Louis Cardinals lack interest in Harper’s price tag. The San Francisco Giants are beginning a lengthy rebuild. The Chicago Cubs are wary of over-extending themselves, especially after watching Jason Heyward underperform in the first three years of an eight-year, $184-million deal.
That leaves the Phillies, who were once the kings of the sport. Philadelphia won the World Series in 2008, played in it in 2009 and captured five consecutive National League East titles. After cratering at the beginning of the decade, the team began assembling young talent with the hopes of creating another title contender.
“They’ve been gearing up towards this winter for a long time,” one NL executive said.
Harper and Machado fit Philadelphia’s roster. By trading first baseman Carlos Santana to Seattle last week, the team cleared a space to return Rhys Hoskins to the infield and created an opening in the outfield. The deal with the Mariners also netted shortstop Jean Segura, who could form an infield tandem with Machado.
Philadelphia took a tentative step toward contention in 2018. The team benefited from Jake Arrieta’s collapsing market to sign him to a three-year, $75-million contract. The Phillies stood in first place in the division as late as Aug. 12, but collapsed in September to finish with 80 victories.
As manager Gabe Kapler prepares for his second season at the helm, he acknowledged Monday he could do better to publicly hold Phillies players accountable. He spoke as the leader of a team no longer interested in rebuilding.
“I think one thing that I can do immediately that I think will really resonate well with our fans in Philadelphia is, as much as I illuminate some of the things we're doing very well, I can be a little more assertive in illuminating the things that we need to work on,” Kapler said. “And I'm committed to taking that step.”
He added: “I think it's an easy adjustment for me to make and it doesn't have to be anything dramatic or forced. I think it's just a small adjustment. It's the turning up of the volume of raising the bar, holding the club and the organization to a high standard.”
The addition of Harper or Machado would add financial heft to the rhetoric. Kapler was complimentary when asked about the players. He praised Harper for his ability to stay productive during slumps, and mentioned the height of his ceiling.
“Now, when he's going good, he's one of the more difficult players to get out in the game,” Kapler said. “And I love the way he plays. I think there's so much to like about what Bryce Harper brings to the table.”
Kapler declined to speculate on how Machado’s occasional, effort-based lapses might play in a market like Philadelphia.