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December 13, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Phillies have 'no other choice' but to 'outspend mistakes'

When the Phillies plane went "Wheels Up" from San Diego — the home of Saint Dorothy Mantooth — back to Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon, there was undoubtedly a feeling among the club’s brass that they had made some strides in the National League East.

They placed a heavy bet that Zack Wheeler turns into the next great pitcher in the National League. They filled an infield hole with Didi Gregorius to play shortstop while shuffling Scott Kingery and Jean Segura around. Perhaps most importantly, they saw the Nationals overpay Stephen Strasburg while letting Anthony Rendon leave the division for Disneyland.

Overall, it’s not bad work. The Phillies are a better team on paper than the 81-81 mess that Gabe Kapler oversaw last year. And in a lot of senses, the Phils are banking that the additions of Joe Girardi and Bryan Price are major improvements over a coaching staff that under Kapler, Chris Young and John Mallee felt pretty overmatched.

Still, there’s one undeniable fact: the Phillies are still not good enough to contend for anything. Maybe they are an 84 to 86 win team right now. They could sneak into the second wild card discussion in the National League. They aren’t close to the elite teams – Washington and Atlanta — in their division. They may have passed the Mets, but even that’s not a sure thing because of the club’s lack of starting pitching depth beyond Aaron Nola and Wheeler. Their lineup is top-heavy, with Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto standing out and some serious question and dead at-bats in spots 6 through 8 in the lineup.

So that’s what makes it more remarkable that after the signing of Gregorius, Matt Klentak and company are pretty much finished. Oh sure, there’s the pipe dream scenario where the Phillies get in play for Kris Bryant when the Cubs put the third baseman on the market after his service time grievance is decided. Reality tells you that Philadelphia’s farm system doesn’t have the arsenal of prospects that could make a trade appealing for Chicago.

In the end, however, it comes down to the money and John Middleton. And this is where the whole Philadelphia off-season is perplexing.

It has become pretty clear that Middleton isn’t going over the luxury tax threshold of $208 million at the start of the season. The Phillies are knocking on the door at $203 million according to Baseball Prospectus’ Cots Baseball Contract tracker and still have to add a few relievers into the mix. And suddenly, stupid money has become shy money.

(At this time, we should remind you that math stinks.)

In actuality, however, the tax doesn’t get really punitive until you get to the $228 million threshold. Up until that point, it is 20 percent for every dollar a team goes over the figure. So if the Phillies went to $219 million in payroll as a first time tax offender, the tax would roughly be $2.2 million. Even if they went to $227 million, the tax is “only” $3.8 million. In real life money, that’s a lot. For a team that has the resources at its disposal the way that Philadelphia does, it actually isn’t all that much.

The kicker is a 12 percent surtax that goes when you go between $20 and $40 million over the tax. If you go over the tax by 40 million, it goes to 42.5 percent – effectively acting as a salary cap with nobody in their right mind doing it.

In other words, there is a limit of sanity of what the Phillies should spend. That limit should be $228 million.

So backing away now — by either Middleton creed or Klentak’s desire to give himself wiggle room for a potential mid-season maneuverability — just doesn’t seem to make a heck of a lot of sense when the underlying fact is this: this team is not good enough.

If money is keeping Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta in the starting rotation, then you might as well take that $203 million and flush it down the toilet. It has been tried and it has failed. So trying to repeat the insanity is lighting a match to those bills.

You may balk at Michael Wacha and Rick Porcillo getting money from the Mets and it may completely backfire. It would still be a better move than what the options for the Phillies are right now. And if Philadelphia backed away from them or Cole Hamels strictly because of the luxury tax concerns, then John Middleton’s desire to win has been overstated.

Looking back, it is fair to question how the franchise could be this close to the luxury tax and this far away from an actual honest-to-goodness contention. Look at the teams at the top of the payroll rankings and you see the Dodgers, Yankees, Astros, Red Sox and Cubs — teams that have all sipped October success in the later half of the decade. Nothing in the Phillies DNA makes you think they are in the same ballpark as any of them.

This isn’t about the Harper contract — you can understand that — or the big money deal that Realmuto will get this off-season. No, this is the Jake Arrieta deal — one that felt forced upon by Middleton — that turned into a disaster. The dead money of Dave Robertson is a crusher. The idea that Odubel Herrera is scheduled to get checks for $35 million for the next three years is maddening. That’s how you end up with over $200 million in payroll and a third place team to show for it.

How this happened is a simple failure of development. The farm system that has been given a ton of resources has failed to produce any of it. And now, there’s no other choice to have any hope than outspend the mistakes — something they are suddenly hesitant to do.

The Phillies did get a little better. But they are still not good enough. And while you can’t say they are “going cheap”, it is fair to wonder if their financial planning has any kind of plan at all.