Phillies owner John Middleton finally lives up to word to spend 'stupid money'

MARCUS HAYES
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Philadelphia Phillies managing partner John Middleton.

Before we bend knee at the shrine of John Middleton, let's reflect on why we're here.

Middleton and his co-owners exceeded the luxury tax by about $10 million to compile the most fearsome Philadelphia Phillies lineup since they won the World Series. They added Kyle Schwarber, then Nick Castellanos, to push a team whose results have been consistently mediocre into the realm of wild-card relevance. Huzzah.

The only question: What took them so long?

In 2018, with generational young free agents about to hit the market, Middleton told USA Today that he'd panned to "get a little stupid" with the amount of money he was willing to spend to end the Phillies' playoff drought. It took him three years to figure out what "stupid" really meant, and, frankly, he's not there yet.

The core of the current Phillies, in order of significance, reads like this: two-time MVP Bryce Harper, ace Zack Wheeler, slugger Rhys Hoskins, No. 2 Aaron Nola, All-Star J.T. Realmuto, and .300-hitting baseman Jean Segura. It is a proven, solid core.

This core existed two years ago. Middleton & Co. could have overspent two years ago. They chose not to do so.

The scuttlebutt was, despite Middelton's vow to spend "stupid money" in pursuit of playoff viability, Phillies' ownership tightened both their purse strings and certain parts of their anatomies when the specter of the luxury tax loomed.

"There was no truth to any of that," Middleton told NBCSports Philadelphia and mlb.com Monday.

The real truth: Truth? Perhaps we can't handle the truth, because Middleton, in defending the failed slow-build strategy of the past few seasons, also told those reporters this:

"I will tell you that far more people come up to me and say, 'I like what you're doing, be patient, stay the course, build the organization,' than, 'Hey, John, why don't you go sign so-and-so?' It's literally 5 to 1, 6 to 1, 10 to 1."

We're asked to believe that:

1. 10 of 11 Phillies fans told Middleton they'd rather lose with Odubel Herrera than George Springer.

2. Middleton, who's worth more than $3 billion, regularly speaks to regular people like the Phandemic Krew.,

Better late than never.

Why now? Bryce & Fannies

Why exceed the tax now? Short, believable answer: Because Bryce Harper said so and because the fans don't buy tickets any more.

Longer, less credulous answer: Because Nick Castellanos — a 30-year-old butcher afield who's seen one All-Star game and who will play on his fourth team in four years — immediately makes them World Series contenders. Middleton told a ponderous tale about Phillies president Dave Dombrowski lobbying to exceed the tax last week, and how Middleton was on the same page before Dombrowski opened the book.

Cool story.

Harper's influence: Look, it's great that the Phillies signed Castellanos. It's the kind of move winning teams make.

And yes, this feels a little like complaining that your parents waited to give you a car for graduating from college instead of high school. Except they also made you commute from home. By bus.

There's just not a believable way that Harper's recent lobbying didn't influence these moves. Harper last Monday stumped for the signing of at least one of the Schwarber, Castellanos, Kris Bryant trio, then discussed the issue with Middleton in public the next day after practice. By the end of the week, Nicky and Schwabs were Phillies.

Don't blame Bryce. Not one bit.

Harper turns 30 in October, and he spent his last three birthdays watching other teams play while he celebrated another wasted season of his prime. He knows that the Phillies were pretty good the past two seasons, and he didn't want to waste another one because another American billionaire wants to avoid taxes.

What might have been: The Phillies declined to exceed the luxury tax before the 2020 season, which wound up being shorted to 60 games by the COVID-19 pandemic. More talent, taxed, would have changed everything.

They were in the mix to add both Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-jin Ryu to their rotation. Both came with caveats, and each would have pushed them past the luxury-tax threshold by about $10 million. Worth it?

Keuchel went 6-2 with a 1.99 ERA in 11 starts. Ryu went 5-2 with a 2.69 ERA in 12 starts.

The Phillies, then run by Matt Klentak and Andy McPhail, opted to roll with Vince Velasquez and Spencer Howard. Those studs combined to go 2-3 with a 5.70 ERA. Neither is a Phillie today.

You don't wade into the pool with Wheeler, or Realmuto, or even Harper, frankly, if you're not willing to dive in and give them real teammates.

They did the same thing last season, with Dombrowski at the helm. Three-time All-Star centerfielder George Springer, then 31, had averaged 31 home runs and was a postseason horse for the Astros, but the six-year, $150 million deal he got from Toronto would have put the Phillies well over the tax line. Leg injuries limited Springer to 22 homers in 78 games last season, but maybe double those numbers if he's healthy.

The Phillies used seven different players in center field, mostly Herrera, who managed 13 homers in 124 games. Then, they re-signed him for 2022, part of a platoon with Matt Vierling, who played eight games in center.

So, again, the same core existed two seasons in a row. Middleton did nothing.,

That's a different conversation. Middleton will tell you that defense costs money. So does a real bullpen. And a sixth starter.

But you can only go to that well so many times.

It's taxing.