PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — This time, there have been no headlines about stupid money. Instead, the Philadelphia Phillies have already spent smart money to upgrade their beleaguered starting rotation, waging a good bet on Zack Wheeler with a reported five-year, $118 million contract ahead of the Winter Meetings.
The Phillies may not be done, though.
With the Winter Meetings beginning Sunday night in San Diego, the Phils were reported to be quietly big-game hunting for the second straight winter.
According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the Phillies are planning to “strongly pursue” third baseman Anthony Rendon “luxury tax be damned.” Eight minutes later Friday, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman said the Phils have shown interest in right-handed starters Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg.
Nightengale also said the Phillies will chase third baseman Josh Donaldson as a “potential fall-back plan.”
It’s important to take reports from national baseball reporters with a grain of salt at this time of the year. A lot of it is agent posturing, pitting teams against each other to drive up the market for their clients. That very well could be, and probably is, what this is all about.
Rendon, Cole and Strasburg are all Scott Boras clients, and Boras is notorious for using the media to play the market. The Phillies know this all too well, having signed Jake Arrieta two years ago and Bryce Harper last offseason.
Still, the Phillies have now been linked to the big fish with one report suggesting Rendon is their “No. 1 target.”
All of this came two days after The Athletic’s Matt Gelb reported the Phils were “out on the top-tier free agents, barring some unforeseen scenario in which one lingers on the market into February,” that their main focus now is finding a fourth infielder with former Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius being of interest.
What should we make of this?
Welcome to baseball crazy season. It’s good to be back.
Harpermania lasted into late February. This winter, things are moving faster across the majors. The Phils have already splashed into the deep end with Wheeler.
It’s not unexpected to see the Phillies linked to Rendon, Cole and Strasburg. Phillies owner John Middleton has a burning desire to “get the trophy back or I’m gonna die trying,” and his best weapon to get this team remotely close to contention in the very near future is his checkbook.
Factor in the Middleton and Boras’ relationship, and it’s a foregone conclusion that the Phils will be mentioned as possible suitors as the stove heats up.
After signing Wheeler, the Phillies’ payroll is $192 million, according to FanGraphs, leaving them $16 million under the competitive-balance tax — or luxury tax.
Middleton has reservations about exceeding the luxury tax threshold.
In October, he told The Athletic’s Meghan Montemurro, “I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second Wild Card team. That’s not going to happen. You don’t do it for a little gain.”
Essentially, Middleton isn’t willing to exceed the luxury tax unless it objectively puts the Phillies in World Series contention.
Signing Rendon, Strasburg or Cole — along with Wheeler — might do that, or at the very least put them in the same breath as the Braves and Nationals in the NL East.
If the Phils were to add Strasburg or Cole, their rotation would feature Strasburg/Cole, Wheeler and Aaron Nola. One would think that’s easily a playoff rotation.
If they were to add Rendon, they would add arguably the best third baseman in baseball to a lineup that certainly can use another big bat in it. Adding Rendon to a lineup featuring Harper and catcher J.T. Realmuto is an awfully attractive thought. If Rhys Hoskins is closer to the player everyone thought he was before July came around, then that’s a lineup most teams would fear.
It’s easy to make a case for the Phillies to say “luxury tax be damned,” especially when it’s other people’s money.
But if Middleton truly wants to win — and will do anything within reasonable means to do so — then it would be naive for the Phils not to at least circle the waters.
After shelling out $330 million over 13 years for Harper, now isn’t the time to be conservative with the bank account. The core of the team is in its prime, and the Phils can’t afford to waste many more years.
The Phillies have a gluttony of roster holes. They need bullpen help, another infielder and/or a center fielder and likely another starting pitcher. Their farm system lacks impact prospects. This is far from an overnight fix.
That said, it’s hard to envision a scenario where adding either Strasburg or Cole to this rotation with Wheeler or Rendon to this lineup doesn’t put the Phillies in contention for the NL East.
Currently, the Phillies are still far behind the Nationals and Braves. Wheeler helps.
Adding Strasburg, Cole or Rendon would help even more. The Phillies should be able to compete for the division by signing one of them.
Yet, that might not be enough for Middleton to exceed the luxury tax.
Silly season is upon us. Grab your popcorn. It’s just starting to get weird.