The common wisdom in baseball over the last five years has been simple: If you’re not a contender, you’re a rebuilder. As teams wizened to the fact that there was nothing more deleterious, long-term, than being an 81-win team that didn’t make the playoffs, the league settled into two camps: the franchises that, thanks to money or a blessed farm system or both, were World Series hopefuls; and those that, lacking stars or the stomach to spend on them, tore everything down to begin anew.
That the Astros and Cubs burned everything down only to see title-winning super-squads arise from the ashes has only emboldened everyone else with regards to tanking—in most cases shamelessly. Several teams this offseason openly stopped trying with regards to fielding competitive rosters; nearly a third of the league is clustered in the basement fighting for draft picks while bottoming out payroll-wise.
For the last few seasons, you could count the Phillies in that group, as the Ruben Amaro teams that won a World Series in 2008 amid five straight division titles went to rot in their final years. The front office under Matt Klentak, who replaced Amaro after the 2015 season, had eschewed free agency and traded away any veteran with value, with the goal of amassing prospects and securing high draft picks (including the No. 1 selection last summer). The process hasn’t been fun to watch—the Phillies have finished fourth and last in the NL East the last two seasons respectively—but it has built a roster of young, talented players. The question, though, was when the Phillies would begin to climb back out of the hole they dug for themselves.
On Sunday afternoon, Philadelphia took its biggest step yet. According to multiple reports, the team has come to terms with former Cubs ace Jake Arrieta on a three-year deal worth $75 million. The righthander joins a team that already this winter added ex-Indians slugger Carlos Santana and veteran relievers Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek, suggesting that the Phillies believe that, with a little luck, their window of contention may have arrived—thanks in large part to the brutal offseason that tanking teams like them helped create.
The irony of the situation is that the Phillies wouldn’t have been able to afford Arrieta—at least, not at the terms they got him on—had it not been for the plethora of teams that rejected the idea of getting better this winter. In the National League alone, the Braves, Marlins, Reds, Pirates, and Padres have all declared, in no uncertain terms, that 2018 is not their year; with the exception of San Diego handing Eric Hosmer a $144 million deal that’s as much about the future as the present, not one made a significant move in free agency this offseason. Add in the rebuilding AL teams that have kept their checkbooks closed—the Rays, Orioles, Royals, White Sox, and Athletics—and you have one-third of the league not getting in on any major free agents.
The result has been the coldest hot stove since the days of collusion, and a tepid reception to Arrieta, who hit free agency for the first time in his career at the worst possible moment. Thanks to the spate of tanking and the presence of the luxury tax, which big-spending contenders are treating as a de facto salary cap, players have been frozen out of lucrative long-term contracts and forced to take less money on fewer years. The biggest and best names available—Hosmer, J.D. Martinez and Yu Darvish, to name a few—ended up with smaller deals than would have been predicted this time last year. Those free agents who were a step below that group—including Arrieta, Mike Moustakas and Lance Lynn—have found things even worse.
To some degree, Arrieta was going to be a tough sell no matter the market. That would’ve been hard to imagine after his 2015 season, when he posted a 1.77 ERA in 229 innings and won the NL Cy Young. But there’s been a distinct downward pattern to his numbers since that magical year. His ERA has gone up (1.77 to 3.10 in 2016 to 3.53 last year). His innings have gone down (229 to 197 1/3 to 168 1/3) as he’s struggled with injuries. His strikeout rate has slid slightly (9.3 to 8.7 each of the last two seasons), his walk rate has gone up a tick (1.9 to 3.5 to 2.9), and his home run rate has tripled since ’15 (0.4 then, 1.2 last year). Most worrisome of all, his velocity has plummeted, going from 94.6 mph in 2015 to just 92.1 last season. And at 32 years old, there isn’t much reason to expect that things are suddenly going to revert back to 2015 status.
In years past, there would’ve been at least one team willing to look past those red flags and give Arrieta a five- or six-year contract, hoping that his present performance would make up for the tough road ahead. But with few teams willing to shell out any kind of money, Arrieta lingered on the market for months, only finally finding a home with roughly two weeks to go before Opening Day. Worse for him, he had to settle for a three-year deal. The average annual value of $25 million is a fair get for him, but a mere three-season guarantee certainly can’t be what he and agent Scott Boras imagined when they were planning out their winter.
But those market forces that suppressed Arrieta’s value made him the right fit for the Phillies, who got a similarly team-friendly deal with Santana (three years, $60 million). And while Arrieta’s future may not be the rosiest, that’s of less concern to Philadelphia, which only has to worry about the next three years of his career and can afford to absorb any struggles thanks to its miniscule payroll. Pre-Arrieta, the Phillies were on the hook for just $53 million in guaranteed salary in 2018; that number dips to $42 million in ’19, $28 million in ’20, and just $11 million in ’21, all of that owed to centerfielder Odubel Herrera. The franchise has no serious long-term commitments on the books, and even as players like Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola, and J.P. Crawford get further along in their careers, their resultant salary increases will be miniscule—no more than rounding errors in the grand scheme of things.
Besides, Arrieta fills a need now. The Phillies’ rotation before Arrieta and aside from Nola wasn’t much to write home about, full more of promise and potential than actual results. Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez are live arms that can’t stay healthy and struggled miserably last season. Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson and Ben Lively are more rotation depth than dependable starters. Philadelphia does have some intriguing pitching prospects in the minors in Sixto Sanchez, Adonis Medina and Franklyn Kilome, but all three of those players are at least a year away.
Even if Arrieta can’t recapture his Cy Young form, he can still eat innings and take stress off the bullpen. There is upside, too, if Arrieta can get his mechanics right and pick up some velocity in the process. That’s what the Phillies are banking on. With him and Santana added to a core of Herrera, Hoskins, Nola, Crawford, Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams, there’s a chance that Philadelphia could, if everything breaks right and with a little luck, actually challenge for a wild-card spot.
That scenario is made possible thanks to MLB’s utterly broken financials. If every team were willing to spend, Arrieta likely goes elsewhere, or at least doesn’t have to settle for a three-year deal. And if enough teams were trying, then the bar would likely be too high for the Phillies to fight for the wild card as currently constructed. The boon is two-fold: Not only did the rebuilding teams and luxury tax help make Arrieta and Santana more affordable, but they also cleared the path of potential contenders. In the past, 80–85 wins likely wouldn’t have been enough to get into the playoffs; now, it’s possible that Philadelphia could squeak into the postseason without having to break the 90-win threshold.
That’s still unlikely, given that the Phillies probably still trail the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cardinals, Brewers and Mets in the standings. But as we saw with Milwaukee last year, things can change in a hurry if you have enough young talent. That’s where Arrieta makes the biggest difference. To a rebuilding team, the extra wins he provides mean nothing but a worse draft pick; to the Phillies, 30 starts from him instead of Pivetta or Lively could boost them from a .500 finish to the second wild card. And even if he doesn’t, he sets them up better for 2019 and beyond—especially if the team can add Bryce Harper or Manny Machado next winter. That’s worth the money, even if he doesn’t produce ace-caliber results.
Lots of things will have to bounce the Phillies’ way for the 2018 playoffs to become a reality, but given what they already have, it’s worth taking the shot. That, after all, is supposed to be the point of tanking (though the reality is that the goal all along was to save billionaire owners money under the disingenuous guise of contending at some distant point in the future, as we’ve seen over and over this winter). The Phillies helped build this environment, and now they reap its reward.