The Phillies may have “stupid money” to spend on this free agent market, as owner John Middleton put it, but it won’t be so stupid as to close the door on potentially signing Mike Trout after the 2020 season.
Philadelphia began this offseason keeping Trout in mind. According to a baseball source with direct knowledge of their shopping plans, the Phillies have enough spending money to sign both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, but would like to sign just one of them to leave room in the budget in case Trout reaches free agency in two years. In one dream scenario, the Phillies would field an all-MVP outfield in 2021: Trout, Harper and Andrew McCutchen.
Trout grew up and still lives in Millville, N.J., about 45 miles from Philadelphia. He has two years remaining on the extension he signed with the Angels, a contract that values what would have been free agents years for Trout at $34 million a year. Machado and Harper could sign contracts with an average annual value near that number. Trout, the best player in baseball, would command an even higher number as a potential free agent at age 29.
This is shaping up as an enormous season for the Angels in hopes of keeping Trout away from free agency. Though Trout has two years before free agency, teams traditionally push for an extension a year ahead a player’s “walk” year. So Los Angeles is under pressure to finally build a playoff team to better convince Trout to stay.
Since Trout debuted in 2011, the Angels are one of only five teams never to have won a playoff game. The others are the Marlins, Twins, White Sox and Mariners. The Angels have fielded three straight losing teams. To try and combat that streak, GM Billy Eppler made major changes to their field staff—replacing manager Mike Scioscia with Brad Ausmus—but mostly minor changes to their roster, adding Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill, Justin Bour and Tommy LaStella.
Philadelphia has enough payroll room and projected revenues to sign either Machado or Harper this year and Trout after the 2020 season. They carried a payroll of about $119 million last year, a figure that now sits around $130 million. The Phillies carried a franchise record payroll of $183 million as recently as 2014, which equates to $194 million in today’s dollars. That’s slightly below the first Competitive Balance Tax threshold of $206 million, a “theoretical” limit for several larger market clubs.
Philadelphia seems to carry a slight preference for Machado over Harper, if only because club officials met much earlier with Machado than they did with Harper. Either player would invigorate what for years has been a sleeping giant among major league franchises.
In 2011, Philadelphia’s last winning season, the Phillies led all major league teams in local television ratings. It was the ninth straight year they increased their viewership. Last year the Phillies ranked 14th. The Phillies also led the National League in attendance every year from 2010–12, with at least 3.5 million paid customers each year. They have ranked among the bottom four in attendance in each of the past four years, including 2.1 million last year, which helps explain their yearning for at least two elite players.