The Philadelphia Phillies are at it again.
After signing Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract in the biggest free-agent deal made last winter, the Phillies started December with another splashy move after agreeing to a five-year, $118 million deal with free-agent right-hander Zack Wheeler.
The 29-year-old right-hander will join an impressive starting rotation that already includes Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta. After spending nearly three full seasons battling injuries and inconsistency, Wheeler has bounced back with two encouraging seasons, posting a collective 3.65 ERA over his last 60 starts with the New York Mets.
The feeling is Wheeler could be on the cusp of putting it all together. If that proves true, the Phillies’ top three pitchers could be among the best trios in MLB.
But even with a best-case scenario regarding Wheeler, there remains one question: Do the Phillies have enough to compete in the National League?
Lessons from 2019
As Philadelphia learned during the 2019 season, making headline-grabbing moves can help set a more solid foundation. However, they do not guarantee success.
Many believed the big-money additions of Harper, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson, along with the trade for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, would catapult Philadelphia to the top of the National League East. Instead, they finished 81-81, good for fourth place behind even the New York Mets. It was the eighth straight season Philadelphia missed the playoffs.
Adding Wheeler does seemingly accomplish two important things. First and foremost, they have added what they figure will be a major contributor to their own roster. Beyond that, they have taken a key contributor away from a division rival — the New York Mets. We say seemingly accomplishes, because we all saw how the Washington Nationals responded to losing Harper — by winning the franchise’s first World Series championship.
It’s a reminder that a team’s work is never really done. The Nationals didn’t wilt after losing Harper or starting the season 19-31. They stayed aggressive, adding Patrick Corbin in free agency and other key championship pieces before the trade deadline.
The Phillies made moves, too, but none that screamed or even suggested “we’re going for it.” In fact, none of their deals seemed to move the needle at all.
That won’t cut it in 2020.
Keep on spending
The solution seems clear.
If the Phillies are going to keep up with the Atlanta Braves in their own division, not to mention the Los Angeles Dodgers out west, they’ll have to keep spending money. Once the decision has been made to spend big money on free agents, you have to keep spending to make all the money spent pay off.
It could end up leading to several bad contracts three or four years down the road, but once you’ve handed out a handful of them you already know that is inevitable. They all sting, but they sting a lot less if you can tie a championship to them.
In other words, it’s not an approach you can go half-way with. You’re either all in, or you’re better off taking a different approach. The Phillies are too far in to not go all the way with it.
Who could be next?
There are several free agents that would make sense for the Phillies.
Atop that list is shortstop Didi Gregorius.
Gregorius has a relationship with new Phillies manager Joe Girardi from their days with the New York Yankees. That could give them some added appeal. Adding Gregorius would force Jean Segura to change positions, but would give the lineup some more pop.
Another possibility is Josh Donaldson. The Phillies would again be taking from a division rival — in this case the Atlanta Braves — while adding a fantastic two-way player with an MVP pedigree.
There are other impact pitchers available as well, ranging from Hyun-Jin Ryu to Dallas Keuchel.
The options are a plenty. It’s up to the Phillies now to decide how much they’re truly willing to spend to put their roster over the top, or if they’ll be content hoping they’ve done enough.
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