The Philadelphia Phillies emerged from a deep rebuild last season into quasi-contention. The way the season was sequenced -- 11 games over .500 at the break but a losing record at year's end -- made 2018 feel like a disappointment. In reality, though, it was a reasonable checkpoint toward contention.
That said, sustained contention in 2019 and beyond isn't likely unless the Phillies make major targeted additions this offseason. In 2018, they finished in third place in the NL East and fully 10 games behind the division-champion Braves. If look at runs scored and runs allowed, however, the Phillies' 2018 run differential of minus-51 means they played more like a 76-86 team rather than their actual record of 80-82. In related matters, the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) tabs the Phillies as presently constructed for a 2019 record of ... 76-86.
So Gabe Kapler's squadron can't just bank on a continued upward trajectory and positive development from their core of young talent. The Braves, after all, have better young talent, and the Nationals, even assuming Bryce Harper signs elsewhere, still forecast as a likely contender.
The good news is that the Phillies are widely expected to be big spenders this winter. They have plenty of resources, including a lucrative local-television contract, and they've been running low-ish payrolls since the end of the 2014 season. That's a lot of time to pile up cash. Right now, they have just $75 million or so in guaranteed payroll commitments, and even after accounting for arbitration raises they're going to be at around $115 million without further moves. Given the market size and coffers, that's a lot of room in the budget.
The Phillies' needs and resources mean they'll be main contenders to sign Harper or his fellow premium free agent, Manny Machado. Some have even speculation/wish-cast that generational free agents. As unlikely as that sounds and as much of an investment as that will be -- their contracts combined will likely be worth more than $600 million -- that's precisely what the Phillies should be angling to do.
That's because Harper and Machado directly address holes in the Philly roster, and, as young free agents, they fit what figures to be the club's competitive window (both, for instance, are younger than Odubel Herrera). Now consider the following ...
- Phillies' right fielders this past season ranked last in MLB in WAR, per Baseball-Reference.
- Phillies' outfielders this past season as a whole ranked last in MLB in WAR, per Baseball-Reference.
- Phillies' shortstops this past season ranked last in MLB in WAR, per Baseball-Reference.
- Phillies' third basemen this past season ranked 29th in MLB in WAR, per Baseball-Reference.
- The Phillies in 2018 ranked 11th in the NL in runs scored despite playing a in a home park that benefited the offense.
Harper's primary position of right field was a pronounced weakness for Philly, as was the outfield as a whole. Machado has stated he wishes to remain at shortstop going forward, and shortstop is indeed a trouble spot for the Phillies. In the event that Machado is willing to shift back to third base with his new employer, that's a Phillies need, too. Beyond all that, the offense needs the likes of Harper and Machado, who combined for 81 home runs and 166 unintentional walks last season.
If you install Harper as the right fielder, then Nick Williams can be an occasional platoon partner for Rhys Hoskins in left and, since he has a history of manning center on occasion, serve as a fourth outfielder. Alternatively, the former top-100 prospect who's still just 25 can be traded for something that bolsters the roster elsewhere. Machado at short pushes J.P. Crawford to third , possibly in a platoon with Maikel Franco or, in the interest of improved defense and giving the still-promising Crawford regular playing time, as the primary. That in turn makes Franco expendable or a useful bench bat.
Assuming good health for Harper and Machado and assuming they play to their respective levels, you could be talking about a total improvement of six to 10 wins for the Phillies at the WAR level. Given Machado's and Harper's relative youth and upsides, that's also a sustainable level for the mid- to long-term.
To be sure, conjuring up a roster that includes Machado and Harper is far easier said than done. The Phillies, though, have the revenues and budget room to sign both, provided the market unfolds as expected. Maybe the idea of sharing the free agent spotlight will turn off either of them, or perhaps the idea of a tandem signing that gives their new team legitimate designs on the World Series will be a source of appeal. Either way, it's speculative.
What's not speculative is that the Phillies need both of these superstars in order to continue the upward track that saw them add 14 wins to their total in 2018. If the greater goal is to be realized, then paying the cost for Machado and Harper gives Philly the best chance.