If They Fail? Who Phillies Fans Can Blame.

Let me State this again- if the Phillies have the biggest offer on the table for Bryce Harper, as most people suspect, then I believe they will sign Bryce Harper. In other words, I still believe he’s coming to Philadelphia until he’s not. Could the Giants or Dodgers decide they’re going to come up and match or exceed the Phillies offer? Maybe. Short of that, I still think it’s a done deal. I actually think Harper has zero issue playing in Philly, I don’t think his family prefers going west, or any of the other stupid rumors out there. I think this is purely about cold, hard cash. Scott Boras would have it no other way. That’s why he’s the best at what he does.

So I guess that leads to a totally logical question- why hasn’t he signed the deal yet? Again, Scott Boras is his agent, so I don’t buy all the “desired destination” stories- never has Harper been quoted on that anyway. So by my thinking, there’s only one logical problem here- the Phillies offer isn’t good enough. Maybe it’s short of $300 million, or of the Stanton deal, or of $350 million. Maybe they won’t give him a no trade clause. Maybe they won’t give him a three or five year opt out. Obviously they’re not giving him something. So he’s flirting with smaller offers to drive up the price, or maybe out of intrigue for what $40 million a year feels like. No matter what the hang up is, it’s clear the Phillies offer isn’t meeting the asking price.

John Middleton, the very wealthy managing partner of the Phillies will be verbally crucified if the Phillies strike out here, and rightfully so. He said the club would spend “stupid money” to lure major free agents to town. He has the money. The team signed a giant TV deal that added tens of millions annually to the revenue. We know that even a passable product (think 2003-2006) sells lots of tickets to the stadium. The Phillies aren’t cash poor. They let Manny Machado take $300 million from the Padres, a franchise you can count the memorable players from on a few fingers. If they then let Harper go elsewhere because of a couple million per year, or an opt out, the fans will rightfully be angry. Middleton will bare the brunt of that blast as the boss- and the guy who got our hopes up.

I’m here to tell you though, there’s a bigger villain hiding in plain sight- General Manager Matt Klentak, and by extension the team President, Andy MacPhail, Klentak’s boss. It has been hiding in plain sight all along, the awful disconnect between fan sentiment of “SIGN BRYCE” and “front office valuations.” From day one, they’ve seemed more tempered on their wants on Harper, with leaks to the press saying they preferred Machado. Despite that want of Machado, they were unwilling to match or exceed San Diego’s $300 million, ten year offer. Then, speaking to the press after Machado signed, Klentak said there’s a point you walk away, based on your player valuations. I don’t have to remind you, none of that was what Phillies fans wanted to hear. Klentak was never on the “stupid money” script that his boss’s boss was on.

Here’s the truth- the Phillies baseball operations team does not believe in big, long free agent contracts. They had a great off-season, but they did a lot of that with trades for J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura. Their deals with Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson were both relatively affordable and short. This is a more “Moneyball” thinking front office than a Dodgers or Yankees type. Matt Klentak probably doesn’t believe Bryce Harper is worth ten years at a record average annual value. If he really liked Manny, and he wouldn’t beat the Padres offer, that just stands to reason out.

This does not quite match up with the owner’s stated direction or past record though. As Middleton’s fortune has grown, so has his role within the Phillies. That has coincided with unprecedented spending for a notoriously cheap and unsuccessful club for most of their history. Over the past two decades, the Phillies have spent big on Jim Thome, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cliff Lee, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Roy Halladay, Jonathan Papelbon, and Cole Hamels. They sold out the stadium for years, they signed a big TV deal, they made the playoffs five straight years. Philadelphia baseball behaved like the top five television market they actually are. At least a couple of their big expenditures actually did end up being “stupid money”- in the sense the players never even got close to living up to their contract value.

If the Phillies miss out on Bryce Harper, which I don’t believe they will, it will be because they were unwilling to quite offer him enough. John Middleton will rightly be the public face of that failure. The reality is though, the failure will be rooted in the baseball philosophy of his top two hired guys, team President Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak. Clearly, they will have prevailed upon their boss with their vision for the team. If that’s the case, they better damned be right. I won’t call for the immediate firing of everybody involved, or lament the fall of baseball in Philadelphia, but I’ll do both of those things if this team is not playing playoff baseball in October. If their approach doesn’t work, they cannot allow these guys to lead this team forward into a potential Mike Trout free agency in two years. It will be time to get out of their spreadsheets and valuations, and into putting a winning team on the field.

Again- all a big if, and one that I don’t expect to happen.

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