Last season was a step in the right direction for the Phillies. The team remained in the playoff hunt all year, finished in the top half of the league in offensive output, and even finished with a winning record for the first time since 2011.
Wheeler, 31, led the National League in strikeouts and finished as the runner-up for the Cy Young award, establishing himself as one of the best staff aces in the league.
On the other side of the plate, Bryce Harper enjoyed a masterful season of his own. After a sluggish start to the year, Harper completely caught fire, posting a .338/.476/.713 split in the second half. At times the sole bright spot in an otherwise dull Phillies lineup, Harper did everything in his power to muster the Phillies to the postseason.
For Harper, it was exactly the type of season the Phillies envisioned when they inked him to the team’s first $300M+ contract. Although it wasn’t enough to inspire a playoff berth, Harper was awarded the NL MVP award for his efforts.
Again, the Phillies season was not perfect by any means, but there were takeaways to be optimistic about moving forward. Now, with the offseason in full swing, the Phillies look to add to their roster and build upon their first winning season in a decade.
The problem, though, is they don’t really have a clear path to do so.
Low on Funds
We have all heard the mantra that one has to pay to play and the MLB is no different. If the Phillies are to improve their roster, it will take some financial capital to do so.
Unfortunately for the Phillies, money doesn’t grow on trees and the team is dangerously low on funds to expend in free agency.
In 2021, the threshold for the Competitive Balance Tax (colloquially referred to as the luxury tax) was $210 million. Luxury tax figures, which are calculated at season’s end, listed that the Phillies ended 2021 at approximately $202.5 million.
With the contracts of Andrew McCutchen, Archie Bradley, Hector Neris, Chase Anderson, Vince Velasquez, Brad Miller and Odubel Herrera coming off the books, roughly $40M was cleared from the Phillies’ luxury tax.
This may seem like a lot of money to play with, but with $178M already committed to the 2022 roster, the Phillies realistically only have about $30M to spend this offseason.
At that rate, the team could consider acquiring a big bat like free agent INF/OF Kyle Schwarber and maybe another solid relief pitcher, but dreams of adding a superstar caliber player like Carlos Correa or Clayton Kershaw are all but dead.
Another thing that makes the Phillies lack of money to allocate in free agency so glaring is the abundance of pre-existing roster holes. As improved as they were last season, this is a Phillies team with a myriad of positions in need of an upgrade.
With Andrew McCutchen and his 27 home runs unlikely to return to Philly, the team will need to find a viable replacement in the outfield, which is a position the team has struggled mightily to scout over the years. They will also need to find a long-term solution in center field, a position that has plagued them in recent years.
Furthermore, the team could also use another plus starter in the rotation to pair with Wheeler and Aaron Nola, as well as another front-end reliever to aid a bullpen that surrendered the 11th-most earned runs in the league last season.
This sounds simple enough, but with just $30M (and really only ≈ $25M since they will likely want to stash a few million away for the trade deadline) and a multitude of positional needs, the Phillies front office face an uphill climb in improving the roster.
So what do Dombrowski and Fuld need to put the Phillies over the top? The answer is probably more complicated than the Phillies’ brass would like to admit.
The roster is tough to gauge because, in some regards, 2021 went exactly as planned. Harper captured his second MVP award after slashing .309/.429/.615 with a league-leading 42 doubles, 35 home runs, 101 runs scored, and a robust 170 wRC+. Zack Wheeler led the Majors with 213 1/3 innings pitched and his 2.78 ERA/2.59 FIP were among the best marks in the game. He faced more batters than any other pitcher in the NL, and he struck out more of them (247) than any other pitcher in the NL en route to a second-place Cy Young award finish.
If baseball were a two-man game, the Phillies might be the champs. Unfortunately, Harper and Wheeler’s outlandish success in 2021 hardly moved the needle for the Phillies as they missed the postseason for the tenth straight season. So, as much as their performances inspire confidence, it could also cause skepticism as it remains to be seen if either will be as good as last year.
This isn’t to say that Harper and Wheeler will regress mightily in 2022, but if a perfect season from the duo wasn’t enough to push the Phillies in the playoffs, what will?
Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire