Phillies

Another 'stupid money' winter? Phillies owner John Middleton talks about an important offseason

Another 'stupid money' winter? Phillies owner John Middleton talks about an important offseason

A year ago, John Middleton’s comment about spending stupid money became a mantra for the Phillies’ offseason.

Middleton made the comment to a reporter at Major League Baseball’s owners’ meetings and within a few hours it was everywhere, from headlines to T-shirts. Salivating player agents noticed the juicy remark and put Middleton on speed dial. Eventually, the Phillies did indeed spend stupid money, big money — whatever you want to call it. They lavished more than $400 million on free agents only to finish .500 and out of the playoff picture for an eighth straight season.

Baseball owners will assemble for their annual November meetings in Texas on Tuesday and Wednesday. Before departing Monday night, the Phillies managing partner was asked if he would be providing any memorable T-shirt material this time around.

“Mantras are a lot of fun,” Middleton said with a laugh. “But we just want to acquire players that will make us meaningfully better. All of our efforts this offseason will be geared toward that.”

Don’t mistake Middleton’s measured tone for complacency. He remains fiercely committed to finding a way to win. And he agrees with Matt Klentak, the Phillies’ usually guarded general manager, who recently proclaimed,“No questions asked, it is time to win right now.”

“I loved it,” Middleton said of his GM’s bold remark. “No argument here.”

But how are the Phillies going to transform from a fourth-place team to a playoff club? New manager Joe Girardi and good health from Andrew McCutchen — the Phillies missed him badly over the final four months of 2019 — and a few relievers can only do so much. This team needs starting pitching — big time — and there are several good to great ones on the free-agent market. 

“There are many places where we can add value and become more successful,” Middleton said. “One of those is certainly pitching, but we’ll explore all areas.”

The free-agent pitching market is led by Gerrit Cole. The power-armed right-hander is expected to fetch the largest contract ever for a pitcher, eclipsing David Price’s $217 million package. Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Cole Hamels, Rick Porcello and others are also on the market.

Last winter, Middleton’s promise to spend stupid money led to Bryce Harper, who signed what was briefly the largest contract in the history of the game — $330 million — until it was eclipsed by Mike Trout.

Money is still the Phillies’ best resource. Will they set records again this winter?

“Any time impact players are available who fill a need of ours, the Phillies need to be in the middle of those negotiations,” Middleton said. “At the same time, no team can sign the top free agent each off-season — it just isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy. We’ll explore ways to make our team better in both the trade and free-agent markets and make the additions that we feel best balance our needs.”

Given that the Phillies have a need for multiples of starting pitching, bullpen help and possibly a bat like Mike Moustakas at third base, it might behoove the club to spread around its resources and fill several holes.

The competition for Cole will be stiff with the Yankees and Angels both known to covet him. You just know that agent Scott Boras cannot wait to pit those two big-market clubs against each other in negotiations.

Boras also represents Strasburg and Ryu, as well as third basemen Moustakas and Anthony Rendon. 

Boras and Middleton got to know each other during the Phillies’ pursuit of Jake Arrieta two winters ago and built further chemistry during Harper’s Bazaar last winter. Could the relationship foster a deal?

“As is often the case in high-profile negotiations, Scott and I had our ups and downs last year,” Middleton said. “But we learned a lot about each other, and fortunately we landed in a great place. Matt will be at the point in all our major negotiations. I’m always available to him for support and assistance.”

Last week, Boras spoke about his relationship with Middleton and the Phillies owner’s commitment to winning.

“I don’t see any stop sign in John’s pursuit of his goal and that’s a World Championship,” Boras said. “He’s an owner that has been very straightforward about his path and his commitment. He’s very, very involved in the franchise and it’s really good to see owners really be that committed to their city, to their team.”

The owners’ meetings will mark Middleton’s first public appearance — at least in baseball circles — since the team’s October news conference to announce the firing of manager Gabe Kapler. Middleton was noticeably absent from the news conference to announce Girardi’s hiring later in the month. Klentak introduced Girardi and spoke for the organization.

“I didn’t think that it was appropriate for me to participate in the Girardi press conference because the ultimate decision to hire Joe was made by Matt,” Middleton said. “It was Matt’s job, therefore, to explain to our fans and the press the rationale supporting his decision.”

Long before his catchy “stupid money” comment, Middleton famously proclaimed that he wanted his “bleeping trophy back” after the Phillies, winners of the 2008 World Series, lost the 2009 World Series to the Yankees.

The Yankees manager that year?

Yep. Girardi.

“I was impressed with Joe’s leadership, experience and growth in his time with the Yankees,” Middleton said. “It’s obvious why he is a winner. His interview was an important part of the process, but we also placed immense value on the opinions of many players, coaches, and front office members who have been around Joe in his time as a manager, and the feedback we received from them was outstanding. 

“I certainly believe that he will instill in the clubhouse the drive, intensity, commitment and dedication that is necessary to bring the trophy back to Philadelphia.”

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Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

For long stretches in each of the last two seasons, Zack Wheeler was every bit as effective as Aaron Nola.

Wheeler had four terrific months in 2018, posting a 2.52 ERA over his final 20 starts beginning on June 1.

In 2019, he found his groove right around midseason, pitching to a 3.04 ERA over his final 16 starts.

When you hear the phrase "untapped potential" in relation to Wheeler, this is what it means. It means that if he can pitch like this a bit more consistently — four good months instead of two — he can be a legitimate ace.

If he can't? Well then, if you trust his stuff and his results the last two years, you're getting no worse than a low-end No. 2 starter. Wheeler has made 60 starts the last two seasons with a 3.65 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, a strikeout per inning and less than a home run per nine.

Those numbers might not jump off the page, but they are impressive when you consider the surge in home runs in 2019 and especially so when considering his workload.

Wheeler is one of only 12 pitchers to reach 375 combined innings the last two seasons. The others are Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Aaron Nola, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Bauer, Jose Berrios, Miles Mikolas and Mike Leake.

In 2019, Wheeler made 18 quality starts (at least six innings with three earned runs or fewer). Nola also made 18. Zach Eflin had 14, Jake Arrieta had 10 and no other Phillie was in double-digits.

When Nola did not start a game for the Phillies in 2019, they received a quality start 31 percent of the time — less than once every three games.

Wheeler obviously helps with that. Think back to late last season when the Phillies could generate no momentum and had such a smaller chance to win when anyone was on the mound other than their ace. Wheeler changes that. He offers more of a chance for series wins, sweeps, actual winning streaks.

He also brings velocity, something the Phillies' rotation has sorely lacked for years. Wheeler's four-seam fastball averaged a career-best 96.7 mph last season, fourth-fastest in the majors behind Noah Syndergaard, Cole and deGrom.

The Phillies have never had a starting pitcher throw at least 100 innings in a season and average better than 95 mph with his fastball. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez came the closest. Wheeler has done it comfortably in back-to-back seasons.

Velocity is not the only thing, especially these days when so many have it, but it is obviously still a major part of missing bats and getting outs. Because Wheeler has 3 or 4 mph more on his fastball than Nola, and because he can locate significantly better than Pivetta or Velasquez, he offers the Phillies' rotation a different, much-needed look.

This is not to say Wheeler comes without flaws or concerns. He hasn't yet ripped off a string of strong seasons. Two is a start and the Phillies are banking on it continuing.

He hasn't been a Top 10 Cy Young finisher, though he should have been in '18.

He's never reached 200 innings in a season, though some of that was because of caution the Mets exercised with him.

And Wheeler, despite the velo, has gone through plenty of multi-start stretches where he's been hit hard and doesn't miss many bats, in a way you don't see with the tippy-top guys like Scherzer and deGrom (which Wheeler is not).

He had three starts in a row like that last August and two straight in June.

But Wheeler is as capable of 7 innings, 1 run, 11 strikeouts as any pitcher in either league. When he's on, he can be so, so good. He went at least seven innings 15 times last season and allowed one or no runs in seven of them.

This one addition will not boost the Phillies to 90 wins, but it's the first giant step to another critical offseason.



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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman react to the big news of the Phillies agreeing to a five-year deal with Zack Wheeler on the latest At The Yard podcast.

They also discuss the possibility of the Phillies signing Didi Gregorius, Cole Hamels heading to the Braves, and much more.

• Initial impressions of the signing
• What the guys like most about Wheeler
• Was this the right price?
• Bittersweet day with Hamels to Braves
• Phillies still need to add another good SP
• One Wheeler concern
• The market for Anthony Rendon



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More on the Phillies