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?
“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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