While free agency provides exciting opportunities, it is by no means the way to win a championship. The Phillies should stay away from spending too much in free agency.
Every year when you watch a team win the World Series, you look at them and think, “How can we win like them?” For many teams, that results in spending lots of money on the free agency market. However, problems can arise when a team tries to build through free agency, even when they have the money like the Phillies do.
Looking back on the Phillies in the last five years, the team tried to return their 2008 glory days by spending big. In 2011, they had the third-highest payroll in all of baseball, spending more than $170 million. 2012 saw them have the second-highest payroll with Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee all making $20 million that year. The team had a payroll above $150 million until 2015.
Handing out large deals to players in the back half of their careers never panned out for the Phillies. The problem with baseball free agency is that few players hit the market until well into their careers. It is very likely players who only have one or two more years left in their prime will look for contracts lasting much longer than that. The Phillies did that with players like Howard and Halladay, and it eventually came back to bite them.
Turning towards this season, the teams with some of the highest payrolls didn’t amount to much. The Dodgers notoriously had a payroll nearing $280 million this season, yet that large payroll wasn’t enough to carry them to the World Series. In addition, the Yankees spent $227 million on players this season, yet wound up selling off a lot of their star players at the trade deadline. The Tigers had a payroll of nearly $206 million this year, yet missed out on a playoff spot by 2.5 games.
Oddly enough, Cleveland had one of the lowest payrolls this season yet still came within one win of taking home the World Series. Their payroll of $115 million was 21st across all teams. The Indians had just three veterans contracts above one million dollars. Overall, just 13 of their 37 active players had a salary above one million dollars.
Despite their relatively low payroll, Cleveland as a whole produced 43.2 fWAR, fourth-highest in baseball. They turned into contenders almost entirely through their farm system.
The Chicago Cubs were able to strike the balance of picking up veterans on the free agent market while also producing talented players from their farm system. Kris Bryant, Chicago’s leader in wins above replacement and leading candidate for NL MVP, came through their farm system. Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo both came to the Cubs as part of trades meant to build up their farm system. Overall, five of the top seven Cubs in fWAR are still well under team control.
The big contracts that the Cubs did hand out didn’t hurt them. Jon Lester has the largest contract on Chicago’s payroll, but it was definitely worth it to them. Lester anchored their rotation in the World Series and led their pitchers in rWAR. His contract will run out after 2020 with a team option, when Lester will be 36. He should still be an able pitcher even that late in his career.
Looking at past Phillies teams and this season’s World Series contenders, it’s clear you don’t have to fill out your roster with expensive veterans in order to win. Even if the Phillies have plenty of room on their payroll, they don’t have to spend it by any means. Manager Pete Mackanin wants the Phillies to bring in one or two “go-to” bats this offseason, but the team should be focused on internal development far more than bringing someone in from outside.