Phillies ownership initially wasn’t happy with idea of low payroll in 2018

By Tim Kelly, Sports Talk Philly editor  

If there was any question about the desire from the Philadelphia Phillies ownership group to return to contention, president Andy MacPhail seemed to answer that when he met with the collective media Tuesday. 

As Matt Breen of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, MacPhail said that the team doesn't expect any drastic increases to the payroll in 2018, something that the team's ownership wasn't initially thrilled with:

Wins and losses will carry more weight in 2018, but the team, MacPhail said, still expects “a relatively low payroll.”

“We’ve already talked to ownership about it and explained to them why [the payroll will be low in 2018],” MacPhail said. “They did not react extraordinarily well in the beginning. Ultimately, they’re OK with it with one proviso: that if an opportunity presents itself, we do not exclude it. They understand the program.”

It is worth pointing out that a high payroll doesn't necessarily guarantee success. For example, the 2013 Phillies had a payroll just shy of $170 million, but only won 73 games. This is because though they had many players they were paying to be All-Star caliber players, they didn't get that type of production from a bulk of them. 

The Phillies are also a significantly younger team than that 2013 team was, so by definition, they shouldn't have an especially high payroll. Odubel Herrera is scheduled to make just $3 million in 2017, and he's the only player with a long-term contract on the roster right now. Michael Saunders and Matt Harrison will collect a combined $3 million in buyouts, but other than that, the Phillies don't have a cent committed for 2018. 

They will, of course, either reach deals or go to arbitration with many players. Maikel Franco, Cameron Rupp, Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez are among those eligible for arbitration. Any of those four could be traded – Franco would be significantly less likely than the last three – but assuming they are here, they will be paid accordingly. None of them will break the bank, though. 

Aaron Nola, Hector Neris, Rhys Hoskins, Jorge Alfaro and Aaron Altherr are among the bulk of the team that is pre-arbitration eligible, meaning they will be especially cheap in 2018. 

The Phillies payroll for 2017, per Spotrac, was just over $116 million. That was with Ryan Howard being paid a $10 million buyout, an injured Matt Harrison making $13 million, Jeremy Hellickson making over $11 million before being traded, Clay Buchholz making $13.5 million to pitch 7.1 innings and Michael Saunders making $8 million. Those five accounted for over 47 percent of the team's payroll in 2017. As mentioned, the Phillies will pay small buyouts to Harrison and Saunders in 2018, but will have nearly half of their payroll coming off of the books next year. 

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Sure, the Phillies will probably add a veteran reliever or two. Some think they may pursue a veteran starting pitcher in free-agency, like Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb. Though MacPhail didn't seem especially keen on that idea, it's fair to assume they will add at least one starter (if not more) this offseason, whether it comes via trade or free-agency. But of their current starting lineup, only Galvis, Franco and Hernandez are even eligible for arbitration, and there's a good chance that all three of them won't be with the team next year. The Phillies will add some bench pieces this offseason, but there doesn't seem to be much of a need to make any drastic upgrades to the lineup. 

So the Phillies probably will have a low payroll in 2018, but more because they are electing to go with a young roster than because they are just sitting on their money. Once Matt Klentak and MacPhail sold ownership on the fact that even with a low payroll the Phillies might have their most talented team in 2018 since at least 2012, it was probably a fairly easy discussion. 

This, of course, isn't how things often work in front-offices. As those who worked under now former Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria can attest, normally ownership is asking (telling) management to spend less money on the team. The Phillies, both because of the market they play in and their television contract, have money to spend. And their ownership group, led by John Middleton, seems eager to spend that money. 

There probably isn't a big-name free-agent available this offseason that makes sense for the Phillies. But that doesn't mean the Phillies won't, as MacPhail said, keep their eyes open for chances to make significant additions. They could look to acquire a front-of-the-rotation arm through a trade, such as RHP Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays. Next offseason, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper highlight what may be the greatest free-agent class in the history of the sport. It will make sense for the team to spend then. And don't worry, the Phillies lineup won't always be full of pre-arbitration players.