In a world where baseball contracts are fully guaranteed, it’s always tough to justify a long-term deal to any free agent which often guarantees having to pay for a player’s decline.
Unfortunately for the players, however, all 30 MLB teams have seemingly realized this all at once, and salaries have been suppressed more in the 2017-18 offseason than in almost any other offseason in recent memory. We are living in a world in which Mike Moustakas received only $6.5 million guaranteed, even after hitting 38 home runs last season.
Despite giving out some of the highest contracts to players among any of the teams, the Phillies have successfully taken advantage of this market.
Philadelphia pounced early and often in the free agent market, signing relievers Tommy Hunter (2-years, $18 million) and Pat Neshek (2-years, $16.25 million) to fairly substantial deals in what has been a slow offseason. They also added Carlos Santana in one of the offseason’s biggest contracts, a three-year, $60 million deal (only six players had earned larger guarantees than Santana before his big deal).
The Phillies recently announced that they have officially signed right-handed starting pitcher Jake Arrieta to a three-year, $75 million deal.
That’s huge news—Arrieta was the last marquee free agent on the board, the Phillies flexed their financial muscle once again to go out and get him.
But the deal works in their favor for a multitude of reasons, even with the $25 million per year guarantee notwithstanding.
The Phillies structured the Arrieta deal in such a way that allows them to have payroll flexibility going forward. He will make $30 million this year, a figure that would seem like a huge investment for most teams. The Phillies, however, are not most teams. The team was estimated to carry just $67.4 million in payroll prior to the Arrieta signing, per Baseball-Reference. With a recent TV deal and the market size of Philadelphia, bringing that payroll up to $97.4 million with just one add will not hurt them at all. Back during their postseason runs from 2007 to 2011, the Phillies regularly carried paryolls above $150 million, and in 2011 theier total payroll inched upwards of $172 million in total payroll.
The Phillies are filled with cheap, young talent that gives them the flexibility to devote nearly a third of the entire team’s money to just one player. And, as Arrieta gets further into the deal, the guaranteed dollars become fewer. He’s slated to earn just $25 million in 2018 and $20 million in 2019 before completely falling off the books.
This gives the Phillies even more flexibility to sign big name free agents during the 2018-19 or 2019-20 offseasons. Those additions could be in the form of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado or even Philly native and advid Eagles and 76ers supporter Mike Trout.
Arrieta could help the Phillies’ recruit these free agents, too. The team is expected to take a big jump forward in 2018 after winning just 66 games last year. If they improve but still do not make the playoffs, it might be tough to attract big name free agents. Arrieta should be able to help with that, too.
In terms of intangibles, Arrieta helps there too. He’s pitched in a World Series, thrown two no-hitters and won the 2015 National League Cy Young award. With a young Phillies staff that includes Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta, Arrieta not only becomes the ace, but he also becomes the veteran and mentor to four potentially promising young starting pitchers. That, too, carries a ton of value.
But let’s not forget that Arrieta isn’t a bad pitcher by any means. While he isn’t what he used to be three years ago, the now-32-year old, Arrieta is certainly a huge upgrade over whomever the Phillies planned on pitching in the fifth rotation spot, whether that’d be Ben Lively or Mark Leiter Jr.
In 2017, Arrieta logged 168 1⁄3 innings to the tune of a 3.53 ERA and a 4.16 FIP (4.11 xFIP). He had a 163-55 strikeout-to-walk ratio, an obvious drop-off from his short, but excellent peak, but still very good nonetheless. He was worth 2.4 fWAR.
FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projects Arrieta to be worth 3.1 fWAR in 2018, which would make him the second-most valuable starter on the staff, behind Aaron Nola. (FanGraphs loves Nola, projecting him to be worth 4.3 wins next year.) Overall, the Phillies’ projected record on went from 74-88 to 76-86 with the Arrieta addition.
Philadelphia has a real chance to make some noise in the National League next year. Already projecting to be just six games out of the second NL Wild Card, with some luck and consistent play from their young players, the Phillies could be playing some October baseball for the first time in seven years.
Jake Arrieta is just a piece to the puzzle, but he makes the Phillies a whole lot more interesting going into the 2018 season.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.