How the Phillies Used ‘Stupid Money’ to Rebuild Their Roster

How the Phillies Used 'Stupid Money' to Rebuild Their Roster

SAN DIEGO — This is what the stupid money was all about: the opening game of the National League Championship Series, with half a billion dollars’ worth of Philadelphia Phillies superstars lifting the team to victory.

Zack Wheeler held the San Diego Padres to one hit, Bryce Harper homered to left and Kyle Schwarber homered to outer space. The Phillies won on Tuesday, 2-0, and will head home after Wednesday’s matinee with no worse than a split—and a chance to clinch the pennant at home.

That is zipping far ahead, of course, but isn’t that what sports fans do? It is when you own your hometown team, the one you rooted for as a boy at Connie Mack Stadium, as a young man at the Vet and as a billionaire at Citizens Bank Park.

The promise of a day like Tuesday is why John Middleton — who sold his family’s tobacco business for nearly $3 billion in 2007 — authorized $527 million in free-agent contracts for the three stars of Game 1. Most of that investment went to Harper, whose arrival in March 2019 signaled the return of the Phillies as a team that was serious about winning.

“The desire to do something special, to do something great, is a passion,” Middleton said in his box at spring training, in Clearwater, Fla., shortly after signing Harper for 13 years and $330 million.

“It’s not grounded in business logic, it’s not grounded in baseball analytics. I think it’s your passion as a fan that kind of fuels your ambition. It certainly fuels my ambition for this team.”

When a fan vows to spend stupid money — shorthand for Middleton’s public vow to act aggressively and “maybe be a little bit stupid” in free agency after the Phillies’ sixth losing season in a row, in 2018 — the decisions are not always cautious. The Phillies chased some folks with strong track records, like the former pitcher Jake Arrieta and the former manager Joe Girardi, who were not the best fits for the future.

But when passion and projection match up right, you can import an ace like Wheeler, who signed for five years and $118 million in December 2019, about 10 months after Harper. Wheeler, who is 30-19 as a Phillie, has allowed just three runs across 19⅓ innings this postseason.

“When we signed him it was kind of like, ‘Finally, let’s go, this is awesome, this is incredible,’” Harper, the 2021 winner of the NL’s Most Valuable Player Award, said after Game 1. “He’s very, very good. He just keeps continually getting better every year.”

In five seasons with the Mets, Wheeler struck out Harper 16 times — still the most by any opposing pitcher — and held him to a .205 average. And, indeed, Wheeler has only gotten better with Philadelphia; his earned run average for the Phillies is 2.82 after a 3.77 mark for the Mets.

Wheeler credited the Phillies’ pitching coach, Caleb Cotham, for helping him manipulate his pitches better.

“He sort of paints a picture for me of how to hold the ball, how to throw it, that type of deal, rather than just gripping a slider and trying to throw a slider,” Wheeler said after Game 1. “He’s sort of sharpened my tools, and I think that helped me get to the next level.”

Wheeler also praised the Phillies’ defense, though he needs it less than most pitchers. He led the NL in strikeouts in 2021 and fanned more than a batter per inning again this season. He struck out eight Padres on Tuesday, and now San Diego must try to solve Aaron Nola in Game 2. Nola has allowed no earned runs in 12⅔ postseason innings.

“You see it with a lot of teams that are really good that end up kind of going really far in the postseason — you have that one-two punch and then you have that third guy,” Harper said. “And we’ve been able to do that.”

Wheeler’s velocity dipped as Tuesday’s start went along, and he agreed with Manager Rob Thomson’s decision to lift him after seven innings. Wheeler has not pitched past the seventh inning since early May, and missed a month with elbow soreness late in the season.

Tommy John surgery cost Wheeler two full years with the Mets, who told him he needed to buy his own tickets if he wanted to attend their postseason games in 2015. Wheeler instead stayed in Florida, where he was doing his rehab work, as the Mets marched to the World Series.

“It was tough to watch my friends, my teammates go out there and play in those types of games,” Wheeler said. “I wanted to be there. I wanted to compete. I felt like I should have been there, but obviously the injury kind of stopped that.”

Harper and Schwarber have been frequent playoff visitors; this is the fifth trip of Harper’s career and the seventh of Schwarber’s. Last fall Schwarber helped Boston reach the American League Championship Series, and he signed with the Phillies — four years, $79 million — in hopes of more October success.

“You just look at the roster and it’s super-talented, uber-talented,” Schwarber said. “You look at a fan base who’s hungry to win, and that was kind of my biggest thing in the off-season: I just wanted to go to a place where I thought that we had a really good chance of winning and trying to make deep runs. It was a pretty easy choice when you’re looking at it from my perspective.”

Schwarber, who led the NL in homers, with 46, signed on March 20. Two days later the Phillies made an even bigger investment: $100 million over five years for outfielder Nick Castellanos, who came alive in the division series with five runs beaten in and a .313 average.

Signing Castellanos put the Phillies over the luxury-tax threshold for the first time, and their total payroll, according to Spotrac, is a little over $255 million — trailing only the Mets, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yankees. All those teams won at least 99 games, and the Phillies took an even path to their 87.

But they made it to the postseason after a decade-long absence, an achievement in itself. Now the Phillies are capitalizing on their chance, getting what they paid for while pursuing something priceless.

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