• Alec Liebsch

Should the Phillies even try to contend in 2021?

The Phillies' outlook just got a lot bleaker. According to ESPN's Jeff Passan, the division rival New York Mets have acquired All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor and starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco from the Cleveland Indians for a collection of young players and prospects.

This move comes just two months after Steve Cohen purchased the Mets. With a net worth of over $16 billion, Cohen is now the richest owner in baseball—and it isn't close. Cohen had been interested in buying the franchise for years, and now that he has, it's clear what he wants to do: Win.

With those additions, the Mets are immediate threats to win the National League East. Jousting with them are the Atlanta Braves, the reigning division champs three years running, and the Washington Nationals, champions of the 2019 World Series. The Miami Marlins are no slouches either, coming off their first winning season since 2009 and advancing to the NLDS.

A notch below that group are the Phillies, who have a long way to go before being considered there. Both the lineup and pitching staff have significant holes to fill, and they won't be cheap. J.T. Realmuto's free agency hangs over the franchise like a storm cloud, Didi Gregorious didn't even get a qualifying offer, Hector Neris is the only reliever on the roster who doesn't induce anxiety, and the two best centerfielders already start in left and right field.

What makes things worse is that a good roster doesn't come together in one offseason. The organization learned that the hard way in 2019, when it tried to buy talent around Bryce Harper and bank on internal improvements everywhere else. Owner John Middleton has also refused to let the front office exceed the Competitive Balance Tax line, effectively making $210 million the team's hard cap for the upcoming season.

The most important (and most telling) decision of the winter is Realmuto. The Phillies paid a pretty penny (Sixto Sanchez and Jorge Alfaro, to be specific) to pry him from Miami, and he's been worth every cent: .273 batting average, .825 on base plus slugging percentages, 36 home runs, 115 runs batted in, and 5.9 wins above replacement in 192 games in Philadelphia. He's the best catcher in the league, and no one else comes close to that title.

Re-signing Realmuto is almost a no-brainer if the team wants to contend now. But locking him up doesn't make the team better than it was in 2019; the lineup simply treads water. And while that lineup was excellent last year—sixth in MLB in runs scored, eighth in OPS+ (OPS relative to the ballpark)—the problems with the rest of the roster may not be fixable if Realmuto gets that payday.

Per Spotrac, the Phillies already owe an estimated $133.7 million to 14 players in 2021 (plus Odubel Herrera, who makes just over $10 million to not be here). That's before addressing Realmuto, Gregorious or whoever else makes up the 40-man roster. The league minimum will be just under $600,000 based on the last few seasons, so let's use that as a generous average for the final 20 spots. That adds an extra $11-12 million to the payroll for an estimate of $145 million on the payroll.

Assuming that the $210 million luxury tax line is still Middleton's hard cap, that leaves $65 million to play with in free agency. Realmuto could take up a third of that instantly, allotting no more than $45 million for the bullpen, shortstop/second base (depending on how you view Jean Segura), outfield depth, and the back of the rotation. The Phillies not only need to be shrewd with their funds this winter, but also need incumbent guys to step up in the spring.

Can Spencer Howard be the fourth starter by May? Will Scott Kingery at least become a league-average hitter, and/or can one of him, Adam Haseley or Roman Quinn finally lock down center field? Which reliever(s) can step up and prevent fans from turning off the game in the seventh inning? What holes can be filled via trade, and what do the Phillies have that other teams want?

There's a lot that has to go their way in 2021, especially if they make another big investment to keep the lineup intact. The Braves, Nationals and now Mets are all pretty good. We could see the Nationals continue to trend downward, but even then the division title is probably off limits. Even if they get internal improvements alongside the existing core, it still may only be enough to make the Wild Card Game.

Maybe that's enough. Baseball is a weird game, and the Nationals did just win a World Series as the second Wild Card. If the playoffs remain expanded, the Phillies' chances at a championship remain nonzero. But there's a lot of strings to be pulled there, and a lot of questions to be asked of a team paying potentially $90 million to four players just to win under 90 games.

Is the franchise doomed? Not exactly. Hiring Dave Dombrowski proves that the organization wants to win ASAP, and his understudy Sam Fuld has the foundation to be a great lead executive of his own someday. The minds are in place to get the franchise to a good spot; the question is how quickly they can pull it off.

If the Phillies want to contend long term, 2021 should probably be a gap year.