Stark: Can Phillies make their payroll puzzle workable after Trea Turner mega deal?


SAN DIEGO — So this is what happens when you sign a $300 million shortstop to go along with your $330 million right fielder:

You have some bills to pay. Lots of them. For a long, long time, too.

Let’s just say the Phillies have noticed those bills are coming. But apparently, here’s what they want the baseball world to know: You think they care? No, they don’t.

This is the price of winning. This is the cost of stars. Their president of baseball operations, Dave Dombrowski, has long believed those two things go together. Their owner, John Middleton, has long believed that when your window to win opens, you leap through it without a parachute.

So here they are, their payroll headed for $250 million, and maybe north of that. They don’t seem worried about what that means. But should they be? Let’s look at that.

John Middleton has backed the Phillies with one of the highest payrolls in MLB. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

The Phillies now owe the latest addition to their ever-expanding star collection, Trea Turner, a cool $300 million — between now and (gulp) 2033!

They still owe their biggest star, Bryce Harper, another $222 million through (gasp) 2031!

So let’s do that math for you. They’re now on the hook for more than $52.5 million a year for just those two players — through 2031. But seeing as how it won’t be possible for those two to play every spot on the diamond, that’s not all.

The Phillies now have six players on the payroll who will make at least $20 million next year. That’s twice as many as the YankeesThose six: Turner, Harper, Zack Wheeler ($24.5 million), J.T. Realmuto ($23.88 million), Nick Castellanos ($20 million) and Kyle Schwarber ($20 million).

I can help with that math, too. That adds up to more than $140 million for just those six guys — through at least 2024. That’s more than 14 teams paid their entire rosters this year.

The Phillies signed J.T. Realmuto to a five-year, $115.5 million deal in 2021. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Oh, and then there’s their co-ace, Aaron Nola. He’s under contract for one more year at $16 million — and the Phillies seem likely to try to extend him in the next few months. So the numbers keep climbing. Who knows how high?

But agents and teams they’ve spoken with get no sense whatsoever that the Phillies are nervous about how their payroll puzzle will fit together — in the short term or the long term. So let’s ask again: Should they be?

I posed that question to a few bright minds in rival front offices. It was a fascinating exercise.

One general manager had no second thoughts. None. He’s a fan of watching teams in his sport go “all-in” to win when they think it’s their time. So he used the word “awesome” to describe this.

I asked another executive if he thought the Phillies’ payroll structure was workable over the next few years. He, too, shot down concerns.

“All payroll structures are workable,” he said — assuming the owner’s overriding goal in life is to win.

But an executive of a third team was not so euphoric. He started ticking off the names of all those stars listed above.

“That’s a top-heavy roster,” he said. “Holy moly.”

And what happens to top-heavy rosters? There comes a time, some day in the future, he said, when “you come to regret it.” There’s reason to worry, he forecast, that in a few years, the Phillies could look up and find a roster that’s “old and right-handed and immoveable.” And somehow, he didn’t make that sound too ideal.

But the Phillies front office knew it would hear that talk. I think I can sum up their response this way: Who the heck cares?

Let’s try to describe what people in the industry think the Phillies see, regardless of what their critics might see:

• They don’t see a bunch of overpaid players. They see a bunch of great players. A two-time MVP (Harper). Two Cy Young Award contenders (Wheeler and Nola). The reigning National League home run champ (Schwarber). A former major-league batting champ (Turner). The consensus Best Catcher in Baseball (Realmuto). These aren’t stars who are famous for being famous. These are difference-makers, players you win with.

• The Phillies also see Baseball America’s minor-league pitcher of the year, Andrew Painter, as being ready to help in 2023, when he will turn 20. They see Painter as a pitcher who can follow the path that Dombrowski once pushed Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello down in Detroit. They see him as more than just a guy who can make their team. They view him as a guy who can change their team.

• But he isn’t the only one. Dombrowski is a huge fan of two other young pitchers who have dotted those top prospect lists: Mick Abel and Griff McGarry. He expects at least two of them to make an impact, very possibly all three, and sooner rather than later.

• And you know the great thing about young pitchers, right? They work cheap. So they would help balance out the Phillies’ payroll over the next few years, as the finance office is writing all those big checks to the big names.

• Oh, and one more thing: The Phillies see enormous money-making possibilities if their team is as good as they think it is. They don’t have to jog their memories too hard to remember the last set of glory years, from 2007-11. Those years generated a home sellout streak that lasted 257 games in a row, not to mention monstrous TV ratings. And this past October, the Phillies’ powers that be felt their ballpark shake as this incarnation of Phillies made an unlikely run to the World Series. So can they pay these bills? They seem confident they can pay every darned one of them.

Could there be a day, sometime over the horizon, when they “come to regret it”? Of course there could. That’s how the baseball business works. But are the Phillies spending 30 seconds worrying about any of that? Not that the rest of the sport has noticed.

Dave Dombrowski has led four organizations to the World Series. (Kim Klement / USA Today)

Dave Dombrowski always projects the confidence of a man who has won before and knows how that’s done. Middleton projects the ambiance of a man who has total faith in the ability of his head of baseball ops to identify the right pieces, big and small — and he’s happy to pay what it takes to let Dombrowski work his magic.

Not every master roster-builder can generate that level of trust from ownership, you know. But Dave Dombrowski always has had that thing about him. It’s one of his most underrated skills.

Obviously, the Phillies have decided this is their window to win. So here they are. The bills will be in the mail, for years and years and years to come. But here’s a very safe prediction:

The Phillies will pay them. And if they win a World Series or two along the way, they just might pay themselves.

Related: How will the Turner contract age? 

(Top photo of Trea Turner: Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)


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