Braves still in better shape than ‘stupid money’ Phillies

The Phillies had a new franchise owner for the 2019 season. John Middleton was promising to spend “stupid” money on free agents after years of rebuilding. I remember that caused angst for some Braves backers because their favorite team is owned by Liberty Media.

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That company’s chairman, John C. Malone, once infamously called the Braves a “fairly major real estate business” and not only a baseball club. That was when they were on their way to losing 93 games in 2016. The Braves made a surprisingly quick turnaround and won the National League East in 2018. Liberty was making a lot of money from its publicly financed ballpark, but team payroll was reduced significantly for 2019.

You know what happened next. The Braves won three more East titles in a row and the 2021 World Series with mid-pack payrolls. The Phillies finished 81-81 in 2019, 28-32 in 2020 and 82-80 in 2021. The 2022 Phillies lost their fourth consecutive game Monday night, their 12th defeat in the past 16 games, to fall to 11 ½ games behind the Mets in the East.

The Braves (23-26 before Tuesday’s game) have been a middling team so far. One reason why statistical projections still like their postseason chances is they have a lot of games left against the Phillies (15), Marlins (10) and Nationals (16). Miami and Washington were expected to struggle. The Phillies (21-28) are supposed to be good. Instead, they are as many as seven games below break-even for the first time since the 2017 season.

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It took a while for Middleton to get “stupid” with player payroll. It ranked 13th in 2019, seventh in 2020, fifth in 2021 and fourth in 2022. This is the first year the Phillies have paid the luxury tax. They went over the threshold after signing outfielders Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos in March.

The idea was that a deep Phillies lineup would be enough to overcome other areas of weakness. The result is a talented, expensive lineup that’s not meeting expectations. The Phillies rank 11th among MLB teams in runs scored, 16th in on-base percentage, 10th in batting average and ninth in homers (all statistics before Tuesday’s MLB games).

After a breakout season for the Reds in 2021, Castellanos is putting up numbers at about his career norm. Schwarber is following a similar pattern. Catcher J.T. Realmuto, 31, might finally be in decline. Rhys Hoskins isn’t getting it done in the middle of the order. Former top prospect Alec Bohm still is trying to find his footing in the big leagues.

At least Bryce Harper is still producing big numbers (though an elbow injury has limited him mostly to designated hitter duty). Harper was the first big signing of the “stupid” money era. His 13-year, $330 million contract was the most expensive deal in North American pro sports history at the time. Harper’s 14.2 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement are eighth most among MLB hitters since the start of the 2019 season. He’s not the problem.

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Philadelphia’s starting pitching also isn’t a major issue. That surprises me. The Phillies signed right-hander Zack Wheeler before the 2020 season. He’s been great, but they never really built up the rotation behind him and Aaron Nola. Yet, after a slow start, Philly’s starters rank sixth in WAR and fourth in innings per start.

Philadelphia’s bullpen has been a major issue. Defense is a problem, too, but that’s nothing new. Defense long has been an afterthought for the Phillies. Combine that philosophy with unreliable relievers and a so-so offense, and you get a lot of close losses and squandered leads.

Phillies relievers rank 27th in ERA and 28th in WAR. They signed Corey Knebel for one year and $10 million in December. Knebel’s May numbers: 5.40 ERA, .910 on-base plus slugging allowed and three blown saves in seven chances. Knebel allowed a game-tying homer to New York’s Nick Plummer in the ninth inning Sunday, then gave up the winning run in the 10th. The next day, San Francisco’s Evan Longoria hit a go-ahead homer off Knebel in the ninth.

“It’s going to turn,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi told reporters after Monday’s loss. “It’s going to. I believe in them. I believe in Knebel. I believe in everybody in that room. There’s a lot of fight in that room every day.”

The losing has led to speculation about Girardi’s job security. He said he’s not worried about it. That can be read as the right approach for Girardi or a sign that the front office hasn’t created the necessary urgency.

Of course, Girardi didn’t put together the roster. It’s not his “stupid” money. The highly paid players have to perform.

“We have to continue to battle and keep grinding,” Wheeler told reporters after the loss to the Mets on Sunday. “Hopefully, things will turn around here soon. It’s got to be soon. I think we all know that. We all know the talent that we have here. We just have to do it.”

The Braves have expressed similar sentiments. They have more reasons to believe it. The Braves have a reliable, deep bullpen. Their best hitter, Ronald Acuña, has played less than half of games because of injuries. The Braves have the pedigree of winning four consecutive NL East titles and the last World Series.

The Braves didn’t have to spend stupid money to be good. They’ve built a winner largely with homegrown players and veterans on short-term contracts. The Braves’ $173.9 million payroll ranks eighth and is $47.8 million less than Philly’s. It’s doubtful the Braves ever will move higher on the list. It would be the biggest upset of all time if Liberty Media ever pays the luxury tax.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos has rounded out the roster with cost-efficient moves. He’s giving Liberty Media a much better return on investment than Middleton is getting from Dave Dombrowski. This will be Year 4 of the Braves’ smart money being better than Middleton’s stupid money.