SAN DIEGO — Last season, the National League East sprouted two 101-win powerhouses and a third team, the Philadelphia Phillies, that won the pennant. At this week’s Winter Meetings, the most muscular, most expensive divisional arms race has kicked back into high gear.
On Monday, the New York Mets filled their co-ace vacancy with reigning AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, and the Phillies — aiming to challenge for more than a playoff spot — wrote the biggest check of the winter so far, reportedly agreeing to an 11-year, $300 million contract with shortstop Trea Turner. On Tuesday, they bulked up the pitching staff by reportedly agreeing to a four-year, $72 million deal with erstwhile Mets starter Taijuan Walker.
After marauding through the NL playoffs, as an only-in-baseball Cinderella story spiked with blindingly bright superstar pedigree, the Phillies and legendary executive Dave Dombrowski are now trying to dispense with any pretense of being an underdog. The Turner and Walker additions mean eight players on the roster are guaranteed at least $15 million in 2023, alongside Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. All but Nola are under contract through 2024.
The Phillies' 2023 payroll is already projected north of $241 million, and it’s unlikely Dombrowski is finished maneuvering. Team owner John Middleton has proven willing to pay the competitive balance tax and looks certain to do so this season, as the first threshold will be set at $233 million.
In this race, though, financial might won’t be enough on its own. There’s an epic clash of styles, strategies and talents at hand. The big-spending Mets are trying to jump-start an East Coast version of the Dodgers’ machine. The Phillies are performing a different high-wire act, as Dombrowski inherited a roster built around Harper and Realmuto that needed to get going fast — and did so, with cash.
Then there’s the Atlanta Braves, cultivating an abundance of well-rounded, homegrown players and flexibility. The 2021 World Series champs have won the NL East five years in a row, evoking memories of the inevitable 1990s Atlanta teams that tormented the Phillies and Mets. Alex Anthopoulos, the team's president of baseball operations, has spent his money internally as the Braves develop, trade for and secure young talent more prolifically than any other club.
As of Tuesday morning — a situation that is highly fluid in early December — this NL East trio has three of MLB’s five most expensive projected 2023 payrolls.
Until proven otherwise, the pecking order starts with Atlanta. The Braves rise in the East just about as consistently as the sun, and their core is locked up at reasonable (or better) prices until it burns out. They are a measuring stick — and a daunting one. Meanwhile, the Phillies are financially and spiritually committed to testing their mettle. So with Turner in tow, how close are they to matching up?
How did projections view Phillies, Braves before the Winter Meetings?
The ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs published a helpful preliminary look at how it would forecast the standings, minus almost every offseason move, in late November. That doesn’t tell us much about how things will shake out once the dust settles, especially for teams intent on wheeling and dealing, but it does illustrate the vastly different baselines from which the NL East contenders began.
If you peruse the league, things look strangely condensed. Even the top powers struggle to eclipse 90 wins in the system’s eyes. And that makes sense when you think about it: The best teams typically employ larger percentages of players who hit free agency, while rebuilding clubs retain more of their rosters. The Los Angeles Dodgers just watched Turner walk out the door and haven’t yet replaced him, etc.
But the Braves, thanks to Anthopoulos’ relentless campaign of extensions, were viewed as a 96-win team without really lifting a finger. The Mets and Phillies, meanwhile, were projected at 84 wins before the Verlander and Turner deals.
How does Turner change the Phillies' outlook?
Every club would be better with Turner, but the blazing-fast shortstop who has tapped into more power recently might be uniquely suited to fill a void for the Phillies. It’s not that the Phillies necessarily lacked for speed — Realmuto, the ultra-athletic catcher, paced the team with 21 stolen bases last season — but their lineup most often led with four or even five sluggers unlikely to stress defenses on the bases.
Turner, who ranks as the 16th-best hitter in baseball the past three seasons by park-adjusted wRC+, is more than qualified to walk — and run — among the giants atop the Phillies' order. Whether he takes over the leadoff spot from Schwarber or plugs in at No. 2, he dramatically changes the specter of facing the Phillies’ lineup. Turner’s 71 steals are tied for second-most in baseball since 2020, and he’s a constant threat to sow chaos by putting the bat on the ball. His .316 batting average is second only to Freddie Freeman's among MLB hitters the past three seasons.
Defensively, Turner grades out as an average shortstop, but his presence will allow young middle infielder Bryson Stott to play second base, where he will likely excel. What's more, Turner has a flair for catching balls hit in the air behind him. With Harper out for the first few months of the 2023 season due to elbow surgery and perhaps limited to DH duty after he returns, the Phillies’ lineup will again require subpar defenders to roam the corner outfield spots most days — Schwarber and Castellanos, usually. According to Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, Turner is one of the very best infielders at tracking down balls hit behind him, which could help the Phillies patch over some of their outfield limitations.
Trea Turner had to cover 111 feet in 5.5 seconds to make his clutch catch against the Mets in the 9th inning. pic.twitter.com/UcW1sZcZXI
— David Adler (@_dadler) August 12, 2020
Still, the Phillies’ strategic decision to squeeze all those bat-first players onto the field comes with costs in addition to the obvious benefits. That's part of the reason the Braves remain the heavy favorites in the projections. Harper’s injury and negative defensive projections for several very good hitters mean that FanGraphs currently sees only two 3-WAR hitters on the Phillies, while the Braves boast five.
Winning in the NL East doesn’t have to mean winning the NL East
There’s a good case to be made that younger players such as Stott and center fielder Brandon Marsh have upside, but based on what we know right now, the math over 162 games still likes the Braves’ chances, even if they don’t make any big moves.
To inch closer to the Braves and Mets, Dombrowski & Co. need to continue sanding the rough edges of their star-studded roster. Among them:
Starting pitching: They have highly touted pitching prospect Andrew Painter, who could storm into the big-league rotation by season’s end, but like the Mets, they could use at least one more mid-level starter to pencil in alongside Walker and Ranger Suarez behind Nola and Wheeler.
Outfield reinforcements: It wouldn’t hurt to add a more athletic outfielder to the mix to soften the blow of Harper’s absence. Right now, 27-year-old, all-or-nothing slugger Darick Hall is headed for the lion’s share of early designated hitter at-bats, which could be fine or could collapse into an untenable situation in short order.
Bullpen: Look, it’s always going to be stressful to build a bullpen for a team whose season might hinge on a few wins. At least Seranthony Dominguez helpfully asserted himself as a closer last season.
Even with lavish spending, the Phillies might have to get comfortable with striking a bargain: Their team as currently constructed is more apt to win a direct confrontation of powers in October than to outmaneuver the Braves’ fleet of contributors over six months.
A memorable winning season, Phillies fans are well aware, doesn’t always involve winning the division. But while Philadelphia's World Series run proves that concept, it’s also an unsettling reminder of how close the team came to missing out on the expanded postseason field.
There remains plenty of useful ground to make up, even without overtaking the Braves.