Phillies Are What Cubs Were Supposed to Be, Maybe What They Still Can Be

Bryce Harper wanted to come to Chicago. Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber wanted to stay in Chicago. Instead, all three are leading the charge as the Phillies hold a 2-1 lead over the Braves in an attempt to repeat or improve upon last year’s World Series appearance. While I’m sure it’ll rankle a few readers, particularly on a certain social media platform, this is what the Cubs were supposed to be.

I’m not just talking about the results, as finishing no better than second in the division since 2011 isn’t exactly admirable in and of itself. Nor am I just talking about the players in question, two of whom were once Cubs and one of whom probably should be. What it comes down to is that Philly has been willing to spend big on big-time free agents, including Trea Turner, Zack Wheeler, and J.T. Realmuto, in order to create a team that can compete on an annual basis.

The Cubs actively opted against that strategy following their incredible run from 2015-17, with the only real exception being Yu Darvish ahead of the 2018 season. A combination of tightened pursestrings and a disappointing return on investment in Jason Heyward prevented them from anything other than the mildest flirtation with Harper, and it wasn’t until Yan Gomes in November of 2021 that they gave another eight-figure contract to a position player.

Gomes’ $13 million guarantee was also the largest the Cubs had offered to a position player since Heyward signed ahead of the 2016 season and the first multi-year deal since Daniel Descalso in 2019. Seiya Suzuki then signed for five years and $85 million in March of ’22, but even he and Gomes combined don’t get to nine figures. Dansby Swanson‘s seven-year, $177 million contract finally broke the seal and gave the first real indication that the Cubs are trying to be legit once again.

After barely sneaking into the playoffs in 2018 due to a late-season stumble that felt similar to what we saw this season, the Cubs were clearly in need of changes. The addition of Castellanos at the last second of the 2019 deadline energized the organization and created an immediate fan favorite, though the Cubs fell short of the postseason and never seemed to be real bidders as the outfielder headed to Cincinnati.

The Phillies weren’t in a better spot at the time despite locking Harper up for 13 years at $330 million, but they realized they needed to do a lot more to improve upon their 81-81 record. They added Wheeler for $118 million over five years and finished out of the playoffs once again during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Realmuto came back aboard* for five years and $115.5 million the following winter, pushing the Phillies to a winning record that still left them on the outside of the playoff race.

Rather than cautioning about the evils of dead money from luxury tax penalties, Philly went out and inked yet another nine-figure deal to bring Castellanos to town. They also added Schwarber for $79 million that same offseason. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s one deal for at least $100 million in every single offseason from 2019-22. And they weren’t done.

This past winter, the Phillies added Turner for $300 million over 11 years. They also signed Taijuan Walker for $72 million and Zach Eflin for $40 million. All of those deals combined to push them to roughly $263 million in luxury tax payroll, about $10 million over the second penalty tier, but that is of little concern because they’ve been successful.

Remember, the goal isn’t necessarily to win the division every year. It’s to be in a position to compete for a title by making the playoffs. So even though the Phils have played second fiddle to the Braves in each of the past two years, it’s the end result that matters most.

The Phillies already have $197 million committed to next year’s payroll even before replacing Aaron Nola, Craig Kimbrel, Michael Lorenzen, and more. They’ve got arbitration raises to deal with as well, though that’s a reality for any team and shouldn’t be a hindrance to other moves. What it comes down to is that the Phillies have been willing and able to spend each season in pursuit of a title, something the Cubs could and should have been doing all along.

Consider that the Cubs had seven players earning at least $10 million this past season, only one of whom (Marcus Stroman, $25M) took home more than $18 million. The Phillies, on the other hand, had nine players guaranteed $10 million or more and six earning at least $20 million. Beyond just spending big, they went out and got players with loads of swagger who crave the chance to perform when the lights are brightest.

That’s not a knock on any of the current Cubs, many of whom haven’t even gotten the chance to play on the biggest stage, but Harper is a bona fide superstar the likes of which Chicago can only dream about. Just look at how the dude went out and made a very strong statement after hearing about how Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia had needled him following Atlanta’s Game 2 win.

Probably a little late to note now, but none of this is new by any stretch. It’s just that watching the Phillies going toe-to-toe with the Braves and beating them, at least through three games, behind three players in particular is harder to swallow considering how the Cubs finished. What makes it worse is that it didn’t have to be this way.

Anyone who tells you it’s a matter of either spending or building up the system for another run is lying. Good teams find ways to do both, especially because spending explicitly means not having to trade prospect capital for impact veteran players. Alas, I’m either preaching to the choir or riling up some of the congregation.

All we can do now is just sit back and hope Jed Hoyer was serious when he said the plan for this offseason was to maintain the momentum the Cubs gained by spending big last winter.

*The Phillies actually traded for Realmuto in February 2019, then re-signed him as a free agent following the 2020 season.

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