Around this time last December, the Phillies reached a three-year agreement with free agent Carlos Santana. The contract included a fourth-year club option, and it was worth a total of $60 million. Santana was headed into his age-32 season, and between the ages of 29 and 31, he’d been worth 8.2 WAR, with a wRC+ of 117. Because of the qualifying offer Santana had attached, the Phillies lost their second-round draft pick, along with half a million dollars in international bonus-pool money. The Phillies thought it was a great deal at the time. Santana turned into a salary dump.
Now, this time this December, the Phillies have reached a three-year agreement with free agent Andrew McCutchen. The contract includes a fourth-year club option, and it’s worth a total of $50 million. McCutchen is headed into his age-32 season, and between the ages of 29-31, he’s been worth 7.4 WAR, with a wRC+ of 116. There is no qualifying-offer penalty to consider here, as McCutchen was traded last summer. The Phillies presumably think this is a great deal at the time.
The parallels are spelled out right there. If you feel like being negative, you could accuse the Phillies of making the same mistake two years in a row. Yet for a variety of little reasons, McCutchen seems like a more suitable get. This isn’t a bargain — McCutchen’s getting paid real money. But how this can work out is more clear, as McCutchen returns to Pennsylvania.
Both Santana and McCutchen are bat-first players, and while both of them hit for power, their strength might well be their discipline. One separating factor, of course, is that McCutchen is coming $10 million cheaper. Spread over three years, maybe that’s not that significant for a big-budget ballclub, but this guarantee is lower by 17%. That’s one thing that appeals to the Phillies.
The qualifying offer is another factor, one the Phillies didn’t have to think about this time. It’s hard to put an exact price on a draft pick, and it’s also hard to put a market price on bonus-pool money, but from the Phillies’ perspective, Santana didn’t cost them $60 million in resources. It would’ve been something more like $65 million or so. The gap, then, is only greater. Just because peripheral compensation is easy to ignore doesn’t mean it doesn’t weigh on the people making decisions.
It’s worth additionally thinking about where the Phillies are, and where they were. Last season, the Phillies were competitive, and maybe more competitive than they expected to be. Ultimately, though, the team fell well short. Now the idea is to stick firmly in contention in 2019 and beyond, as the Phillies emerge from their organizational rebuild. When you’re signing premium free agents to premium money, you want to have those players helping to push you toward the playoffs. McCutchen fits the Phillies’ expected window.
And perhaps most obviously, there are the positions Santana and McCutchen play. Signings like this aren’t made in isolation, and Santana displaced first baseman Rhys Hoskins. The hope was that Hoskins could turn into a respectable defensive corner outfielder, but that didn’t happen, as Hoskins was a glaring vulnerability. The need to move Hoskins back to first more or less pushed Santana out the door. McCutchen isn’t going to do anything like that. It’s fair to point out that McCutchen himself is not an above-average outfield defender, and the Phillies already had outfield options in Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams, Roman Quinn, and Aaron Altherr. But this is how Steamer and our depth charts saw the Phillies’ outfield, combined, before the McCutchen move:
That’s not going to do it. That’s not the outfield of a team trying to win. There’s upside, I suppose, with all four of the Phillies’ preexisting main options, but the time to be patient is running out, and no one did much to emerge last year. Herrera has only gone backward. Williams hasn’t figured out how to field. Altherr just lost all the offensive gains he made in 2017. Quinn looks like a speedy backup. McCutchen is good. He’s not great, not anymore, but he’s just a plain old good player, who’s always been able to hit, and who has yet to lose his ability to run. The Phillies have gotten meaningfully better, and they can also stay in touch with Bryce Harper, since the outfield still has room.
Because McCutchen is on the long side of 30, time will erode him at some point. It ought to be understood that 2019 McCutchen will likely be better than 2020 McCutchen, and 2020 McCutchen will likely be better than 2021 McCutchen. This is a free-agent contract that looks like an *old* free-agent contract, before the market got so picky. McCutchen did well for himself. One hint that his could be a graceful aging process can be found in his discipline numbers. Now, McCutchen has never been a free-swinger. Among qualified hitters in 2016, though, he ranked 29th in chase rate. In 2017, he ranked 13th. In 2018, he ranked second, behind only Joey Votto. McCutchen has grown more selective, and he’s learned to lay off more pitches up. His eye should keep McCutchen dangerous at the plate.
And just thinking about the Phillies’ plans, this is a team that has a lot of money to throw around. This is also a team with few payroll commitments beyond 2019. Few teams should be able to afford free-agent money better than the Phillies can. Though the team is coming out of a rebuild process, the farm system ranks in the middle of the pack, and there isn’t a young outfielder beating down the door, requiring ample playing time. The Phillies, I imagine, would rather spend money than spend prospects. It took $50 million to get McCutchen to commit, but the Phillies didn’t lose anything else. The money regenerates faster than the prospects do. Now the prospects can be kept, or traded for somebody at another position. The Phillies aren’t in a place where they have to worry about every single dollar.
And so, McCutchen. Andrew McCutchen is in, and Jean Segura is in, and Jose Alvarez is in, and Carlos Santana is out. Every team dreams up a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C, and beyond, and you have to make moves at some point, or else you go nowhere. By locking down McCutchen, the Phillies can move on to the next step. They don’t have to worry about the outfield as much anymore, and they don’t have to wait for A.J. Pollock to make a decision, or for another team to get back on a trade. There’s a little bit of value in having the certainty, with so many moving parts around the league. It’s one more need to cross off the list.
For McCutchen himself, as well, this is a positive outcome, not only because he’s going back to Pennsylvania, but also because the contract terms are fair, and free agency treated him with dignity. McCutchen didn’t have to wait around for several months, and he didn’t have to settle for a short-term deal, just because he’s 32 years old and no longer elite. Given how the market has behaved, it wouldn’t have been that hard to see McCutchen getting trapped, settling for a year and $15 million in the weeks before spring training. Thankfully that wasn’t his course, whether by design or by luck. Based on Andrew McCutchen alone, you’d think the free-agent market is working just fine. We’ll see how it works out for other players in his tier.
There’s more that the Phillies are intending to do. The Braves and Nationals have already made splashes, and the Mets are aggressively acting to improve. In 2019’s NL East division, it’s going to be a pretty bad year for the Marlins, and a competitive year for everyone else.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.