Six years ago, Jake Arrieta looked out into the distance and asked one of the great vexing questions in human history.
Where's the best cheesesteak in Philly?— Jake Arrieta (@JArrieta34) June 25, 2012
The 2015 NL Cy Young winner will have ample time to find out after agreeing on Sunday to a three-year deal with the Phillies. Arrieta is slated to make $75 million over a frontloaded three-year contract, with an opt-out after year two. The Phillies could void that opt-out by giving him a two-year extension for 2021-2022 at between $20 million at $30 million a year, depending on incentives. That deal puts the best remaining player on the free-agent market on a team with nothing but potential. With the city still wiping lube off its streetlamps after the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, and with the Joel Embiid–led Sixers making good on years of Process-trusting, the Phillies have announced that they’re ready to contend again as well. The specter of multisport Philadelphia dominance looms over us like a moon in a decaying orbit.
The Phillies have been more or less irrelevant since their last playoff appearance in 2011, though there have been fits and starts of promise since. In 2017, they went 66-96, a record that belies the quality of their 2018 roster. Aaron Nola, a 24-year-old right-hander, bounced back from an injury-plagued 2016 to post a 119 ERA+ and a 9.9 K/9 ratio in 27 starts last season. Center fielder Odúbel Herrera, an All-Star in 2016, struggled before the ’17 All-Star break but hit .323/.378/.551 after it. Outfielder Aaron Altherr had to write off 2016 after a wrist injury, but in 412 plate appearances in 2017, he hit .272/.340/.516. Second baseman César Hernández is coming off two straight three-win seasons.
All four of those players are between 24 and 27 years old and could start for playoff-quality teams even if this is as good as they’re going to get. If the Phillies improve by the 20 or so wins it’ll take to get into the playoff conversation, it won’t be because of Nola and Herrera; it’ll be because of the astounding volume of crap they’ll be clearing from their lineup. Last year, wins above average had the Phillies 29th at first base, tied for 29th at third base, tied for 20th at shortstop, and 25th in right field, and the team should improve at all of those positions this season.
Just to hit some of the lowlights: 2017 first baseman Tommy Joseph is by all accounts a nice guy and a hell of a human interest story, but he’s a dogshit hitter for a starting first baseman. Out of 28 first baseman who qualified for the batting title last year, Joseph was dead last in wRC+ at 85. This year, the Phillies are replacing him with free agent Carlos Santana, who posted a 117 wRC+ for Cleveland last year.
The Phillies were so bad in right field last year because Michael Saunders, Cam Perkins, and Hyun-Soo Kim combined for minus-2.5 bWAR in 408 combined plate appearances. Those plate appearances will now go to second-year players Nick Williams (113 OPS+ in 2017) and Rhys Hoskins, who came out of the draft as a right-handed small-college first baseman with the potential to turn into Paul Goldschmidt, but only if everything went right during his development. Well, everything went right, and in 212 PA as a rookie, he hit a Goldschmidtian .259/.396/.618.
Catcher Cameron Rupp, meanwhile, posted an 88 OPS+ in 2017 and finished 71st out of 73 in adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average among catchers with at least 1,000 chances. He also started to share time with rookie Jorge Alfaro, who should be the starter this year. Alfaro, one of the players who came over from Texas in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade, made the Baseball Prospectus top-101-prospects list for a record-setting seventh season this year. And as a toolsy, slow-developing catcher with big power and a big throwing arm, Alfaro could be compared to one of the players who made the BP top 101 five times: Yankee catcher Gary Sánchez. Alfaro still has to prove himself long-term at the big league level, but he has special power and athleticism for a catcher, and in 114 PA last year, he hit .318/.360/.514.
Even after that, pitchers Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff, who both showed no. 2 starter upside in 2015 and 2016, could bounce back from rough 2017 seasons. Shortstop J.P. Crawford is no longer a Francisco Lindor–level prospect, but he should at the very least play high-level defense at that position and improve somewhat on the departed Freddy Galvis’s .287 career OBP. Free agents Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter should improve the bullpen and help keep the Phillies from underperforming their run differential by six wins again.
In short, the 2018 Phillies look a lot like the 2017 Twins: a team with tons of young talent that looks set to break out but is still a couple of reliable starting pitchers short of contending. Arrieta fills their greatest need, because even if Eickhoff and Velasquez do turn out to be their best selves over 30 starts, someone’s going to get hurt and miss a few starts here or there, and after Nola, Eickhoff, and Velasquez, the Phillies have a lot of question marks and replacement-level pitchers in the pipeline.
Arrieta isn’t the best pitcher in baseball like he was in the second half of 2015, but he’s still very good: He made 30 starts in 2017, posting a 123 ERA+. And signing him costs the Phillies nothing but trivial draft-pick compensation and money. Before the Arrieta signing, the Phillies were running a $63.7 million payroll, which is unacceptable for a team in a market that size. When they were title contenders the better part of a decade ago, the Phillies were consistently a top-five payroll team—they could probably sustain a payroll three, maybe four times as big as the one they were running before the Arrieta signing.
Meanwhile, the Phillies are entering a part of their rebuild in which spending on established free agents would be particularly advantageous. The Nationals are heavy favorites in the NL East, and the wild-card picture is crowded in the National League, with the Brewers, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Giants, and Rockies all likely to be in the mix. But the Phillies have so much upside from so many young players and have filled so many holes along the way that you can start to talk yourself into them as a wild-card contender in 2018—and definitely in 2019. And after the Nationals, the NL East is a mess: The Marlins aren’t even pretending to try, the Braves are entering year five of the tear-down part of their rebuild, and the less said about the Mets the better. The Nationals probably won’t collapse, but if they do, the Phillies have put themselves in a good position to take advantage.
Replacing Nick Pivetta (70 ERA+ in 2017) or Ben Lively (52 strikeouts in 88 ⅔ career IP) with Arrieta means the Phillies need fewer breakout seasons, fewer lucky bounces, and fewer tactical master strokes from rookie manager Gabe Kapler in order to make that long-awaited return to contention real. And while Arrieta’s a huge help on his own, it makes sense for the Phillies to keep shopping: Why not go get Greg Holland to fill out the bullpen? Why not go get Alex Cobb as insurance for Eickhoff or to fill out the rotation if Velasquez needs a few weeks in the bullpen to recover from fatigue or on the DL to recover from a potential injury? They have nothing to lose but a blip on the ledger of billionaire owner John S. Middleton—and so much to gain.
But let’s say the Phillies fall short of their best-case scenario. Let’s say they stay within a few games of Washington until the All-Star break then run out of gas and finish around .500. It would still be a huge marker of progress, a statement of intent to top 2018-19 free agents like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and to a fan base that’s laid dormant since the last time the Phillies were this much of a factor in the free-agent market. It’s still far from a certainty that the Phillies will return to the playoffs this season, but it’s a whole lot likelier than it was six hours ago.