When reports first surfaced that the Philadelphia Phillies were interested in Yoshinobu Yamamoto, plenty of fans were taken by surprise. It’s not that Yamamoto wouldn’t be a good fit – he’s a 25-year-old superstar free agent, he’d be a good fit for absolutely any team – but the Phillies have never signed a player directly from NPB.
Sure, they were interested in Shohei Ohtani six years ago, but who wasn’t? By and large, the Phillies haven’t ever been major players for the top Japanese free agents.
Furthermore, Yamamoto is likely to command the highest guaranteed salary of any free agent pitcher this winter, aside from Ohtani – and that’s in addition to the sizeable posting fee his new club would have to pay his former team, the Orix Buffaloes. (Plus, according to some recent comments from Yamamoto’s agent, teams without any other Japanese players might have to pay a premium to sign him.)
The Phillies are no penny-pinchers, and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has done commendable work convincing ownership to spend top dollar on star players. Still, even large-market teams have their limits, and Philadelphia didn’t have much money come off the books this winter.
Yamamoto and the Phillies just didn’t seem like a good fit.
Aaron Nola Re-Signs on a Seven-Year Deal
Once the Phillies came to terms on a seven-year, $172 million contract with Aaron Nola, most fans thought the Yamamoto rumors had been put to rest. However, it wasn’t long before reports came out that the Phillies were still interested in the Japanese superstar (per Alex Coffey of The Philadelphia Inquirer).
Needless to say, that came as an even bigger surprise. The Phillies are set to enter the 2024 season with one of the best starting rotations in baseball, headlined by Nola and Zack Wheeler, with Ranger Suárez, Taijuan Walker, and Cristopher Sánchez behind them. What’s more, the Phillies are also set to enter the 2024 season with one of the highest payrolls in baseball.
The estimates from Roster Resource have the team’s luxury tax payroll sitting at $252 million. That’s about $11 million under last year’s number and $25 million under the third luxury tax threshold. Presuming the Phillies don’t want to cross into that third tier of penalties, they have just under $25 million remaining to improve a roster that currently looks almost identical to the one that lost in the NLCS.
That’s not an insignificant amount of money; Nola’s annual average salary will be $24.57 million over the next seven years. However, the Phillies can’t just offer Yamamoto a $25 million AAV if they want to stay under the $277 million threshold.
How Much Do the Phillies Have Left to Spend?
First things first, the Roster Resource estimated payroll is only that – an estimate. The Phillies have five players approaching arbitration, and, in theory, all five could end up signing for more than their projected salaries. The team also has to account for the salaries of pre-arb players and minor leaguers on the 40-man roster, as well as player benefits.
In addition, Philadelphia could really use at least one more proven arm for the bullpen and a better bat for the bench. Those don’t need to be costly pickups, but they will cost something.
In a similar vein, the Phillies need to save some space to take on additional salary in trades. They have added at least one veteran before the deadline in every season under Dombrowski’s leadership, which means tacking a few extra million onto the preseason payroll.
Thus, if we’re treating $277 million as a hypothetical cap, the Phillies probably have about $18 million left to spend this winter. That gives them flexibility to add at the deadline and a buffer in case arbitration salaries are higher than expected. With $18 million, Philadelphia could add a back-end reliever to replace Craig Kimbrel and a bench bat to push Jake Cave off the roster. Alternatively, they could pick up an outfield bat to share time with Brandon Marsh and Johan Rojas, plus a lower-leverage reliever to eat innings out of the bullpen.
However, $18 million isn’t going to get them Yamamoto – unless they’re planning to offer him a 13-year, $220 million deal.
What Will the Phillies Do Next?
So, what can we expect from the Phillies going forward? The most likely answer is that they’re done making major additions. After all, this team is already pretty good, and their biggest improvements are likely to come from within. That means a full season of Bryce Harper’s bat in the lineup, a full season of Kyle Schwarber’s glove gathering dust in his locker, and a full season of Cristopher Sánchez in the rotation and Orion Kerkering in the bullpen.
That being said, Dave Dombrowski does his best work when no one is expecting it. The legendary executive has taken fans by surprise in each of the past two winters. He pushed the team into luxury tax territory for the first time two years ago, and the following season, he moved them up into the second tier of luxury tax penalties. Who’s to say he won’t bring payroll even higher in 2024?
Is Yamamoto in the Cards?
A talent like Yamamoto doesn’t come around very often. He’s only 25 years old, and free agents with his talent, track record, and youth are few and far between. Even Harper was already 26 when he signed his 13-year mega-deal. If there is a player worth emptying manager partner John Middleton’s pockets for, it’s Yamamoto, and if there is any executive who can convince Middleton of such, it’s Dombrowski.
Moreover, if the Phillies really need to shed salary in order to take on Yamamoto, they can find a way to do so. It might not be the most efficient use of resources, but if Middleton has a hard cap he won’t spend past, then Dombrowski could free up some payroll space by trading one or two high-priced veterans. The Phillies could surely find a buyer for Taijuan Walker or Nick Castellanos and get some money off the books as long as they’re willing to absorb a significant amount of the costs.
It’s all unlikely, but Dombrowski has pulled off unlikely moves before. Middleton, for his part, clearly has the hunger to win, and after opening his checkbook for so many high-priced veterans in recent years, you’d have to think he’s tempted to sign one more star to push this team over the top.
With a Cerberus of Wheeler, Nola, and Yamamoto leading the rotation, the Phillies could challenge the Braves in the NL East. They could win 100 games. They could win it all. A three-headed monster like that would be worth every penny.
The possibility of Yamamoto wearing red pinstripes is highly unlikely, but it’s equally tantalizing. So, who else will the Phillies add this winter? Probably just a few role players. But who could they add?
Perhaps the final piece of the puzzle.