The Phillies threw money at the problem and thrived

Four years into his Phillies career, Bryce Harper owns a .282/.394/.546 line, which is good for 150 OPS+ and an average of 4.6 WAR over a standard season.

Three years into his Phillies career, Zack Wheeler has a 2.82 ERA over 69 starts, which is good for an average of 6.7 WAR over a standard season.

Through the first three series in his first postseason since 2017, Bryce Harper is hitting .419/.444/.907 with 11 extra-base hits (six doubles, five homers) over 11 games, including the homer that put the Phillies ahead for good in the Game 5 clincher.

Four starts into his first-ever postseason, Wheeler has a 1.78 ERA with just 16 baserunners (10 hits, three walks, three HBPs) against 25 strikeouts over 25⅓ games, including strong starts in Games 1 and 5.

Thanks to their efforts — and plenty of help elsewhere — the Phillies are going to the World Series from the sixth seed in the first year of a freshly expanded postseason.

The White Sox could’ve had both of them. In fact, they supposedly offered Wheeler more money than the Phillies, and unlike the contract they presented Manny Machado, it didn’t take incentives to get there. Wheeler signed with the Phillies because he wanted to remain on the East Coast.

I sympathized with the White Sox at the time. Wheeler’s five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies cleared the crowdsourced and industry estimates by plenty, and while Rick Hahn theoretically could have offered him well beyond what Philadelphia gave him to truly test Wheeler’s geographic preferences, going for $135 million might’ve warped their priorities, because the team had other positions to address.

But then you realize what their priorities were even without a Wheeler-grade signing on the books, and you realize how Hahn squandered his precious flexibility despite cutting corners on Machado and losing interest in Harper, and you realize that Hahn, Kenny Williams and Jerry Reinsdorf just don’t close.


Dave Dombrowski didn’t sign Harper, or Wheeler, or J.T. Realmuto for that matter — he took over after the 2020 season because those signings couldn’t propel to the Phillies out of a rut — but when he assessed the situation, he threw more expensive logs on top of the fire with Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos. Despite the “stupid money” and a depth chart that produced a lot of unusual baseball, the talent has ultimately prevailed. Now Dombrowski is taking a fourth different franchise to a World Series, which cements his status as an eventual Hall of Fame executive.

Brian Bannister, who is currently the San Francisco Giants’ pitching director but served in the role with the Red Sox under Dombrowski before that, posted a lengthy Twitter thread explaining why he believes Dombrowski is so reliably successful. The whole thing is worth reading, but the middle section stood out.

This approach — which is something like “sign good players to whatever they demand, even if they don’t round out your roster” — is easier to praise when the results look like this, rather than what the Phillies’87-75 record and distance third place in the NL East suggested they’d be. There isn’t a whole lot separating it from throwing good money after bad, which is why the Dombrowski experience isn’t for every market.

But in the case of the Phillies, they threw good money after good. They didn’t cap themselves on major investments because major investments weren’t the source of the letdown. Sure, they struggled developing the other half of their infield, their starting rotation was top-heavy, and they still wear the scars from some crazy bullpen explosions. But the guys with the $70+ million contracts were the ones keeping hope alive, so they kept spending, and look at them now.

This disregard for future payrolls means the diminishing returns can hit in a hurry, but as we saw during Dombrowski’s time with the Tigers, sometimes those diminishing returns arrive years later than expected. When that happens, Dombrowski is literally buying time.

That’s what’s so frustrating when Hahn says “We’re not going to be able to just throw money at the problem,” because 1) the Sox have never actually tried that, at least like a big-boy team, and 2) the Phillies just showed that such a course is possible.

When you look at the moves made by Hahn over the last four acquisition periods — two winters, two trade deadlines — the Lance Lynn trade is the only one that aggressively attempted to generate wins. Just about every other transaction, the bulk of which involve the bullpen and bench, has tried to lessen the White Sox’s chances of losing. Those two things are not the same, because Liam Hendriks, Kendall Graveman and Joe Kelly by definition can’t put the Sox in front.

When the incumbent talent stagnated for one reason or another, that left nobody new who could shoulder the responsibility. While the Sox fretted about the risks of a $300 million contract, they ignored the dangers of such a conservative approach. Not only did they hit a dead end just the same, but they picked such a boring way to do it.

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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kujoth

I have done a complete 180 regarding Dombrowski over the years. I used to laugh and say things like “that contract is going to suck in five years,” but now I just wish I could say “the next five years are gonna be fun.”

BenwithVen

Man, Rick Hahn really makes it easy to use his own words against him.

As Cirensica

It generally does when you suck at what you do, and you need to sell your doings as something smart people do, which they don’t do because they are smart and Hahn isn’t.

Last edited 1 month ago by As Cirensica
Wayne

Hahn is smart. He is not good at his job. I want a good paying job, in sports, with great job security, no real accountability, in my hometown.
For a GM, he probably has the best work-life balance.

steelydan52

Yes. He is obviously a very smart man. Just not at baseball.

As Cirensica

He is more lucky than smart if you ask me

dwjm3

I think as a fanbase we would have been content with just one 100 million dollar player in this window of contention. They wouldn’t even give us that.

BillyKochFanClub

Sox RFs during the competitive window have been Nomar Mazara, a beyond his expiration date Adam Eaton, and AJ Pollock. The Sox ignored Harper so they could retain the “financial flexibility” to cycle through that exciting trio.

As you said, Dombrowski’s method does have an unfortunate downside where he eventually leaves the roster a hot mess, but that sounds so much better than a GM that strictly tweaks the margins once he’s got a talented core because he’s too afraid of losing the financial flexibility to grab the Leury Garcia’s of the world.

Buehrlesque

I agree with a lot of the points here and am enjoying the Phillies destiny October run so far. At the same time, to keep things in perspective, they finished the season 87-75, a distant 3rd place in their division, and squeaked into the new expanded second Wildcard. If we think the regular season is a better indicator of a team’s strength, saying they “thrived” is a stretch.

That said, they navigated the new MLB system where all that matters is being hot at the right time on the calendar, so their narrative at the end of it all sounds a lot nicer.

(Total agreement though that the Sox’ process, outcome and narrative is ass, even by comparison.)

Wayne

Playing the system you are dealt is key. Put them in the NL or AL Central, and they look fantastic.

TommyAgeeFan

The thing is, the Chisox just don’t have this in their DNA. They struck gold in 2005 and earned the top prize.

Fast forward to the past few years. The way they approached Manny Machado tells the story. They’d prefer to get a few guys on the cheap, discount this and discount that, and hope for good things to happen.

In my life, I remember only two major FA signings; Carlton Fisk and Albert Bell. Three, if you count Adam Dunn. Maybe there’s more, can’t quite remember. I see a pattern here.

In the end, this is the team we choose to root for. Cheer at your own risk.

asinwreck

Floyd Bannister in the fall of 1982 was the top pitcher on the market. That signing, less than two years after getting Fisk, made me think this ownership group would compete for elite talent going forward.

Jerry Reinsdorf really made a fool out of me.

ParisSox

Me too. I thought, it’s not Debartolo but ok.

abehickock

I believe Eddie Einhorn was more involved in the baseball operation during those early years and probably responsible for those signings.

chipporter

Do you have any reasoning behind this, or it’s just your speculation? (which is fine too)

Wayne

Not the OP, but I would care to speculate it. Eddie Einhorn was an “innovator” and bold type person.

  • Nationally syndicated College Basketball (NCAA Championship)
  • Founded TVS Television Network to telecast college basketball to regional networks (when national networks were not interested)
  • Promoted Big Events (“Game fo the Century” for basketball, “Sinatra: The Main Event”
  • Got national TV interest into College Basketball
  • Was a strong supportor of NFL alternatives (World Football League and USFL)
  • Owned International Wrestling Association and was offering better money and benefits (transportation and lodging) than competing promotions and bringing in big stars.
ParisSox

Your 2022 Chicago White Sox: Cheer At Your Own Risk

670WMAQtheElder

Fisk and Luzinski were signed by the then new ownership to get people to buy ONTV. Bell was a big FU from JR after the strike in 1994. Dunn was merely a mistake, and made this an even more risk averse organization.

JR should just let go the purse strings. He won’t live forever and buying stars in the FA market will increase the value of the team for his kids to sell. The Sox need a brand and it should be we are an elite MLB team.

joewho112

You can win without buying A-list stars if you instead go out and buy multiple B-List stars in their place. The Sox pass on the A-, B-, and C-list players and just root around the bargain bin.

asinwreck

There’s an alternate universe where Jerry Reinsdorf atones for a 1986 firing that should never have happened and puts Dave Dombrowski in charge of baseball operations. That would never happen with an owner so uninterested in competing for elite talent in the 21st century, but it has some precedent in Reinsdorf’s distant history.

Sox brass won’t take the lesson as the Phillies threw money at their problems to win; rather, they will spin it to themselves as “see, the last team into the playoffs can go to the World Series; thus we’ll continue to appropriate just enough payroll to have a seat at the table with the other teams vying to be the 5th or 6th best team in the AL.”

chipporter

But by being willing to lose a trade slightly at times from a valuation perspective it often gives you access to special players.

Isn’t this the, we just missed ’em, M.O. of our front office?

BTW, Great piece, Jim.

Last edited 1 month ago by chipporter
HallofFrank

I mostly agree with the piece. But it’s at least worth considering whether we should withhold judgment a little longer on Dombrowski’s strategy. It’s easy for him to show his rings with different teams. But the fans don’t follow him. They stick with the team. And he tends to leave teams in shambles and crippled for years. That Tigers run (for example) was great, but I suspect Tigers fans have mixed feelings about Dombrowski.

Flags fly forever, I suppose. But if you told me I could only get 2005 if it came with a decade of crap, I’m not sure if I’d accept.

HallofFrank

Yeah, this is what I’m alluding to: Sox fans are living this (albeit for different reasons) so we’re in a good position to evaluate it.

I’ll take Dombrowski’s problems to the White Sox problems, to be clear. There are worse ways to be. I’m just wondering if Dombrowski’s model should be commended, and if there aren’t better models for fans to pine for. As I said above, I mostly agree with what you’ve written. But my point is that the full scope of Dombrowski’s work won’t be known for years.

chipporter

With the more transient nature of players these days, Dombrowski’s model might be more and more appropriate. Really, in the current era, only the Astros and Dodgers have anything resembling sustained success, semi-dynastic.

I think you could be a great GM and toil a long time before you came up with the kind of success those 2 franchises have currently. Lots of good decisions combined with the smiling fortune of the baseball gods. Tough recipe to duplicate, especially with the baseball gods being so fickle.

Last edited 1 month ago by chipporter
HallofFrank

You might be right. My point is that Dombrowski’s strategy, more than your typical GM, requires some patience to evaluate because the ripples can last long beyond his tenure. For example, if the Tigers and Red Sox continue to languish, then he leaves the Phillies in disrepair for several years, I think it’s worth asking fans of those teams: was it worth it?

Dombrowski’s model (again, more than your typical GM) has a Barnum Circus feel. He’ll come to town and stir up lots of excitement, but then he’ll leave. If you’re a resident of the town, you’ll at least be curious about the state when he does leave. Because he’s not cleaning up any potential messes. You are.

Again, I mostly agree with what Jim wrote. And I’d prefer what Dombrowski is doing to what Hahn is doing, no doubt. But I’m hesitant to give this model a thumbs up because I don’t think we have enough information to judge it yet.

patrick

In current day professional sports I don’t think you’re looking at 10 years of sustained success as being the norm, this isn’t college football.

Dombrowski led the Tigers to 5 playoff appearances, 4 ALCS appearances, and 2 World Series appearances.

The White Sox have been to the playoffs 11 times in 118 years. I think it’s safe to say I would trade a few bummer years to have that kind of short-term success rather than bang my head against the wall every summer for almost the entirety of my adult life.

BillyKochFanClub

Also, while the Tigers having to rebuild in 2017 is on Dombrowski, their continued struggles into ‘23 is all on Al Avila.

Not to mention the Tigers were a poverty franchise from ‘89 through ‘05 until Dombrowski turned them around. His methods work and I would be interested in seeing him helm a rebuild after one of his competitive window closes as his early results with the Tigers in sell off trades (Robbie Ray, Micheal Fulmer, Matt Boyd) were pretty successful.

HallofFrank

You (and others) seem to be not reading what I’m saying. In both of my previous comments, I’ve said: I’d far prefer Dombrowski to Hahn or the White Sox model. I don’t know how to make that clearer.

My point (to give it another go) is simple: Dombrowski’s model or style as a GM is unique and needs to be evaluated differently than we evaluate other GMs. You can’t (or shouldn’t) only look at his success during his tenure since the strategy is (to put it crudely) mortgaging the future in order to win now.

I’m manifestly not saying that “10 years of sustained success” is the “norm” in baseball. I’m not even sure what I’ve said this is a reference to.

As Cirensica

I find it hard to criticize Dombrowski when we have Hahn.

dwjm3

Honestly, we are looking up at every organization except maybe the Rockies. I’d take just about every front office over ours.

HallofFrank

See my 3 comments above where I say I’d rather have Dombroski than Hahn.

upnorthsox

Other than Cabrera there wasn’t anything long lasting from Dombrowski on the Tigers, in hindsight they probably should’ve kept Verlander those last 2 years. He spent a lot while he was there for sure, but then he had an owner who was willing to spend. I’d say the only regret was that they didn’t win it all but 4 ALCS’s is nice consolation.

HallofFrank

I don’t think it’s that simple. GMs affect baseball operations, top to bottom. It’s not only lingering albatross contracts. A bad GM can cripple a franchise for a long time. That doesn’t mean it’s exclusively his fault. But his effects could outlast any of his moves.

For analogy, imagine if Hahn left after the ’23 season. He’d be leaving relatively little by way of payroll commitments for the next guy. But who knows how long it’d take to turn the ship around? And this is coming from a guy who we think is too cautious.

upnorthsox

He was the GM for 13 years, it wasn’t some kind of hit-n-run GM debacle. He took over a shit team, got them to the WS, reloaded and got them back to the WS. He left them with a still effective Verlander, Cabrera, V Martinez, and Kinsler. He also left them with a young and/or established David Price, JD Martinez, Castellanos, Boyd, Shane Greene, and Yoenis Cespedes. That’s a better core than the Sox have now. His biggest mistake besides the length of the Cabrera contract was hiring Brad Ausmus to replace Leyland.

HallofFrank

To be clear, I’m not only talking about the Tigers nor am I saying he’s a bad GM. I’m saying (again): his model requires patience to evaluate. If what Bannister says about Dombrowski is true, it’s a model that favors short-term outcomes at a long-term expense. That means the full picture will take a while to sort out.

In other words, it very well may be that Dombrowski is a genius and we’ll look back on his tenures with the Tigers, Red Sox, and Phillies as unqualified successes. My point was and is pretty simple: Dombrowski’s model will just take longer than most GMs to evaluate.

upnorthsox

Well he certainly chose to work for clubs that were at a point where they were willing to spend, that in itself makes his history unique and thus hard to compare. I guess my point was that the job he did with Tigers was pretty good in total and if the son hadn’t taken over he may have gotten to another WS.

HallofFrank

That’s fair. And maybe he was with the Tigers long enough to make my point moot. I’m really just trying to point out that Dombrowski’s strategy—which, as Jim suggested, includes consciously taking some long-term losses for short-term gains—must be evaluated with a wider lens than we normally evaluate GMs. He may only be around for the short-term. The fans are around for the long-term.

OldMMJ87

One thing that I think people forget when discussing Dombrowski is he also landed a lot of the guys on those Expo teams in the early ’90s (culminating in ’94), he also landed a lot of the guys that were core pieces of the 2003 Marlins after he had to blow up the roster in 1997. Yes, he’s benefitted from teams that are willing to spend but he’s also built teams based on scouting and drafting well.

670WMAQtheElder

Hahn and KW wouldn’t have lasted 20 plus years with the Sox by taking financial risks, especially with such a frugal owner. Careerism runs rampant in mediocre organizations, such as the Sox.

The 2022 playoffs have demonstrated that to be in the playoffs teams must have an elite player or two: a top line starter and a hitter. Players that force the opponent to adjust away from its usual game.

Judge would be a really good investment, both on the field and off. He would put the Sox “on the map” in Chicago and nationally because he’s an exciting player, and sell a lot of tickets, plus plug the RF hole for years.

One can dream, right?

calcetinesblancos

Yeah it’s funny to hear him say they can’t throw money at the problem now considering they wouldn’t have these problems if they had simply thrown money at them a few years ago; many are the same problems lol.

Harper got a long deal. But Harper is also a singular offensive force, and the AAV on his deal isn’t even that much. Can you imagine the shock and goodwill that would have resulted from the Sox signing Harper? It would have been ridiculous, and they would probably make a third of the contract back in jersey sales alone.

Now that Tony is gone, we have to go back to focusing on this shitty team unfortunately.

jorgefabregas

Was looking to see if any White Sox players were getting run in LIDOM (Dominican Winter League). Wilfred Veras seems to be doing quite well given his age. Makes his small sample AA performance look a little less fluky. Here are some comments from his manager, who is probably overrating the fact that he made it to AA given the whole Camp Birmingham deal. But there is an interesting tidbit about Veras having one of the highest exit velocities in the White Sox minor leagues.

https://lidom-com.translate.goog/peguero-considera-wilfred-veras-futuro-jugador-franquicia-de-estrellas/?_x_tr_sl=auto&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=wapp

Remove the translate dot goog to get the original, untranslated version.

Joliet Orange Sox

I just talked to a friend who is a big Yankees fan. He summarized the current mood on his favorite Yankee board as “Cashman has to go because he’s been there too long and he didn’t really try to sign Harper”. I think complaining that your team didn’t sign Harper may be a common pastime around baseball.

In anticipation of some replies, I agree that as a left-handed bad who plays right field Harper was a particularly good fit for the Sox and I also agree that Hahn has had much less success than Cashman. I’m not posting this as a Hahn defense in any way shape or form.

Last edited 1 month ago by Joliet Orange Sox
steelydan52

Well Skip Schumaker was hired by the Marlins so we can scratch him off the Sox list. Wait. Never mind.
All this chatter about Dombrowski and Cashman, all the anxiety about how bad Hahn has been and raising our blood pressure, well, we all know he’s not going anywhere. I really wish fans would quit going to games and buying Sox stuff. That’s all Reinsdorf understands. If he’s not making money then it’s a game changer, I would hope. I don’t care if he threatens to move the team. Chicago has already proven that it can have 2 teams. If we have to go through another rebuild, let it be with a different franchise. Or he can just sell. Whatever works.

To Err is Herrmann

Wait….1) Let Jerry move the W. Sox to Montreal, Nashville or Portland; then 2) petition MLB to add a new franchise to the South Side of Chicago?

I like that. The Chicago Muddy Waters.

steelydan52

Done!

StockroomSnail

I only like the money holes in the bullpen. The money holes in RF are just no damn good and larger.