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The Best Enigmas Money Can Buy

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 18: Manny Machado #13 of the San Diego Padres reacts after flying out during the seventh inning against the Philadelphia Phillies in game one of the National League Championship Series at PETCO Park on October 18, 2022 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The thing you can count on with the current-day Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres is that they will throw money around when they want to matter. They have not yet gotten the consistent returns that motivated profligacy are supposed to provide, but every now and then they’ll get lucky enough to matter, which brings us at our nexus today. In this year’s National League where the Los Angeles Dodgers died a month short of best-team-ever bar chats and the Atlanta Braves suddenly lost all their pitching in a back-alley craps game, well-intentioned money-burning and a bit of luck on the back end have forced the Phils and Pads together in … well, whatever this is.

There is little likelihood of a repeat of Game 1, in which Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber hit improbable homers by height and then by depth, and Zack Wheeler spaced one hit over seven stupefying innings to surprise the nation into thinking the Phillies might actually be extraordinary after all this time and that the Padres are still same old same olds. That said, Payroll Four beat Payroll Five, which says nothing more than that when you do business close to galactic-spending teams, plucky overachieving comes at a considerable and consistent cost. Frankly, based on that spending, how they managed to finish a distant fifth and sixth in the league is more a statement on how close they came to being the Brewers and Giants than it is their inherent virtues. Bryce Harper could have been Hunter Renfroe and Manny Machado could have been Joc Pederson. Be haunted by that awhile.

This may be why this will be a more fascinating series than Astros-Yankees despite Tuesday night’s cavalcade of two moments. Two teams with desperately grand ambitions motivated by survival in hyper-expensive neighborhoods, as opposed to the oppressive Yankees hiding behind the massive shadow of Aaron Judge and the charmlessly excellent Astros hiding behind the glowing toothpick of Dusty Baker.

The Phillies and Padres are not yet trustworthy enough to be juggernauts, so their series will be more hoping than knowing. Harper’s homer was the moment the Phillies have already paid $100 million of his $330 million contract for, while the Padres are trying to reconcile the Juan Soto they have gotten so far with the Juan Soto they are going to have to pay maybe twice as much to retain, just on the odd hope that he, Machado, and Fernando Tatis Jr., will ever appear on the same field together. In the meantime, they are incomplete and weirdly assembled, just as the Phillies are with folks like Schwarber and Brandon Marsh and Nick Castellanos and J.T. Realmuto.

The lesson is clear: Spending $450 million to win 106 and 99 wins, as the AL finalists have, is by its very nature less entertaining than spending $495 million to win 89 and 87. Everyone’s hearts and wallets are seemingly in the right places, but those are mostly credits to the owners and general managers, not to the people you want to actually watch. The Phillies got a pleasant if sporadic payoff on their system Tuesday night, while the Padres are still trying to learn what exactly they are spending their money on. If that seems a soulless analysis, well, we just need more games, and we need them to be more erratic and goofy and less antiseptic, because Game 1 was, well, not the Phillies and Padres we have come to expect. We need them to make us remember them, because the next series comes down hard on either of them.

Which, weirdly, is what we thought their previous series were going to do.