Just over a decade ago, the Philadelphia Phillies were flying high. In December 2010, the Phillies—a recent World Series champ that had the best record in baseball that year—added Cliff Lee to an already-formidable starting rotation. They appeared to be set for the future.
They weren’t. In December 2020, the Phillies aren’t signing anyone of note. They haven’t had a winning record since the season they signed Lee. This year they went 28-32 in a COVID-19-shortened season, a year where they had one of the worst bullpens in baseball history. And they are, apparently, broke.
Per a report from Buster Olney on Sunday, the Phillies are seeking offers for pitcher Zack Wheeler—who they signed to a 5-year, $118 million deal last offseason—as part of a way to cut payroll. The Phillies denied the report, but it’s not the first time they’ve looked poor this offseason. They recently laid off about 80 staffers. The Associated Press reported last week that the Phillies lost $145 million this season.
This wasn’t the first time Olney brought bad news regarding the Phillies’ near-future, writing last month that they were doomed to the NL East cellar if they didn’t do anything while their division rivals improved. Just a few days ago, ESPN’s Sam Miller also wrote about how the Phillies “botched their rebuild.”
So it’s pretty clear to everyone that the Phillies are now grounded. What the hell happened? Just a decade ago, the Phillies were juggernauts of the NL East. They won 102 games the season they signed Lee, whose spurning of the Yankees prompted soul-searching among the Bronx faithful. Gary Smith was calling Philadelphia “baseball heaven” in Sports Illustrated.
Then Ryan Howard tore his Achilles tendon grounding out to end the 2011 National League Division Series. A blink later, and the Phillies are reportedly looking to trade a big-money pitcher they signed the previous offseason. It also appears they will not re-sign J.T. Realmuto, a catcher they traded top prospect Sixto Sánchez for two seasons ago. The excitement over getting Bryce Harper seems so long ago now.
So who are the Phillies owners who are cutting payroll? In 1981, the Carpenter family sold the team to two Phillies executives (Bill Giles and David Montgomery) and a few rich people (John Betz, John Middleton, and three members of the Buck family). The owners rarely intervened—in 2008, Philadelphia magazine called the ownership group “the Phantom Five”—and they were content to let the team be run by a group of connected Philadelphia-area pals. Claire Betz, who inherited her husband’s share of the team when he died in 1990, famously enjoyed owning a piece of the team because it gave her a good parking spot for Eagles games at the Vet. “The Phillies’ front office is a place where jobs last forever, everyone’s chummy, and no one is held accountable, starting with the owners themselves, who refuse to talk to the media or to accept responsibility for failing to bring home a single championship during their 26-year reign,” Richard Rys wrote in the magazine.
Two things happened not long after that article was written. In 2008, the Phillies won their first World Series under this current ownership group—part of a sustained period of success that saw them win five straight NL East titles from 2007 to 2011. And Middleton sold his family’s tobacco company to Altria (the former Philip Morris) for $2.9 billion in 2009. (The John Middleton Co. is best known for its machine-rolled pipe tobacco cigar brand, Black & Mild. Yes, the Phillies are owned by a former tobacco magnate, but not Phillies cigars.)
As chronicled in another Philadelphia magazine profile in 2016, Middleton’s wife encouraged him to spend the rest of his life on philanthropy. (He has done work with Project HOME, a Philadelphia charity that works toward alleviating homelessness.) By 2016, the only other large shares of the Phillies were owned by cousins Jim and Pete Buck, and post-company sale Middleton began to take a more public role in running the Phillies. Robert Huber wrote in the profile:
Jimmy Rollins, shortstop extraordinaire when the Phillies were good, once said Middleton might become “George Steinbrenner South.” Steinbrenner, of course, was the Yankees’ longtime owner, the man who spent and dictated and fired managers with only one end in mind—for George Steinbrenner’s team to win.
The comparison amuses Middleton. “I would like to win multiple championships like George,” he says. The rest of it, especially the constant public posturing and controversy—no. All of that opposes every lesson of his background. He’ll spend on players—with a TV deal with Comcast kicking in, worth maybe $5 billion over 25 years, there’s gobs of money.
And, so, flush with Philip Morris and TV cash, the Phillies were going to spend. In 2018 Middleton said the team would “even be a little bit stupid” about spending money. The Phillies then signed Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract.
If you believe the reports, the $145 million the team lost last year has apparently changed things. They need to tighten their purse strings, pinch their pennies, close their wallets, and all the other clichés. The Phillies are bad. They are looking to get worse. Baseball heaven is now baseball hell. The Phillies went from stupid money to just plain stupid.