Myth-Busting “The Phillies Are Cheap”

As payroll skyrockets, Ruben Amaro might now be overspending.

If you’ve talked sports with Philadelphia fans over the years, you’re probably familiar with the oft-repeated notion that “the Phillies are cheap.” For many years, a strain of Philly fandom has believed that the team’s historic lack of success was largely attributable to rich, reclusive, out-of-touch owners hoarding cash and refusing to spend on players.

For a long time, there was some truth to this. According to an MLB salary database maintained by USA Today, the Phils were in the bottom half of payroll in Major League Baseball for the bulk of the 1990s, despite playing in the nation’s largest single-team market. Even the 1993 World Series team was fielded with a $26.8 million budget, the 20th highest out of 28 clubs at the time, and a little more than half the league-high payroll of the team that beat them in the World Series, the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Phillies remained on the lower end of both the payroll and actual standings for much of the late ’90s and early 2000s, with both fans and disgruntled star players like Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen questioning the club’s commitment to winning. It wasn’t until 2004, the year Citizens Bank Park opened, that the Phils jumped to the top half of the majors in salary, going from $70.7 million (15th in the game) in 2003 to $93.2 million (fifth) in ’04.

Since then the payroll has slowly climbed, reaching $98.2 million (12th) in the championship season of 2008, $141 million in 2010 and $172.9 million last year—tops in the National League and second only to the New York Yankees. The team’s consistently winning ways and fans filling the ballpark on a consistent basis have clearly played a huge role in increasing revenues and payrolls.

Through this, the “Phillies are cheap” myth has faded but never quite died. Some local media, especially on the talk radio side, have sought to propagate it over the years. It tends to resurface whenever the team finds itself in a contract dispute with a player, when a beloved free agent (Aaron Rowand, Jayson Werth) leaves for big money with another team or, most prominently of all, the inexplicable trade of Cliff Lee to Seattle after the 2009 season.

Even though the Phils acquired Roy Halladay and guaranteed him $60 million on the same day, and handed out a $24 million multiyear deal to Joe Blanton a short time later, the dumping of Lee was what really revived the “Phillies are cheap” idea. I remember one old-timer calling into WIP shortly after the trade, complaining that this is the way the Phillies do things—after all, they had once given Richie Ashburn a pay cut after he hit .330, in 1955.

History, I think, has shown that the Lee trade was more about shortsightedness and misjudgment than money. General manager Ruben Amaro has said as much in interviews—the team didn’t think Lee would re-sign with them and felt a need to replace the prospects they’d given up for Halladay. The GM all but admitted his mistake a year later when he brought back Lee for five years and over $120 million.

Indeed, the Amaro era has been marked more by overspending than underspending. It’s hard to find a national baseball analyst who doesn’t believe the team overspent on Raul Ibanez (three years, $39 million), Jonathan Papelbon (four years, $50 million) and, especially, Ryan Howard (five years, $125 million, when he had a year and a half and nearly $30 million remaining on his last deal.) For the upcoming season, the Phils have a veteran roster with very few inexpensive young players; when they went looking for bench bats this offseason, they came up with name veterans like Jim Thome and Juan Pierre.

And expect those payroll numbers to reach even higher. The Inquirer‘s Matt Gelb reported last week that the Phillies’ current TV rights deal with Comcast is set to expire in 2015, and with ratings considerably higher than they were at the time of the last negotiation, the team is in line for a new deal with potentially a huge increase in revenue. Other teams, such as the Angels and Rangers, have recently scored hugely lucrative local TV deals, which allowed them to spend extravagantly this past offseason.

Would a rich new TV deal, or even a move to the top spot, bring about the end of the cheapness charge? Possibly. But then again, Amaro has said the team has a self-imposed limit of $178 million, in order to stay under baseball’s luxury-tax threshold. I can already hear the complaints, after a mid-July loss, that a million or two more would have bought a better seventh-inning reliever, and if Ruben cared about winning as much as he does money …