Spending money doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in Major League Baseball, but some big contracts have spun the San Diego Padres and the Philadelphia Phillies into the National League Championship Series, which opens Tuesday evening at Petco Park.
Those teams have recently spent more than $1.3 billion, including big deals for some of the game’s best active players: Philadelphia laid out $742 million on long-term deals with Bryce Harper, Zach Wheeler, J.T. Realmuto, Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber. San Diego spent $526 million on Manny Machado, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove. That doesn’t include the next two arbitration years of Juan Soto or the $340 million for Fernando Tatis Jr., who is serving an 80-game drug suspension.
“It’s always been the goal to get where we are right now,” said Harper, who was one of the first cogs when he signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies in 2019. “The plan all along was to come here and try to win. We have the group right now to do that. I think we’re all excited for that opportunity to get to where we need to be and win eight more games.”
For luxury tax purposes, the Phillies finished fourth this past season in MLB player payroll at $255 million, while the the Padres were fifth at $237.6 million, according to Spotrac. The initial tax threshold this season was $230 million.
The Padres knocked out two of the highest-paying, winningest teams in the league: first, the Mets in a three-game Wild Card Series, and then the Dodgers in a four-game National League Division Series. The 101-win Mets had an MLB-leading $282.7 million payroll, while the 111-win Dodgers were second, at $275.6 million.
During the regular season, the Padres won just five of 19 regular-season games against the Dodgers and finished 22 games behind them in the NL West. Los Angeles led the division by 10 1/2 games at the All-Star break, making this series their first meaningful games since the halfway mark. The result was one of the biggest upsets in postseason history.
“Shock factor, very high. Disappointment, very high. It’s crushing,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after his club’s Game 4 loss.
The Phillies disposed of the St. Louis Cardinals and their $170.1 million payroll in the wild-card round before beating the defending champion Atlanta Braves—with 101 wins and a $200 million payroll of their own—in a four-game NLDS.
All the 100-win or division-winning teams in the NL are gone at the hands of the Phillies and Padres. This season was only the second in history of baseball with four 100-win teams, plus the New York Yankees finished with 99. But MLB’s playoffs are increasingly becoming a matter of momentum.
“Well, we ran into a really hot team, pretty much.” Braves manager Brian Snitker said about the Phillies, who finished 14 games behind his team and the Mets, both with 101-61 records this season. “They were hitting on all cylinders. They were playing great baseball. They got big hits. They shut us down offensively, and I think all the credit goes to the Phillies. They came in here and played a heck of a series.”
The format could be questioned with division-winning teams sitting around for five days awaiting resolution of the four Wild Card Series. The Braves acknowledged feeling sluggish, and the Dodgers, after beating up on the other four teams all season in the NL West, were completely out of sync.
“We didn’t execute any type of plan,” Mookie Betts said. “We didn’t do anything we did throughout the season. We just didn’t hit, man. That’s on us.”
The Braves season came down to a three-game series against the Mets at home for the NL East title the final weekend of the season. The Braves swept, had the tie breaker, won the division, and then fizzled. The Braves spent so much energy overcoming a 23-27 start and a 10 1/2-game deficit, they just ran out of gas, Snitker said.
“I worried about that coming in,” Snitker added. “Three days is plenty. Five or six days is probably too much. It’s the way the system is. We let trying to win the division eat up that last week of the season. All of a sudden you shut it down for a week. There’s probably something to that.”
In contrast, the Padres and Phillies had to battle the Milwaukee Brewers for the final month of the season just to secure the last two NL wild card spots. And then San Diego faced a Mets squad that lost that 10 1/2-game lead to the Braves, again on a downhill slide. San Diego, meanwhile, was in fighting shape.
“We’ve been playing playoff games every day for the last few weeks, and we’re used to [the pressure],” Padres manager Bob Melvin said at the time.
Like the 89-win Padres, the 87-win Phillies were big beneficiaries of the playoffs expanding from 10 to 12 teams, six now in each league.
Last season, the Phillies wouldn’t have even qualified.
“No, I think it’s good. And I know it helped us,’ said Phillies manager Rob Thompson, who replaced the fired Joe Girardi on June 3 when the team was 23-29. “But I think the more teams you have in the more interest you have around the country and around MLB cities. The more the better. At some point it’s going to get a little bit ridiculous, but I think this is a good number right here.”
Its a perfect number for the Padres and Phillies, who made the most of it and now have a shot at the World Series.