'This is the time': Phillies' star splurge hits $742 million with Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos aboard

Gabe Lacques

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Superstars want what they want, and Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton certainly heard the pleas from Bryce Harper to go get some big bats to augment their lineup. He read the comments, and chatted with Harper, who professed confidence in the front office and realized that things don’t always work out, that sometimes deals cannot be struck.

Yet when it comes to the Phillies and annual investments in star players, Harper and Co. more often than not get exactly what they want.

"When you sign Bryce," Middleton said Monday morning, "and then (Zack) Wheeler and then J.T. (Realmuto), you’ve kind of, at some point, proven yourself enough."

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The latest proof came in a pinstriped No. 12 jersey draped over the shoulders of slugger Kyle Schwarber, who was signed to a four-year, $79 million contract and introduced before his first spring training workout with his new club.

Later this week, it will be Nick Castellanos’ turn, after he and the club finalize a five-year, $100 million contract that may give Philadelphia the most punishing lineup in the National League.

Kyle Schwarber, shown playing with the Nationals last season, signed to a four-year, $79 million contract with the Phillies.

Oh, and it also sent the franchise, for the first time, over the luxury tax threshold, barely a week after the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified and set the plateau at $230 million. The Phillies will exceed that mark in player payroll alone, with their competitive balance tax payroll likely to exceed $250 million.

Yet passing that threshold was merely a matter of time; Philly fell just a few million shy of exceeding the 2021 threshold of $210 million, and Middleton’s check-writing binge in the past few years ensured they’d join the class of taxpayers, unless he planned on filling out the roster with minimum-wage players.

Yeah, that’s not how Middleton rolls.

It started with Harper’s 13-year, $330 million deal in March 2019, continued with Wheeler’s five-year, $118 million pact before the 2020 season and then Realmuto’s five-year, $115.5 million extension one year ago, after the Phillies traded key prospects to acquire him from Miami.

Some teams like to talk about "controllable years" for young players. In Philadelphia, Middleton has committed 32 "contract years" to five players – totaling $742.5 million.

Of course, after a decade without a playoff experience followed by a grim and deliberate re-tooling, it is all about timing. And the Phillies, with aggressive club president Dave Dombrowski armed with Middleton’s cash, are adamant that the window will remain open a very long time.

"Dave is the one who made the judgment that this is the time," says Middleton of Dombrowski, who crafted World Series titles with the 1997 Florida Marlins, the 2018 Boston Red Sox and also took the Detroit Tigers to multiple Fall Classics. "When that guy says, this is the opportunity, he’s been there a dozen times over. He’s making that judgment. I think that’s the time to strike.

"Those opportunities don’t come along very often. This isn’t a rent-a-team concept. We’ve got guys who will be around for years. I think we’ll be able to build on this."

That’s why, when Dombrowski, GM Sam Fuld and assistant GM Ned Rice came to Middleton’s office to sell them on Schwarber, the owner interrupted the elevator pitch shortly after they began.

And there are plenty of reasons why Dombrowski said his first call after the lockout was settled on March 10 was to Casey Close, the head of Schwarber’s agency.

Kyle Schwarber has 'seen it all'

For Schwarber, finding a four-year home in Philly is a huge relief. A beloved star with the Chicago Cubs, he returned from a torn ACL to perform in their 2016 World Series title, bashed 121 homers in parts of six seasons there, only to get non-tendered by the club in December 2020, as he struggled in the 60-game pandemic season.

But Washington Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long unlocked something in Schwarber, who bashed 25 homers in June 2021, including 16 in 18 games. A trade to Boston, a World Series run, a 99-day lockout?

Yeah, Schwarber experienced the business end of baseball the past two years.

"It’s a great privilege to get to this position, to be a free agent and try to find a home for an extended amount of time. I don’t take that lightly," he says. "I’ve seen it all. Going from being on top of the world to being down, getting non-tendered, signing a one-year deal, not knowing where you’re going to be, getting traded, and now, being here for four years and hopefully more after that.

"It’s just a great feeling to be here for an extended time and go out and try to bring a World Series championship back to Philly."

Long, now the Phillies’ hitting coach, was adamant the team sign Schwarber, and Dombrowski listened.

Meanwhile, Schwarber was so busy last week, he scarcely had time to process just what he was getting into. He agreed to terms with the Phillies late Tuesday night, then shortly after had to drive his wife, Paige, to the hospital for the birth of their son, Kade. Still bleary-eyed a couple days later, he was "ecstatic" when the club added Castellanos.

"We’re going to have everything covered from 1 to 9," he says of a group that also includes Rhys Hoskins, middle infielders Didi Gregorius and Jean Segura, with still-developing third-year third baseman Alec Bohm for now able to drop deep into the lineup rather than the middle.

"The goal for us as an offense is to not let that pitcher breathe. It starts from pitch one. We want him to feel the pressure every single pitch and this lineup is built to do that. It doesn’t have to be the top nine. It can be five through nine."

Meanwhile, Middleton is too eager to tout a rotation that ranges from star-studded to serviceable, with Wheeler and Aaron Nola passing off to 2021 hero Ranger Suarez, down to Kyle Gibson. He’s bullish on a handful of minor league prospects, sounding sold that Bryson Stott is the shortstop of the future and worth the club staying out of the free agent shortstop class.

Monday, his latest acquisition noted that he’d only missed the playoffs once in his career. Schwarber doesn’t anticipate it being any different in Philadelphia.

"This team, top to bottom, is a great ballclub," he says. "We’re built to win the East. We’re built to go deep in the playoffs. That’s where you want to be."