Money for nothing? Mets, Phillies, Padres seek turnarounds after huge roster investments

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Phillies seek resurgence after slow start to 2023 MLB season

We spoke with Dave Dombrowski, Josh Harrison and Rob Thomson about what the Phillies need to do to improve this season.

Sports Pulse

Ever see a billion dollars go up in smoke?

OK, so perhaps it’s even a figurative stretch to suggest that if the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres fail to make the playoffs this season, their efforts were a waste of time. They provided entertainment to their fans, months of content for their respective regional sports networks and performed startling acts of athleticism with great regularity.

But let’s be honest: Their overlords will pay around $1.1 billion in payroll, including luxury-tax penalties, with the expectation a World Series trip – or a shot at one – was in the offing. And right now, none of these clubs would even merit a wild-card flotation device.

Of course, about two-thirds of the season remains. One good week could change the tenor for a scuffling club. Yet it’s increasingly likely there won’t be enough room in October for all of them – perhaps any of them.

A look, from dire to slightly less miserable, at this flailing power trio, and their chances of switching the narrative:

Padres: Firing blanks

Payrolls, per Spotrac: $247 million/$307 million (luxury tax)

Record: 28-32, fourth in NL West (7 games back), tied for sixth in wild card (4 back)

What’s ailed them: Clutch hitting – a theme that could apply to all three clubs. The Padres rank last in the majors with a .198 average and .624 OPS with runners in scoring position. And in the NL, the Mets rank 12th (.696) and the Phillies 14th (.668) in RISP OPS.

Yes, a little luck turning would help all three clubs. But the Padres have been alternately banged up (Manny Machado returned Friday from a slight hand fracture; Xander Bogaerts’ wrist is barking), deeply slumping (Juan Soto batted .183 in his first 27 games) or unclutch. And offensive water finding its level suggests sequencing may be the club’s enemy this year.

Why’s that? Well, consider that Michael Wacha, signed to be the club’s No. 4-ish starter, is the reigning NL pitcher of the month after his 0.84 ERA led the majors. Yet San Diego lost two of his five starts and 16 of 26 overall in May. Yu Darvish has been decent and Blake Snell largely acceptable. If the pitching regresses – and San Diego’s 3.76 ERA ranks second in the NL – while the lineup wakes up, well, that’s no way to pass four teams in the standings.

Playoff odds (per Baseball Reference): 44.8%. That can change quickly, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that for all its star power, San Diego is a poorly-constructed team.

Phillies: Down in a hole

Payrolls: $244 million/$267 million

Record: 28-32, fourth in NL East (7 ½ back), tied for sixth in wild card (4 back)

What’s ailed them: Almost everything.

It’s easy to point the finger at big-money free agents like shortstop Trea Turner (.286 OBP, 76 adjusted OPS), starter Taijuan Walker (5.65 ERA) or closer Craig Kimbrel (5.32 ERA, albeit 8 for 8 in save chances). Yet the pennant-winning returners’ performances probably hurt more.

Lest we forget, first baseman Rhys Hoskins is out for the year with a torn ACL and slugger Bryce Harper has been back barely a month from Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, Kyle Schwarber has gone Full Adam Dunn this year, eschewing singles almost entirely to rip 15 home runs but with just a .171 batting average (and a .322 OBP, his worst since 2017).

Incumbent aces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler lugged 4.30 and 4.33 ERAs through their first dozen starts, and Nola’s 13 home runs allowed is tied for second in the NL. Wheeler’s Fielding Independent Pitching mark of 2.85 makes a correction seem likelier than for Nola (4.40) or Walker (5.39). Philly is in an almost identical position as last year, when a 22-29 start resulted in Joe Girardi’s firing. A rousing run to the pennant followed.

Playoff odds: 15.7%. Yet there’s some meat on the bone here. Turner, dropped to fifth in the lineup, will hit again – he slugged two homers Monday while Nola took a no-hitter into the seventh. Harper, who has one homer in his last 73 at-bats, will mash again. No. 4 starter Ranger Suarez, coming off an elbow strain, is still rounding into shape.

Mets: Old and steady wins the race?

Payrolls: $345 million/$492 million

Record: 30-30, third in NL East (5 ½ back), third in wild card (2 back)

What’s ailed them: Pitching health.

It’s easy to forget Jose Quintana needed rib surgery before this season even began; he should return in July. That was merely the undercard to the $86 million duo of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer combining for just 15 starts due to shoulder strain/neck spasms/scapula/sticky substance issues.

Now, those two are back and dominating and as a bonus, Carlos Carrasco is healthy and gave up just two earned runs over his last two starts. The youth infusion of third baseman Brett Baty and catcher Francisco Alvarez has added power, depth and energy, and Ronny Mauricio may join them soon.

Playoff odds: 35.6%. This is still a very good team, one that can withstand struggles from some, but not too many, of Francisco Lindor and Mark Canha and Starling Marte and Dan Vogelbach. It’s slowly coming together, with plenty of time to fulfill their goals. Unless…

The spoilers: For real?

Our underachievers’ slow starts have been exacerbated by potential surprise teams, well, surprising.

None are more impactful than the Arizona Diamondbacks, currently with an 80.5% chance to reach the postseason and tied atop the NL West with the Dodgers. While the Phillies and Mets can take some solace in first-place Atlanta’s recent mediocrity – a 6-7 stretch after a 29-17 start – the Padres will need a lot of things to happen to win the West. Those things will probably not happen.

It would still be startling for a wild card to come out of the Central, even if Pittsburgh has crawled above .500 again. But it’s wise to be wary of the Marlins, who may not maintain their playoff positioning but, thanks to sound starting pitching, can drag a team or two down with them. And with a mere $96 million payroll, the Marlins, now 33-28, carry few expectations.

That can’t be said for three heavyweights in danger of spending a whole lot of money for nothing.