Matt Klentak and Patrick Corbin

Bill Streicher / Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Phillies wise to avoid Corbin at 6 years, $140 million

Tim Kelly
December 05, 2018 - 9:55 am
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Philadelphia Phillies managing partner John Middleton may be willing to spend stupid amounts of money this offseason, but the message the organization sent on Tuesday is that they aren’t willing to be dumb.

Related: Phillies considering Madison Bumgarner trade​

Perhaps general manager Matt Klentak and president Andy MacPhail got to Middleton just in time. Just last week we wondered if there was any cutoff point Middleton had in terms of how much he would spend to lure top free-agents to Philadelphia. But just hours after multiple reports suggested that the Phillies were emerging as a favorite to sign Patrick Corbin because of their willingness to spend, Corbin agreed to a lucrative six-year contract with the division rival Washington Nationals.

Corbin, who will turn 30 in less than a year, was an All-Star for the second time in 2018. His 3.15 ERA, 2.47 FIP and 6.3 fWAR allowed him to finish fifth in National League Cy Young Award voting in one of the deepest fields in the last 25 years. Adding him into a rotation that already includes Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg of course will make the Nationals a better team in 2019. That, obviously, makes the path to the playoffs more difficult for the Phillies, who haven’t played in the postseason since 2011.

But as MacPhail said in his season-ending press conference, 2019 isn’t the last year that baseball is going to be played.

Corbin did have an incredible walk year in 2018, but he also posted a 4.53 combined ERA in 345.1 innings between 2016 and 2017. Between 2014 and 2015, Tommy John Surgery limited him to just 85 total innings. He was an All-Star in 2013, but the problem with looking at All-Star appearances to evaluate a season is they only take into account just over half of the season. Corbin had a 5.19 ERA in 13 starts after the All-Star Break in 2013.

This being pointed out today in Philadelphia, New York and Phoenix isn’t sour grapes, but it’s evaluating his career without free-agent glasses on. It’s adding nuance. Corbin was one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball in 2018. He’s also never really come close to being that in any of the other five seasons in his career.

It’s fair enough to say that the Nationals rewarded Corbin thinking 2018 was the first year of what will be an extended peak. If that’s the case, he could help Scherzer, Juan Soto and the Nationals do something they weren’t able to do with Bryce Harper: win a playoff series.

But boy, the Nationals better hope that’s the case. Even in his finest season, Corbin saw decreases of over one mile-per-hour on his fastball, sinker and change-up. While his medium contact rate decreased by eight percent from 2017 to 2018, his hard contact rate increased by 10 percent over that same period. When you’re talking about paying a pitcher that’s already had Tommy John Surgery $140 million—even if the Nationals have chosen to defer some of that money past the six years Corbin is signed for—those are two trends that are hard to ignore.

In the end, Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports says the Phillies had a cutoff point—five years. The Yankees, perceived as one of the most well-run organizations in sports, had the same cutoff point, per Billy Witz of The New York Times. The Phillies may have been willing to offer Corbin as much (or even more) money annually, but by getting a sixth year, Corbin will collect in the neighborhood of $20 million more than if he had signed with the Phillies.

On the second day of the 2019 season, the Phillies brass may be a little envious that Corbin is towing the rubber for the Nationals and not them. In 2023 and 2024, Corbin’s age-34 and 35 seasons, when Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins figure to be significantly more expensive than they are now, the Phillies will likely be glad not to be paying Corbin in excess of $20 million. And even though this has been billed as the most important offseason in franchise history, those two seasons will count as much as 2019.