In February 2019, the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies each made a massive statement of intent in free agency.
On February 19, it was reported that the Padres had won the Manny Machado sweepstakes, giving the third baseman a 10-year deal worth 300 million dollars. Then on February 28, the Phillies scooped up the other massive free agent, keeping Bryce Harper in the NL East with 330 million dollars across 13 years.
Both of these deals were noteworthy not just for their money and length but also because Harper and Machado had picked teams without any recent success.
From 2007 to 2011, the Phillies were a juggernaut in the NL, winning one World Series, two pennants and six straight NL East titles.
While their 2008 team won the World Series, you can pretty easily argue that their 2011 roster was the best of the group. They had perhaps the best rotation of the 21st century, getting over 200 innings with an ERA under 3.00 from Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels while Roy Oswalt also provided a respectable 3.69 ERA in 139 innings.
However, their 102-win team lost the NLDS in five games to a 90-win St. Louis Cardinals team that made it as the Wild Card, and then everything went downhill from there. The Phillies failed to put together a single winning record between 2012 and 2018, which included the league’s worst record in 2015. Six division titles in six years quickly became seven straight seasons without a winning record.
While the Phillies were a notable pick because of their fall from grace, the Padres stood out because their franchise had never come close to anything like the 2007-2011 Phillies. Entering the 2019 season, the Padres had zero World Series, two pennants and had never made the playoffs three straight times in their franchise’s history.
In Tony Gwynn’s 20 years of being one of the sport’s finest hitters, his team made the playoffs just three times, although admittedly two of those postseasons did include winning the pennant.
The Phillies and Padres weren’t quite in identical situations as franchises but either way, it was a pair of teams who hadn’t exactly proven they were contenders while Harper and Machado were in the league.
After ending the 2018-19 offseason with the two biggest prizes, neither team decided to rest on its laurels, satisfied with thinking just Harper and Machado were enough to get them into the postseason.
The Padres have done this through an incredibly aggressive approach to trades.
Most recently they gave the Washington Nationals their entire farm system for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, but that was just the latest move for a roster that includes trade acquisitions like Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove and Jake Cronenworth. The best proof of San Diego’s aggression when making trades is that acquiring Josh Hader at the deadline was only the second-most notable deal they made this season.
The Phillies have taken a more reserved approach to making trades but have been very active in free agency.
Last offseason saw them give Kyle Schwarber a four-year deal and that has certainly worked out after 46 homers in his first season in Philly. Meanwhile, Nick Castellanos had an underwhelming first year, but they were still willing to splash the cash for someone who had an .872 OPS from 2018 to 2021. Their rotation also includes Zack Wheeler, a free agent signed in the 2019-2020 offseason who has a 2.82 ERA across three seasons in Philly.
The best way to summarize how these teams have operated is this: among the 20 players in their Game 4 starting lineups to clinch their NLCS appearances, just three players were drafted by them.
There’s been some concerns and complaints that these teams shouldn’t have gotten the chance to pull off an upset in just a five-game series. After all, the Padres finished 22 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Phillies finished 14 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the 162-game sample that is the regular season.
However, I believe that the whole point of the playoffs is that a 162-game grind turning into an incredibly tense smaller sample creates wonderful drama. If you wanted to watch a sport where the best regular season record single-handedly determines a champion, I’d recommend checking out European soccer.
These upsets have also created new opportunities for the sport, including Bryce Harper’s first appearance in the NLCS.
Harper had an 0-4 record in the NLDS playing for the Washington Nationals and then saw his former team win the World Series in his first year in Philly. Now, Harper will be playing in the biggest series of his career after providing the Phillies with a 1.437 OPS in their first two series.
Seeing Harper in the NLCS for the first time should be better for the sport than another postseason of other stars like Mookie Betts or Freddie Freeman getting the spotlight again.
In February 2019, two teams drastically altered the trajectory of their franchises. Now, three years later, we get to see them face each other with a trip to the World Series on the line.
Rose Katz is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, where she worked for The Diamondback as the online managing editor and a sports blogger. As a student, she spent almost all of her time on campus in The Diamondback’s newsroom or at Xfinity Center, Ludwig Field and Maryland Stadium. Rose gained intern experience with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN).