There have been a few Phillies announcements since the last I time I graced you with my presence, most of them of the minor variety, as the Philles round out their roster. The Phils agreed to another one year deal with Kyle Kendrick for roughly $3.8 million dollars; while Kendrick has been never been the most popular Phillie, most fans are finally beginning to understand that he is a fairly valuable commodity for his relatively modest cost. Kendrick performs any role he is asked to fill – starter, long reliever – and does it more than adequately. He went weeks without pitching last season and was still able to step in and pitch well whenever called upon, in both roles. He also seems to have developed more since the arrival of Roy Halladay, like many of the young Phillie pitchers. The Phils also signed starter Joel Piniero to a minor league deal. Piniero spent the last two seasons with the Angels after parlaying his time in St. Louis with pitching guru Dave Duncan into $8 million a year. Piniero had an ERA over 5.00 last season, and will be given a chance to see if he can still pitch effectively; if so, the Phillies get a bargain, and if not, it costs them basically nothing.
But the biggest news was yesterday’s announcement that the Phillies avoided arbitration with starter Cole Hamels by agreeing to a one year, $15 millon deal. Arbitration can be a messy process, and with the Phils looking to lock up Hamels long-term, it’s nice that they were able to avoid arbitration. Great news right? Not so fast. Now that he’s nearly doubled his previous contract’s average annual salary, Hamels appears set to test the free agency waters after this season.
Last season, Jered Weaver, the star pitcher of the Angels, signed an extension for five years and $85 million. Weaver is an excellent comparison to Hamels statistically, and was also due to become a free agent after the 2012 season. So it seemed natural to assume that the Phillies had a good comparable starting point in any extension for Hamels; I even recall having a conversation with my buddy Ty about a potential Hamels deal, and we came to the conclusion that the Phillies could probably get a deal done for roughly 5 years and $90 million. But as time as dragged on, and the Phillies haven’t gotten this extension done, Hamels can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, and with it, a much bigger payday. While it’s true that it takes two sides to come to an agreement, the Phillies should’ve never let Hamels see that light; Ryan Howard was given a massive albatross of a contract with two years remaining on his current one – why rush to unload the Bank vault for Howard (pun intended) and not Hamels?
Here’s my theory: when the Howard contract was doled out in 2010, the Phillies payroll sat around an estimated $125 million dollars. That was before big contracts were given to Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, when the Phillies knew they still had payroll flexibility, and an increasing profit margin. Last year’s payroll of $173 million was just short of the luxury tax line; a line that the Phillies seem extremely reluctant to cross. In short, the Phillies didn’t offer Hamels a rich contract extension because they couldn’t afford it (or at least couldn’t afford it without paying the luxury tax). Now if they want to keep Hamels in Philadelphia, it’s going to cost them a lot more than Jered Weaver money; think more like Cliff Lee money. Because that’s exactly what Hamels and his agent John Boggs are thinking, as detailed in this piece by MLB.com writer Todd Zolecki. With $15 million in his pocket for this season, Hamels can now afford to gamble that he gets through the season healthy, and cashes in on a NINE figure deal. Two notes: Hamels’ deal was the largest ever signed by a pitcher in arbitration who was not scheduled to become a free agent. I think the Phillies’ handed out a big contract this season in an attempt to buy a little good faith with Hamels that they will desperately need. Secondly, did I mention that by the time Hamels is scheduled to be a free agent, the Dodgers should have a new ownership group in place with no big contracts on the books, other than the extension recently given to Matt Kemp? Think they might be interested in a certain Southern California native to pair with Clayton Kershaw at the top of their rotation?
I hate to be the angel of doom, but I just don’t see how the Phillies are going to do a $100 million plus contract for Hamels, especially if they are serious about staying away from the luxury tax. Unlike this season, they do not have a ton of money coming off the books next year; they currently have $106 million committed to just SIX players (Howard, Utley, Lee, Halladay, Papelbon, Pence). Center fielder Shane Victorino will be a free agent, and Placido Polanco will have to be replaced at third base. So the Phillies will need to replace two major positions and fill out another 17 positions on the roster with roughly $80 million dollars….excluding a lucrative Hamels extension.
All of which leads me to believe that THIS season is it for the Phillies – if they don’t win a World Series this season with the current roster, then the window for the nucleus from 2008 will slam shut. The only way to extend this historic run for the franchise is with a dynamic trade that would infuse the franchise with young talent, particularly in the lineup. But who can be moved? Not Ryan Howard, with one of the worst contracts in baseball. Chase Utley, while still a fine player, is deteriorating rapidly and is no longer capable of bringing back top-tier talent. Both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have no trade clauses in their contracts. I’d move Hunter Pence, but I doubt you’d even receive the equivalent of what the Phillies gave up for him. That leaves Hamels.
After the season, there were several instances of Hamels being mentioned in trade rumors. At the time, I dismissed them as silly; why would a contending team trade a young horse who hadn’t even peaked yet? But the more I analyze the situation, and the more it seems inevitable that Hamels is looking to break the Bank (did it again), a trade of Hamels might be the only option for a Phillies team that needs to reload with younger affordable talent. The problem is that any team who would give up the kind of talent the Phillies would want in return for a stud like Hamels would want him to sign a contract extension; and with Hamels so close to free agency, he may not be willing to do so for more than a handful of teams.
This is the corner that the Phillies have painted themselves into; they have a win-now team in a win-now city, that may or may not be able to win this season, and if they don’t, face a major retooling project with a bloated payroll. This is why paying Jonathan Papelbon $12.5 million a year to close is foolish. Instead hand the ball to Antonio Bastardo to see if he can close, and support him with veteran options like Joe Nathan or Matt Capps as fallback plans, for $8-10 million a year less. This is why trading away your prime trade assets for Hunter Pence, a good but not great player who will make well north of $10 million a year the next few years, is a big gamble. Instead let Dom Brown play for Raul Ibanez ( even with the youngster’s struggles, he was getting on base more than Ibanez), make a lesser deal for Josh Willingham, and let John Mayberry play right, so you develop a potential contributor and aren’t tied financially to your trade target. This is why signing Ryan Howard to a mammoth contract extension two years early, so you never let him hit free agency in a year where Prince Fielder (a superior player) can’t even find big money, is a bad decision. Cost certainty is great Ruben, but the only thing I’m certain of is that it’s costing you way more to pay this team than it should, and it’s hindering your plan moving forward.
As if this column wasn’t depressing enough, I don’t think the Phillies are any better than they were last year, and in fact, are most likely worse. They never addressed the need for a corner infield bat to contribute, in the event that Howard doesn’t recover well from his torn Achilles, or Polanco continues to have health problems. Jim Thome will not be able to play the field more than twice a week, and Ty Wigginton is a nice piece, but not if I have to play him as a starter for 80-100 games. In the outfield, Mayberry will now have to play everyday, and Laynce Nix is a lefty specialist that isn’t all that special. Vance Worley was a revelation last season, but it remains to be seen if he can maintain his level of performance once the hitters adjust to him a la J.A. Happ, or even Kyle Kendrick. Joe Blanton must stay healthy if the backup plan is Joel Piniero. So the bench is not much better, and is maybe less versatile, and the starting rotation is not as deep. The bullpen that was one of the best in baseball last season is now missing its best piece, and while stocked with talented youngsters, those young arms have to display that talent in the big leagues.
It reminds me of the old Spaceballs scene: the time for the Phillies is now, but that time may already be gone. So when will 2008 happen again? I think we may have already missed it – just now. And if the time isn’t over now, it will be soon.