Friends, the true measure of a man is taken when he admits that he is wrong.
I stand before you today, humble, and I do that very thing.
You may recall that back in April, when news of the Ryan Howard extension broke, I wrote a post on this blog excoriating Ruben Amaro, going so far as to call for his dismissal as general manager. This came on the heels of an offseason that, outside of acquiring Roy Halladay, I viewed as poorly handled. From the dubious Cliff Lee trade to the Danys Baez signing, I felt Amaro was making avoidable, if minor, mistakes that would jeopardize the Phillies’ chances in future seasons. The Howard extension was anything but minor, and I promptly, in the parlance of our times, lost my shit.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: My opinion of that contract has not changed one iota. I still believe everything I wrote about it at the time, and I dread the last few years of it. My suggestion that Amaro deserved to lose his job over the deal, however, was overly harsh and hasty.
I do not make this assertion simply because Amaro engineered a mulligan on one of his biggest blunders and returned Cliff Lee to the fold late last night. Nor am I ready to completely absolve him for his various mis-steps, or anoint him one of the best in the business. I remain concerned about the future of this franchise, and about the sustainability of Amaro’s approach. I am merely retracting a statement made in the heat of the moment, and reaffirming the conclusions I ultimately reached in my evaluation of his tenure back in March.
I don’t plan to stop judging his performance, and I expect to endure a fair amount of criticism for that. Perhaps the afterglow of last night’s unexpected signing will fade, perhaps not; right now, however, Amaro is a king in the city of Philadelphia. To speak ill of him, even in an objective manner, will inspire backlash. To this I say: Shit happens. Do what you gotta do, I’ll do what I gotta do. Just know that I do it out of love for my team. Yet as critical as I have often been of Amaro, I have always taken pains to give him ample credit for his successes, of which there have been several. And the more I look at the overall picture, the more I think Amaro just might have a plan for the future.
The Lee signing, like any long-term, big-money contract, is risky. There is no denying that. The Phillies broke their longstanding policy of going beyond three years with pitchers (and, increasingly, any player) and made him one of the richest pitchers in the history of the game. Even with Lee taking considerably less money and one less guaranteed year than either the Yankees or Rangers offered him to come back to Philly, he’s still a 32 year old pitcher with potential back problems getting paid serious “fuck you” money for the next several seasons. If the sixth year option vests, he will be getting paid a staggering $27.5 million for his age 38 season, the highest salary of any pitcher in MLB history.
All that is fairly obvious. But what does it mean, for 2011 and beyond?
As it stands, the Phillies have about $160 million committed to 20 players, with Lee’s deal being backloaded. This does not include Ben Francisco or Kyle Kendrick, who are arbitration-eligible. Joe Blanton, who is owed $17 million split evenly over the next two seasons, is being shopped. The Phillies may look to deal him for a righthanded-hitting outfielder to platoon with Raul Ibanez and Dominic Brown in the corners, in addition to salary relief. Ibanez might also be a trade candidate, but with the outfield already thin and the market for the 38-year-old probably likewise, it’s doubtful he’s going anywhere. A quality backup for Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley would also be a welcome addition to the roster, but there don’t appear to be many options on that front.
Assuming Blanton is traded – which is likely, but not certain – the Phillies will have around $100 million committed to eight players. Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, and Dennys Reyes have options. Oswalt’s is a lock to be exercised barring catastrophe in ’11. As long as Reyes doesn’t completely embarrass himself this season, his option probably gets picked up as well. I can’t fathom Lidge’s option being exercised at $12.5 million. They may try to bring him back on a cheaper deal. Ibanez and Baez won’t be back. Gload and Schneider most likely walk as well. Cole Hamels’ strange extension after the 2008 season didn’t buy out his last year of arbitration, and he figures to see a raise into the $12-14 million range. Lastly, Jimmy Rollins. This year is important in gauging how much he has left in the tank and what kind of offer he’ll get, but with no real prospects at shortstop and few interesting names in free agency, it’s hard to imagine the Phillies letting him walk unless he’s abjectly awful this year or demands an outrageous contract. His defense alone justifies keeping him on a reasonable salary.
Here’s where things get really interesting. Lee, Halladay, Howard, and Utley are the only commitments, albeit at a total of $85 million. Ruiz, Polanco, and Contreras have options for a combined $13 million, though it’s entirely possible that none of them will be picked up, considering their ages. Hamels hits free agency, and is likely to be looking for a deal similar to the ones signed by CC Sabathia and Johan Santana, given his age and handedness. Oswalt’s contract expires, and he’s claimed that he’ll retire when it does. Even if not, his age, build and likely salary demands probably preclude a return. Victorino’s deal also ends.
We’re down to Lee and Howard, with a $20 million option on Halladay that almost has to be exercised if his arm hasn’t fallen off. Utley will likewise be retained if he still has a pulse, and maybe even if not. You could probably prop him up out there at second, Weekend at Bernie’s-style, and he’d be league-average at worst.
Obviously, there will be plenty of acquisitions, departures, injuries, and unforeseen developments in the interim, but looking at how the next few years (the realistic window for this aging core) are laid out makes the front office’s strategy pretty obvious. Consider the farm system. It doesn’t feature much in the way of MLB-ready talent – basically, Dom Brown and that’s it – but to quote one scout, nobody has more talent in A-ball right now. The continued development of guys like Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, and Brody Colvin is absolutely crucial to the Phillies’ future. If enough of those prospects pan out, that infusion of cheap talent should occur right as the current core declines and/or departs. With luck, some savvy and continued commitment to a high payroll from ownership, it’s conceivable that the Phillies could actually avoid a rebuild/retool/mediocrity phase and continue their run of success. Is it likely? Probably not, especially if the front office continues to add high-priced veterans at the expense of minor leaguers and they have a bad draft or two (entirely possible, given their penchant for taking upside and tools over polished products).
In summation, the future may not be as totally fucked as some once believed. Or, it might. But for right now, the Phillies have a rotation that deserves to be in the discussion of the best in MLB history, and a great chance to win another championship or two in the next three years. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the days when nobody wanted to play in Philadelphia, but those days weren’t so long ago. Even as a critic of Amaro, as someone who expects nothing less than excellence and isn’t afraid to bitch when he’s disappointed, I can sit back and marvel at the transformation of this franchise, and be happy.