Virtually all contracts are defensible, even ones that don’t turn out so well.
Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had his reasons for awarding a monster extension to first baseman Ryan Howard and massive free-agent deals to left-hander Cliff Lee and closer Jonathan Papelbon.
But regardless of how one might assess those deals — Howard looks like a thumbs-down, Lee and Papelbon are wait-and-sees — Amaro is in now in a box with left-hander Cole Hamels.
Amaro can’t tell Hamels, a potential free agent, “Sorry, we don’t award extensions at market value.” The Phillies went above market when they signed Howard to a five-year, $125-million contract nearly two full seasons before his previous deal was up.
Amaro also can’t tell Hamels, “We want you to give us the same kind of hometown discount that Jered Weaver gave the Angels.” The Phillies proved they will pay big money for an elite starter when they signed Lee for five years and $120 million, a record average annual value (AAV) for a pitcher on a long-term deal, since eclipsed by CC Sabathia.
Papelbon, a closer, is not as analogous to Hamels as Howard, who also is homegrown, or Lee, who also is a left-handed starter. But if you’re Hamels, Papelbon’s four-year, $50 million contract might as well be Exhibit C.
The Phillies’ guarantee to Papelbon was nearly double what the Marlins gave Heath Bell, who signed the second-largest contract among free-agent closers, a three-year, $27 million deal. It was more than five times what the Reds gave the other free-agent closer the Phillies pursued, Ryan Madson, who signed for one year and $8.5 million.
Amaro’s greatest strength as a GM — his aggressiveness — occasionally bites him in contract talks, compelling him to jump too soon. The market was flooded with closers; Madson became a victim of the glut, and his value plummeted.
Yet, Amaro said he needed to move quickly.
“We wanted one of two guys. One was Madson. The other was Papelbon,” Amaro said. “As we rated the guys, no disrespect to Ryan, we just rated (Papelbon) above him.
“Probably the one thing that made me a little uncomfortable was the length. We probably wanted to stay at three years, but we felt that in order to get the right guy, we decided to go to four years. But as far as AAV ($12.5 million), I was comfortable with that based on where we thought the market was.
“We didn’t just want any closer. The way our team is set up, we wanted the best guy, or one of the top two or three guys. We could have gotten a ‘B’ or ‘B-plus’ closer. But we wanted an ‘A.’ With (Papelbon), as good and as durable as he has been, I felt he was the right fit for us.”
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that the Phillies could have given Papelbon less, but Amaro didn’t know that at the time. Teams fly blind in free agency, without knowing the competition. Amaro said he thought he could lose Papelbon not only to the Boston Red Sox, the closer’s former club, but also to the Toronto Blue Jays or Miami Marlins.
As it turned out, the Red Sox traded for a far less expensive closer, Andrew Bailey, and setup man, Mark Melancon. The Blue Jays also made two cost-effective moves, acquiring Sergio Santos and signing free agent Francisco Cordero for $4.5 million. The Marlins, after making an offer to Madson, signed Bell.
Amaro, when asked if his concern about the Red Sox factored into his decision to give Papelbon a fourth year, said, “That did, but there were probably a couple of clubs that I was a little more fearful of.
“Obviously, you had a fear with Boston. But the problem with free agency is that you just don’t know who’s ready for what. There were a couple of teams in that division I was concerned about. There was a team I was concerned about in our division as well. I knew they (the Marlins) had money to burn.”
OK, fair enough. Even if you hate the idea of paying big money to relievers, Papelbon is the second-best closer in the sport after Mariano Rivera. The Phillies are built to win now. If Amaro had waited out the market, he would have risked getting burned.
But again, what do you tell Hamels?
The Phillies also gave free-agent shortstop Jimmy Rollins — a player more valuable to them than any other club — a three-year, $38 million contract. Ownership almost certainly had a strong preference to keep Rollins, one of the team’s most popular and accomplished players. But if you’re Hamels, it’s just another example of the Phillies paying top dollar.
If you’re Hamels, you know that the Phillies committed $20 million-plus per year to both Lee and right-hander Roy Halladay when each was 32. Hamels, eligible to hit the market at 29, is not as accomplished as those two were; he never has won a Cy Young Award. But he might be more important than both to the Phillies’ future.
“I understand,” Amaro said. “But one, he’s not on the market yet. He’s still our player.
“At the end of the day, we hope it doesn’t get to the point where he’s out there. But if we get to the point where he’s out there, hopefully we can make it work. I don’t think there is any question what our goal is. Our goal is to try to keep him. I hope that’s his goal, too.
“Just like I tell most guys, if it’s about making the last dollar, I don’t know if it can end up working out. But if it ends up being a situation where he feels he’s treated fairly and the player will accept that, we can make it work.”
Whoa, didn’t Howard get the last dollar? His average salary of $25 million is higher than those of Albert Pujols ($24 million) and Prince Fielder ($23.8 million), both of whom recently signed whopping new free-agent deals.
People forget, Howard signed his extension at a time when he was coming off a momentous start to his career. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2005, the MVP in ’06 and a top-five MVP finisher from ’07 to ’09. Over those last four seasons, he had averaged 49.5 homers and 143 RBI.
“The difference between Ryan’s and Cole’s situation is that we’re talking about a guy (Howard) who is very, very difficult to match up what he did in successive years and equate that with what Cole has done,” Amaro said.
“He was probably the most productive player during that span of anybody, including Pujols. This is not a slight against Cole — he has had some phenomenal years. But he is not the most decorated player in baseball.”
Hamels, in fact, never has won more than 15 games in a season, if you want to use that old-school measure. More to the point, he ranks seventh in the majors in ERA-plus the past five years for pitchers with a minimum of 1,000 innings. The only lefty ahead of him on that list is the New York Yankees’ CC Sabathia; Lee just missed 1,000 innings.
San Francisco Giants right-hander Matt Cain and Milwaukee Brewers righty Zack Greinke are the other top starting pitchers eligible for free agency next offseason. Cain is expected to sign an extension before Opening Day. Greinke, even if he leaves the Brewers, is unlikely to head to a big market, given his past struggles with social anxiety disorder.
Hamels, after surviving and thriving in Philadelphia, is accustomed to intense scrutiny, and the timing of his free agency might be ideal. The Yankees and Red Sox could be back in the market next offseason. The Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets could be under new ownership. You get the idea.
“There are arguments that Cole should be in (an elite category). There are other arguments that say maybe he shouldn’t,” Amaro said. “Put it this way — he’s going to be paid handsomely if he’s with the Phillies. There is no question about that. But we have to do what’s best for everyone, not just for Cole.”
Actually, the Phillies always seem to do what is best for the players they want. Hamels will expect nothing less.