OK, so how the heck are the Phillies going to sign Cole Hamels?
Serious question, because Hamels is a free agent after this season and, at some point, the Phils’ bill is going to come due.
The Phillies can’t keep adding and retaining the biggest, most expensive stars. Sooner or later — probably sooner — they’re going to implode.
Granted, it’s difficult to find fault with a team that has earned five straight division titles, captured the World Series in 2008 and won a club-record 102 games last season. More franchises should operate like the Phillies, whose agreement with free-agent closer Jonathan Papelbon on Friday was merely the latest evidence of their commitment to winning.
Still, let’s not confuse the Phils’ relentless spending with a long-term model for success.
First baseman Ryan Howard has yet to even begin his five-year, $125 million contract, and the deal already looks like an albatross. The team’s other $20 million players, right-hander Roy Halladay and lefty Cliff Lee, will finish their deals in their mid-30s.
Meanwhile, the team’s offense is in decline, and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will need to sign at least one free-agent hitter to keep it an appropriate level for a contender. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins and outfielder Michael Cuddyer are among Amaro’s targets. Each will play next season at 33.
Whatever the Phillies do, they again should be one of the top teams in the National League. But Hamels and center fielder Shane Victorino can be free agents after next season — and Hamels, who turns 28 on Dec. 27, could command a deal of at least six years in the $23-million to $25-million range.
By that point, Hamels will be even more valuable to the Phillies as the youngest of their three remaining aces. Right-hander Roy Oswalt, a free agent, is a long shot to return. But the Phils, stretched to the limit by Amaro’s previous signings, might not even be in position to bid competitively for their homegrown lefty.
Three other significant Phillies — second baseman Chase Utley, right fielder Hunter Pence and catcher Carlos Ruiz — can become free agents after ’13. And good luck finding enough affordable replacements on the farm; the Phillies traded many of their best prospects to obtain stars such as Halladay, Lee and Pence.
All teams go through cycles, and the Phillies are no different. One can argue that they merely are trying to maximize and extend their opportunity to win multiple World Series. One also can argue that Amaro Jr. is too impulsive in his decision-making, too willing to set the market rather than let the market come to him.
The Howard contract looked awful even before the slugger ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon on the final play of the Phillies’ Division Series loss to the Cardinals. The deal looks even worse now that the injury could force Howard to miss the start of next season and hinder him for a time after his return. His OPS already had dropped from .931 to .859 to .835 over the past three seasons, outpacing the league’s offensive decline.
Howard, who turns 32 on Saturday signed his extension nearly two years before he was to become a free agent.
What was Amaro’s rush?
Howard would have entered the market this offseason with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. The Phillies could have taken their pick of the three. Or, they could have avoided overpaying any of them, and found a different solution at a position where there is always an abundance of talent. First base even could have been a landing spot for the oft-injured Utley.
In fairness, virtually every high-revenue team carries at least one bad contract. If Howard is Amaro’s only major mistake — and he very well could be — the GM will be doing OK.
Halladay, whose work ethic makes him a latter-day Nolan Ryan, figures to give the Phillies two more good seasons and maybe three if his option vests. Lee, whose $24 million average salary was the highest ever for a starting pitcher before CC Sabathia signed his new deal, is more of a risk. He is under contract for four more seasons and possibly five.
Now comes Papelbon.
His $50 million guarantee over four years is the highest ever for a reliever. But the Phillies, in some ways, actually can argue that they got a bargain: Papelbon’s $12.5 million average salary will be only $500,000 more than the $12 million he earned in his final year of arbitration with the Red Sox.
If the choice was between Papelbon at $50 million and Ryan Madson at $44 million, then the Phillies clearly made the right call. Papelbon is the closest thing in the game to Mariano Rivera, the best closer to hit the market in years. But, again, it’s fair to ask: Did Amaro need to jump?
The market is flooded with closers — Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero, Francisco Rodriguez, etc. The laws of supply and demand create the possibility for club-friendly deals. Amaro, by making such a deal, would have left the Phils in a more flexible position — for the rest of the offseason, for the trade deadline, maybe even for Hamels.
Yet, Amaro immediately forced the issue, engaging in concurrent negotiations with Madson and Papelbon. He needed a closer; by golly, he was going to get one.
As it turned out, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said he would not have offered Papelbon four years. Amaro could not have known that, but teams such as the Red Sox, Rangers and Blue Jays seem to be taking the opposite approach of the Phillies, playing the market, waiting for deals.
The counter-argument, of course, is that Amaro got the best guy. Still, the Phillies will be paying Papelbon to remain effective through age 34 and possibly 35. If his average fastball velocity ever drops — and it stayed in the narrow range of 94.5 mph to 94.9 mph from 2007 to ’11, according to Fangraphs.com — Papelbon no longer will be Papelbon.
As always with the Phillies, it’s a problem for another day. Their past five seasons were a blast. Their next five will be more difficult to watch.