Tempting as it was for the Phillies to pair Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in the same rotation, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. made the right call by trading Lee to the Mariners for three upper-level prospects. Baseball is too unpredictable to gamble on short-term potential over long-term stability; no one, for example, knew Lee would require foot surgery, however minor. For the Phillies, the first back-to-back National League champions since the 1975-76 Reds, the choices are only getting more complex. Lee was just the start.
After this season, the Phils will face the prospect of losing right fielder Jayson Werth, their sole right-handed power threat, as a free agent. They also will need to consider trading first baseman Ryan Howard, the major-league home-run and RBI leader over the past four seasons.
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Those, too, will be franchise-defining judgments. But right now, no team is more settled than the Phillies through 2011. In fact, the Phillies are so settled — and so expensive — that Amaro is not entirely kidding when he says he eventually might need to “disband” the roster.
The Phillies, according to the Cot’s Baseball Contracts web site, already have $132.4 million committed to 15 players in 2011— which, if you’re keeping score, is the season after this one.
By contrast, the Yankees have $140.4 million committed to nine players in ‘11, not including shortstop Derek Jeter and closer Mariano Rivera, who are unsigned. The Red Sox have $82 million committed to 11 players – or $50 million less in obligations than the Phillies.
“The payroll can’t continue to go north,” Amaro says. “When you get to a point where you’re basically at 100 percent capacity in your ballpark and 100 percent capacity almost in your revenues, somewhere it’s got to stop. I’m not crying poverty by any means. But at some point you have to be cognizant of where things are going.”
The Phillies did not trade Lee for financial reasons – they could have saved nearly as much money by moving right-hander Joe Blanton. But the return for Blanton, a lesser pitcher on the verge of a major raise in his final year of arbitration, would have been much less significant than the return for Lee — right-hander Phillipe Aumont, outfielder Tyson Gillies and right-hander Juan Ramirez.
Such replenishing was vital.
The Phillies, Amaro says, were thin on high-ceiling prospects above Class A after trading three young players to the Blue Jays for Halladay and four to the Indians for Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco. Amaro says he also had a “reasonable idea” he could sign Blanton long term – something he eventually accomplished for three years, $24 million.
The choice, then, came down to this:
One year of Lee, mediocre prospects for Blanton and the prospect of gaining two draft picks if Lee departed as a free agent or . . .
Three years of Blanton and three better prospects for Lee.
Not so clear-cut, is it?
Especially not when, in Amaro’s view, the draft picks were less valuable than they appeared.
“Lee is likely to sign with a high-payroll club,” Amaro says. “If we get that pick, it could be somewhere between 25 and 30. That’s the first pick.
“The second pick could be anywhere down the line to 50, depending upon how many guys are lined up in between in the sandwich area. You’re not looking at slam dunks. You get after the 10th or 15th pick in baseball, you’re kind of rolling the dice . . . Plus, those guys that we’re drafting may not get to the big leagues for four, five or six years. They are so much further away.
“The whole scenario of ‘Let’s just go for broke and pick up the draft picks and that’s fine,’ that doesn’t serve the purpose of what we’re trying to do, which is put ourselves in a position to win every year.
"We’re going to have to start filtering in younger players for some of the guys who become less productive as they get older.”
Aumont, Gillies and Ramirez could help in that regard. So could the Phillies’ top prospect, outfielder Domonic Brown. But there is delicacy to every decision.
One rival GM questions the Phillies for making long-term commitments to average players such as Blanton and catcher Carlos Ruiz. Amaro likes Blanton’s reliability, values Ruiz’s work with pitchers, knows the Phillies were thin at catcher after trading Lou Marson and Travis D’Arnaud. But he acknowledges the risk in every long-term commitment.
Werth represents another potentially vexing issue.
At first glance, he is not even one of the Phillies’ five most valuable players. Yet, he produced career highs with 36 home runs and 99 RBIs last season. The Phils had only 43 other homers from the right side, including 12 from the since-departed Pedro Feliz.
Howard, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez all bat left-handed. So does Brown, who eventually will replace Ibanez or Werth. The Phillies badly need the balance that Werth provides.
If the Phillies keep every other high-priced player entering 2011, it will compromise their chances of keeping Werth.
Which brings us to Howard.
The Phillies could trade him next offseason – he will earn $20 million in ’11, then become a free agent. To compensate for his loss, they could re-sign Werth or add a free-agent first baseman such as Victor Martinez, Derrek Lee or Paul Konerko. They even could slide Utley to first and add a second or third baseman, using Placido Polanco at the other position. Amaro says he would prefer to simply keep Howard “forever,” adding, “we have a little bit of time to deal with that.” But for the Phillies to retain Werth – or find a comparable right-handed hitter – something will have to give.
None of these choices is easy. The decision to trade Lee was not easy.
But we are talking about a team that has made two straight World Series appearances and three straight postseason appearances, a team that has won 85 or more games for seven straight years.
Enough lamenting about the Phillies’ decision to trade Lee. Amaro and Co. deserve the benefit of the doubt. They seem to know what they’re doing.