So what exactly is the plan for the Philadelphia Phillies now?
They went all out to sign Cole Hamels to a monster contract and then gutted their already anemic lineup by sending out Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. Say what you want about the trades themselves, but the overall strategy was a bold one from GM Ruben Amaro to keep a major asset while cashing out on some lesser ones.
The question now though is what will Amaro do come this off-season? Victorino was already expected to be gone via free agency, but unloading Pence should save the Phils somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million, which is, of course, canceled out and then some by the mega-contract of Hamels. Depending on where exactly the first year salary comes in for Cole, the Phillies will be entering this off-season with at least $135 million in payroll already on the books and a whole bunch of holes to fill.
Keeping Hamels allows the Phillies to continue to build around a core of strong starting pitcher, but it does absolutely nothing to address the poor offensive production that has undermined their elite pitching for the last few seasons. With Amaro jettisoning his two best outfielders, he'll have to rebuild that part of his team or be forced to move forward with his current uninspiring crew of Juan Pierre, John Mayberry, Nate Schierholtz and Dominic Brown. They'll also have to find a new starting third baseman with Placido Polanco likely to be let go. And we haven't even talked about the overhaul that their leaky bullpen will need.
Take a step back from all that and the Phillies, who entered this season with a team-record $172 million payroll, will have between $25 and $30 million to replace half their lineup, upgrade their bullpen and maybe even pick up one more back-of-the-rotation starter. That isn't as much to work with as it might sound like and that financial limitation is only compounded by the fact that 2013 free agent crop is woefully short on impact bats. After Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton, there are very few logical free agent fits for the Phils.
If they are going to make major changes and vault themselves back into contention, their best option is to do what they just refused to do at the trade deadline and fork over some of their starting pitching. The obvious name on the trading block will be Cliff Lee, who Philadelphia reportedly entertained trade offers for at the deadline. In the off-season, they should have a better shot at finding a team willing to both take on his substantial contract as well as giving back multiple players that can help fill the holes in their lineup. In fact, it is entirely plausible that Amaro only took calls on Lee last week so that he could do some advanced research on what kind of package he could get ask for this off-season.
However if Amaro balks at breaking up his trio of aces, things get a lot more complicated. He also had some trade talks around Jimmy Rollins, who is closer to a salary dump at this point than a real trade chip like Lee. Moving him could create some financial flexibility, but it would also create yet another hole in the lineup.
It certainly seems that Amaro has painted himself into a corner. He's handed out so many onerous contracts (hello, Ryan Howard) that the club almost has to try and contend. But at the same time, he also has limited his financial flexibility so much that he can't make the kind of big, bold, broad moves that the roster appears to need.
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Could it be Amaro has authorization to spend MORE than $25-30 million for a contender, and then dump salary again if it doesn't happen? Those Phillies fans are still packing the park and are likely to demand a couple big off-season moves. Maybe Amaro got some interesting leads during the deadline talks and has a big deal in mind involving more than one team? I LOVE those multi-team deals! I can't see him filling all the holes otherwise.
@gloccamorra That is certainly possible, but their payroll entering the season was over $170 million, which is a record high for them and puts them right up against the luxury tax. The tax is much more punitive in the new CBA. The point I am getting at is if they up their payroll much more than what they paid this season, it is going to cost them even more money via a luxury tax bill. That seems unlikely to happen, in my opinion.