7:36 PM CDT, July 7, 2012
Say this for the Phillies. They got a World Series title and five consecutive playoff seasons out of their payroll escalation.
But are they about to suffer Cubs-like pain?
That's the question that faces general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. as he faces a crucial decision with pitcher Cole Hamels, 28.
Whether to move Hamels or hang on to him, in the dual hopes he can be re-signed and the aging nucleus around him still can win a balanced National League East that has begun to tilt toward the Nationals, will keep Amaro up nights between now and the July 31 trade deadline. He has made plenty of other tough calls since inheriting a great situation from Pat Gillick but none with these consequences.
The Phillies' payroll has grown from $98.3 million in 2008 to $172.1 million this year. They've imported the likes of Pedro Martinez, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Jonathan Papelbon.
While Hamels and Shane Victorino will be free agents after this season, the Phillies have $104 million invested in six players for 2013 (Lee, Halladay, Papelbon, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins), with their average age 33.8. Baseball America rated their organizational talent level 27th in the majors entering this season, noting that Amaro has depleted the inventory with win-now moves.
With the Phillies at 37-48 and 13 games behind the Nationals through Friday, the question on the table is whether to use Hamels as a chip to begin a rebuilding process or keep building around him. Strip away Carlos Zambrano's bad behavior, and it's similar to the decision the Cubs faced with a 26-year-old Zambrano in 2007.
Jim Hendry deemed Big Z indispensable and handed him a five-year extension, and the Cubs continue to dig out from under the deals of that era.
None of the six Phillies signed to pricey long-term contracts has had an All-Star season, with injuries hampering Halladay, Howard and Utley. Catcher Carlos Ruiz, the one All-Star in the lineup, is headed toward free agency after 2013, with a Yadier Molina-sized deal (five years, $75 million) beckoning.
There's no clear answer for Amaro, who says his goal is to re-sign Hamels. The sides have been far apart in negotiations, however, so barring an unexpected reversal, the best move is probably to move him for a top pitching prospect such as the Rangers' Martin Perez.
While Zambrano helped the Cubs reach the playoffs in 2008, they haven't won a postseason game since signing him to the extension. This could easily be the Phillies' fate for years to come whether they keep Hamels or not, but it's tough to swallow such a bitter pill.
"We plan on being contenders in '13, '14, '15 and '16,'' Amaro told Philadelphia reporters. "So we're not blowing this team up. That's not going to happen, regardless of what happens over the next couple of weeks. ... It's more about retooling than it is redoing. We've got a lot of players who are pretty damn good. I expect them to be playing next year for us."
Players never get younger, however. And seldom are they healthier as they grow older.
One good thing for the Phillies is they still have Gillick acting as an adviser to Amaro. No one in baseball has done a better job making hard decisions over the last couple of decades.
Conspicuously absent: Angels owner Arte Moreno must have thought he had acquired an automatic All-Star when he signed Albert Pujols to a $240 million contract. But Pujols was beaten out by Prince Fielder in fan voting and Paul Konerko in player voting, and Ron Washington didn't add him to the team.
He entered the weekend hitting .273 with 13 home runs and a pedestrian .795 OPS. He's a nine-time All-Star but has missed the last two. This one must sting more because Kansas City is his adopted hometown.
"No, I'm not disappointed," Pujols said. "Sure, it would have been great to be there in Kansas City, a city that means a lot to me. But thank God, I'm healthy, and hopefully it won't be my last chance to go to an All-Star Game. I've been there nine of my 12 years in my career. A lot of guys wish they could say that.''
Chasing: Ozzie Guillen wasn't a Carlos Lee fan when he managed him with the 2004 White Sox. He has him again, this time because the Marlins first basemen had been unproductive all season, with Gaby Sanchez hitting .202.
Marlins President Larry Beinfest sent third baseman Matt Dominguez and Double-A lefty Rob Rasmussen to the Astros for Lee and about $9 million, trying to prop up arguably baseball's most disappointing team. Owner Jeffrey Loria expected a playoff team when he signed Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, but the Marlins were 38-42 when they made the trade for Lee.
Lee, a terrible signing by the Astros after 2006, was hitting .286/.336/.412 with five homers and 29 RBIs. It's hard to imagine he will make a difference for the Marlins, whose lone All-Star, outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, will have surgery on his right knee Sunday and miss four to six weeks.
Working in the shadows: The Royals are trying to lead the majors in outfield assists for the second year in a row. Jeff Francoeur's arm is a big part of the equation, and Alex Gordon and Jarrod Dyson have basically matched him in assists.
The Royals take infield more often than other teams. Their throws from the outfield are made with a precision scouts notice, and manager Ned Yost points to the work done by coach Doug Sisson.
"Our guys are talented and they work hard,'' Sisson told the Kansas City Star. "That's all it comes down to. There's nothing we do that's unique, other than we don't throw with a cutoff man."
No cutoff man?
"I've never believed that it's an outfielder's job to hit a cutoff man," Sisson said. "It's an outfielder's job to throw the ball to a base. It's a cutoff man's job to get in line with the throw."
Francoeur has 103 assists the last eight seasons, 27 more than any other outfielder. And Gordon led the majors with 20 outfield assists last season, a club record.
The last word: "What kid hasn't?" — Justin Verlander, asked if he ever has tried a knuckleball, the pitch of choice for likely NL All-Star starter R.A. Dickey.
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