As if hoisted off the weary chest of the Philadelphia collective by a crane forged from an amount of money unfathomable to most of us, the Cole Hamels Situation has been resolved. Bill Baer has more thoughts on the Hamels' shiny new six-year, $144 million contract here, but for many months the thought of Philadelphia losing its greatest homegrown pitcher to free agency weighed heavy on the minds and hearts of Phillies fans, threatening to unravel the last thread of euphoria spun by these "golden era" teams of the past five seasons.
Instead, Hamels received the latest massive, multi-year agreement doled out by Phillies management to secure some of the game's top players over the past few seasons. It's a collection of talent that has reached the playoffs and set a club record for wins in a season, but has not replicated the 2008 title chase, for one reason or another.
To say things in 2012 haven't gone the way the Phillies, their fans and management had envisioned this past March would be a bit of an understatement, but retaining Hamels' services is an analgesic all parties will surely be happy to have. While the Hamels saga and the "will-he-won't-he" wondering about his future destination became the dominant storyline of the Phillies' season, putting that issue to rest doesn't mean general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s heavy lifting is over.
In fact, the toughest work may be yet to come.
Consider what faces the Phillies this coming winter: Even though Hamels is secure, the Phils likely stand to lose their starting center fielder (Shane Victorino) and third baseman (Placido Polanco) to free agency (or trade, at least in Victorino's case), and could suffer a hit to their rotational depth if Joe Blanton ends up departing. Retaining Hamels is important because of his value as a transitional player -- he's likely to be a top-tier starter well into this deal -- to lead the team as the remnants of the '08 squad continue to age. How, then, can Amaro restructure the Phillies and reshape their identity into one built not around Ryan Howard, Chase Utley or even Roy Halladay, but Cole Hamels?
Avoiding Free Agents Who Receive Qualifying Offers
The Phillies are far from stacked with internal candidates to step in and fill shoes of any potentially departing major leaguer, due in large part to the many trades executed to bring in players like Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. Trading away major leaguers for prospects could beef up what is currently a gaunt system, but keeping excess spending under wraps this offseason and keeping the incoming mid-to-early first-round pick -- or second-rounder, should the first be protected (the top 10 picks are protected) -- could go a long way toward improving the outlook of the distant future.
Teams lose their first-round pick if they sign a free agent who has received a qualifying offer from his previous team. That offer is the average of the top 125 players' salaries, expected to be in the $12-$13 million range. The Phils haven't drafted higher than 24th overall since 2007 and didn't have a first-round pick in three of the past nine years.
Maintaining Fan Interest
No fan base enjoys a transition or rebuilding, necessary as those phases may be. Finding ways to keep the fans interested and perpetuating the flow of revenue will be difficult; the Phillies have already seen their fair share of empty seats at home games this season, even though their sellout streak officially passed 250 consecutive games. I doubt the Phillies would commit additional money contingent solely on continued crowds of 44,000-plus even in lean years, but acquiring exciting and/or productive players who can hold down the fort for the time being would help bridge the gap between this moment and when it becomes prudent for the Phillies to make a free agent splash again.
This is the biggest point of all. It almost would have been easier for Amaro to trade Hamels or make continued efforts to re-sign him only to have the lefty walk in the winter. In that scenario, the Phillies could use the money saved on Hamels to keep trying to build around its current aging core. Instead, Amaro has tagged Hamels as the player to transition this franchise from a lean 2012 (and perhaps 2013) to a more prosperous latter half of the decade. In doing so, he's forcing his own hand into the near necessity of making additional trades, whether before the July 31 deadline or in the offseason.
The Phillies have long said they have no plans to operate above the luxury tax threshold, and I've seen no reason to doubt them. In 2014, the threshold will rise from its current $178 million ceiling to $189 million, which will help. But as currently constructed, the Phillies will be paying a combined $74 million to Howard, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins in 2014, plus Hamels' newly assumed salary and a potential $20 million option on Halladay. One or more of those players may not see the entirety of their deals played out in Philly.
With the Phillies looking at severely long odds of reaching the postseason, the departures of these players may be expedited to alleviate the pressure on the payroll, and that could mean a trade deadline that's far from quiet for the Phillies, even with Hamels going nowhere.
Extending Hamels was the right move, even if it means the second-highest pitching contract in history. Hamels has proven to be worthy of "cornerstone" billing. A Cy Young contender. A World Series MVP. A 28-year-old, homegrown ace whose departure would have left an indelible scar on the franchise. Now Hamels has a chance to prove himself yet again, and Amaro has the formidable task of retooling and reconstructing a championship-caliber team around the left arm of his latest multi-million-dollar man. The future of the franchise is now theirs to mold.
Paul Boye writes regularly for Crashburn Alley.