Thanks in part to the gift-giving tendencies of the Milwaukee Brewers' bullpen, the Philadelphia Phillies have run off a four-game winning streak - three by walk-offs - and generated some excitement in a season of miserable underachieving.
But they shouldn't be deceived about making a run for the playoffs - an unlikely long shot after 99 games, nine games under .500, 9 1/2 games behind the second wild card and six teams to pass - not to mention with two of three aces not pitching that way.
Instead, it's time for the front office to focus on what the roster will look like in 2013 and the near-beyond, when the Phillies will take another shot at winning a World Series before their aging core players reach the end of the line.
At the precipice of the luxury-tax threshold - and with a 254-game-and-counting consecutive sellout streak at Citizens Bank Park - the Phillies' only option is to reload.
"We're trying to be improvers,'' is how club president David Montgomery put it on Wednesday.
Montgomery was speaking at the press conference for Cole Hamels' six-year, $144-million contract extension, which was the first - and very correct - step in this process. Of all their pricey pieces, Hamels was the one they least could afford to lose - a 28-year-old ace in the midst of his best season, smack in the prime of his career, seemingly with a half-dozen or so elite-level seasons in front of him.
This really was a compromise for both sides. Not that long ago, the Phillies had shown reluctance to go beyond three guaranteed years for pitchers (see Halladay, Roy). But the game's financial landscape has changed, and for as much as Hamels received - reportedly a $6-million signing bonus, $19.5 million in 2013, $22.5 million per year in 2014-18 and either a vesting option for 2019 or $6-million buyout - there is a feeling he could have received more in free agency.
In fact, when you consider that the Angels, Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox all are in need of another front-of-the-rotation starter, CC Sabathia's record seven-year, $161-million deal seemed to be in jeopardy. So Hamels most likely took a bit less to stay with the only organization he has known since being picked 17th overall in the 2002 draft.
The legitimate question to ask is did the Hamels deal inhibit putting enough pieces in place to win in the near future? Look at the top-heavy financial obligations general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. faces in trying to add pieces to a puzzle that has come up way short this season. In 2013, the Phillies will pay (numbers from the Baseball Prospectus/Cots Baseball Contracts site):
- $70.5 million to three starting pitchers - Lee ($25 million), Halladay ($20), Hamels ($25.5 including signing bonus)
- $90.5 million to four players, adding Ryan Howard ($20 million).
- $129.5 million to seven players, adding Chase Utley ($15 million), Jonathan Papelbon ($13 million) and Jimmy Rollins ($11 million). And that's not counting Hunter Pence's arbitration-eligible salary, which should land between $13-$15 million.
Keep in mind that the Phillies' payroll was a tad under $100 million when they won the 2008 World Series. But the reality is the Phillies had no choice but to extend Hamels; he's that important going forward. Still, their needs are clear: third base, bullpen, outfield.
Dealing Lee would go the furthest to alleviate financial concerns, as he's owed $87.5 million (buyout included) over the next three seasons. But, that obligation limits his market to the financial elites - Rangers (who have reported interest), Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Red Sox and maybe a sleeper team or two.
It also doesn't help that Lee clearly is in a down year, and is nowhere near the league-elite starters. Forget the no-run-support argument; his ERA is 3.95 - up 1.55 from his 2011 season mark, and by far his worst since 2007, when the Indians sent him back to the minors. Other measures similarly have risen, including WHIP, hits-per-nine innings and home-run ratio.
Still, you'd think he could bring a return that would fill two of those roster holes. But the Phillies have invested so much in their pitching since their postseason run began in 2007, it would mark a dramatic change in course for them to trade from their ultimate strength (actual or perceived). So count a potential Lee deal as the highest in both risk and reward; a truly gutsy move by Amaro, if he goes that way.
The Pence trade speculation seems strange, given that the Phillies let Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez go over the last two winters, and it's highly likely Shane Victorino is in his final couple of months (or even week) in a Phillies uniform. How many outfielders can you let get away, especially when nobody has stepped up from the system, other than John Mayberry Jr.'s part-time contributions?
Pence has been the Phillies' best player this season besides Carlos Ruiz, is their only right-handed power threat, and is under control through next season. But again, that makes him more valuable to other clubs, and hence able to bring a bigger return - probably two pieces that Amaro Jr. needs.
The Phillies have shown little interest to date in keeping Victorino out of free agency - much as was the case with Werth. In the former, the Phils see a 33-year-old outfielder whose game is based on speed, and can envision a decline ahead. But if Pence is traded, Victorino's chances of returning increase.
Victorino is owed just over $3 million of the rest of this season, as is Joe Blanton. But as rental players heading to free agency this winter, they won't bring much in return.
The new collective bargaining agreement rules don't allow teams that acquire rent-a-players to receive draft picks when they leave through free agency. So, they're not showing the willingness to give up a highly rated prospect or valuable part for two-plus months of a rental player. For instance, the Reds reportedly turned down a Victorino-for-Logan Ondrusek proposed deal.
One way or another, Padres' third baseman Chase Headley could be a right answer, especially with Placido Polanco going on the disabled list. Headley is an above-average grinder-type (read: good fit in Philly) whose power is on the rise, and whose home/road splits suggest a nice uptick in production if he gets out of Petco Park. But he's attracting a lot of attention in this market.
So, especially in the next week leading up to the trade deadline - and also into this off-season - Amaro Jr. is facing his biggest challenge.