Time for Phillies to make a quick fix, or build for future?

Phillies reliever Brad Lidge high-fives catcher Carlos Ruiz.
Phillies reliever Brad Lidge high-fives catcher Carlos Ruiz.
Posted: July 23, 2010

JOHN STUART MILL never possessed a mid-90s fastball, or pinpoint command, or any other talent a World Series contender would want to acquire. He did, however, help develop the fundamental economic principle of opportunity cost, which makes him just as relevant to the Phillies' front office as the two top-of-the-rotation starters they appear to be targeting.

The future was not a popular concept in these parts when Ruben Amaro Jr. and his bosses decided the most sustainable way to operate their franchise was to trade Cliff Lee to the Mariners for a package of prospects who had never sniffed Triple A. And the Phillies' Q rating is unlikely to increase over the next 7 days if they decide against paying to acquire Astros righthander Roy Oswalt or Diamondbacks righthander Dan Haren.

But if next on the line were John from 19th century England, this is what he would say:

Every expenditure, however great or small, comes at the cost of a future spending opportunity.

The concept might be simple, but the ramifications are complex. Nobody can argue a pitcher like Haren or Oswalt would upgrade the Phillies' rotation both now and in the future. What is unclear is how the acquisition of either would impact the club's ability to address the numerous other positions that have emerged as concerns.

The Phillies already have an estimated $130.35 million committed to 15 players for next season, which is only $6 million less than their entire Opening Day payroll in 2010. Oswalt is due $16 million next season. Haren is due $12.75 million.

True, the price fits the production that both pitchers have established as their baselines. While Haren's overall numbers are not great this season - 7-8 with a 4.60 ERA - he went 73-52 with a 3.48 ERA from 2005-09 and at 29 is still thought to have a lot of mileage left. Oswalt, meanwhile, is a veteran horse who is pitching even better than his sparkling 3.22 career ERA.

You can never have too much pitching, the dictum goes, and a rotation with three Cy Young-potential starters would do little to disprove it. Add Haren or Oswalt to Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and the Phillies just might give themselves a fighting chance of overcoming their seven-game deficit in the National League East or earning a wild-card spot.

But while an organization can't have too much pitching, it can have too little of everything else. For all of the hullabaloo that surrounded the acquisition of Lee last July, the Phillies actually won a lower percentage of the 62 games that followed his arrival (57 percent) than the 100 that preceded it (58). They reached base less often (.321/.343), scored fewer runs per game (4.5/5.4) and hit fewer home runs per game (1.3/1.4). His presence had a noticeable impact on their chances every fifth game, and perhaps a subtle one on their bullpen on the other four. At the plate, however, the Phillies were who they were. This year, the status quo won't be enough. Their postseason hopes start with an offensive resurgence. Only then will a big pitching piece matter.

Enter the F-word. The Phillies have turned doubters into fools plenty of times over the past three seasons. But the future might only be 2 months away. Although Amaro has spoken only in generalities about his hunt for pitching, people familiar with the Phillies' thought process indicate that he is looking as much to the future as he is to the quick fix. Haren and Oswalt have emerged as his top targets because he would control them beyond this season (through at least 2011 for Oswalt, and at least 2012 for Haren). That would mean at least two, and maybe three, seasons with a rotation of Halladay-Hamels-Weapon X.

But it would also mean fewer resources to allocate toward the other nine roster spots that will have to be filled before the start of the 2011 season. Even if the Astros ate half of Oswalt's salary, the Phillies would have $138.35 million guaranteed to 16 players. Haren, while cheaper, would also leave them with a 2011 payroll that is bigger than 2010 even without:

* A rightfielder (this year: Jayson Werth)

* A starting pitcher (Jamie Moyer)

* Four relievers (Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero, David Herndon, Chad Durbin)

* Three bench players (Ben Francisco, Greg Dobbs, Wilson Valdez)

The roles are complementary, and the Phillies have plenty of homegrown options to fill them on the cheap. It can work, assuming Jimmy Rollins returns to form, and Domonic Brown thrives, and Francisco or Raul Ibanez produce in leftfield, and Brad Lidge remains the closer, and Danys Baez bounces back, and young relievers like Herndon, Antonio Bastardo, Scott Mathieson, B.J. Rosenberg, Justin De Fratus and Mike Stutes provide enough depth, and all of the above avoid the injury problems that have plagued the team this season (and aren't traded in the next week).

Maybe they don't need to make those assumptions. Maybe club president David Montgomery, who was with the team on the recent road trip, has green-lighted a payroll expansion well beyond $140 million for next season. Maybe the Phillies think they can minimize the hit to their organization depth by dealing Werth. Maybe the Diamondbacks or Astros are intrigued by prospects who don't factor in to 2011.

Or maybe the Phillies will look at their uncertain postseason hopes and bulging 2011 payroll and decide that the young talent and money it would cost to add another top-flight pitcher will be better spent on other serious opportunities that could soon arise.

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese. Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

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