For Phillies, many unanswered questions as free agency begins

The Phillies' Ruben Amaro Jr. is embarking on perhaps his most delicate and complicated offseason as general manager.
The Phillies' Ruben Amaro Jr. is embarking on perhaps his most delicate and complicated offseason as general manager. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 03, 2011

At 12:01 a.m. Thursday, baseball's free-agency period began, and nothing changed for the Phillies. They were faced with the strange but long-expected notion of competing for the services of Jimmy Rollins, an employee for 15 years, and Ryan Madson, 13 years a Phillie.

And so the Phils will wait. Rollins is the second-best shortstop on the market, and Madson is arguably the second-best closer. They could ride the tails of Jose Reyes and Jonathan Papelbon to attain full value in this free-agency period. The Phillies want to re-sign both players but on their terms. Negotiations can, and will, take some time.

That is the line Ruben Amaro Jr. must toe all winter. While the Phillies will publicly maintain Rollins and Madson are the priorities, the general manager must also work alternative scenarios. There also is a bench that must be rebuilt, and questions about third base, left field, and first base linger. The bullpen is teeming with young arms, but Amaro has a desire for veteran reassurance.

So, yes, the Phillies will wait on Rollins and Madson, but there will be a breaking point. All of it makes for a complicated offseason for Amaro, his third, and most delicate yet, as GM.

There is money to spend. The Phillies ended last season with a payroll nearing $178 million and have already committed $107 million to nine players for 2012. Figure Cole Hamels and Hunter Pence, two arbitration-eligible players, combine for about $24 million, and the total jumps to $131 million for 11 players.

Amaro has yet to divulge specifics on his financial ceiling for 2012, but the Phillies can still increase the payroll even if their goal is to avoid paying a luxury tax.

The luxury-tax threshold rises every season. In the last five years, the average increase was $8 million. A comparable increase would put it around $186 million in 2012. (However, if a new collective bargaining agreement is signed this winter, it could contain a new system.)

The Phillies have raised their payroll every season since 2005, so it's hard to imagine anything else. Theoretically, that leaves Amaro with $50 million (give or take) for 14 players. Some of those will be pre-arbitration and earn less than $500,000 - like Vance Worley, John Mayberry Jr., and Antonio Bastardo - leaving room for at least two big-ticket items.

The contingency plans are problematic because the options for an upgrade are limited. If Rollins goes elsewhere, the Phillies would have to expect less offensive production from their new shortstop. Possible replacements like Rafael Furcal, Alex Gonzalez, or Jamey Carroll are stopgaps - all glove and little bat.

That would force the Phils to look for an offensive improvement somewhere else on the field. The corner outfield spots offer free agents Josh Willingham, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Grady Sizemore; each could add pop to the lineup. But Pence mans right field, and in left the Phillies have two controllable, young, and cheap talents in Mayberry and Domonic Brown.

Ryan Howard has yet to begin a five-year, $125 million deal; Chase Utley is under contract for two more seasons; and Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino remain above-average talents at their respective positions. So that leaves third base, where Placido Polanco is owed $6.25 million in 2012. Polanco won the Gold Glove last season, but he had double hernia surgery after the postseason and his health for 2012 is still an unknown. Either way, Polanco is 36 and has missed 70 games in the last two seasons as his production waned.

An interesting option is Aramis Ramirez, who became a free agent when he declined his 2012 player option with the Chicago Cubs. Ramirez turns 34 in June and made $14.6 million in 2011. But he hit .306 with an .871 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and belted 26 home runs on a sad-sack team. He's also a Type B free agent, meaning his new team need not surrender a first-round pick to sign him.

Rollins and Ramirez are mutually exclusive possibilities for the Phillies. Ramirez is simply another option if Rollins' terms are too expensive for the Phillies, who will want to replace his offense somehow.

Sandberg a Cardinal? It appears Ryne Sandberg will not return to Chicago. Instead, he could manage the Cubs' top rival in 2012.

Sandberg, still under contract with the Phillies as their triple-A manager, will interview with the St. Louis Cardinals to replace Tony La Russa. FoxSports.com was the first to report the Cardinals' request for the Phillies' permission.

The Cubs fired Mike Quade on Wednesday, but new team president Theo Epstein effectively ended any speculation about Sandberg's becoming a Cub again. In a statement, Epstein said Chicago's new manager "must have managerial or coaching experience at the major-league level."

Sandberg has neither.

"Moments after the release went out, Theo called me just to let me know I wouldn't be considered for the major-league job," Sandberg told the Chicago Sun-Times. "That was classy of him. I wished him well and said the Cubs were in good hands with him."


Phillies Free Agents

The Phillies have seven free agents:

SS Jimmy Rollins

OF Ross Gload

OF Raul Ibanez

P Brad Lidge

P Ryan Madson

P Roy Oswalt

C Brian Schneider


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb

at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.

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