Phil Sheridan: Weber, Hamels situations reflect increased pressures to win

Posted: July 20, 2012

As the Flyers await a puff of smoke from Nashville - white means they get Shea Weber, black means he remains a Predator - here's something to think about.

Back in December, Weber took a blow to the head. He was expected to return for the next game, but didn't feel right during a skate. He wound up missing four games with a concussion.

This is worth bringing up for reasons other than bumming out Flyers fans. The team's interest in Weber is high enough to inspire a $110 million offer sheet because the Flyers' own shutdown defenseman, Chris Pronger, apparently had his career ended by a concussion last season. Pronger is unlikely to play again, but his seven-year contract will affect the Flyers until 2016.

So naturally the Flyers offered Weber, a player with at least one serious concussion on his medical chart, a contract twice as long and worth nearly three times as much.

Conclusion: This may be the best moment in time to be a professional athlete. Revenues are higher than ever and climbing. The pressure to win is so great that general managers feel compelled to offer incredible amounts of money over ridiculous amounts of time. And while leagues are taking steps to cut labor costs - see the series of lockouts that could continue with the NHL this fall - the well appears to be bottomless so far.

It isn't known whether Ruben Amaro Jr. has ever met David Poile, the Nashville general manager who has a week to decide whether to match the Flyers' offer. Chances are, the two would have plenty to talk about.

Poile has a stark choice that has little to do with Weber himself. If he matches the contract, he is now stuck with the second-largest deal in league history - even though the Predators are a relatively small-market team. If he very reasonably concludes it is bad business to give a 14-year guaranteed contract to a recently concussed player in a violent sport, he will be criticized for not trying hard enough to win.

Sound familiar?

Amaro faces a similar situation with Cole Hamels. There is no literal offer sheet in this case. Instead, there is the certainty that if Hamels reaches free agency after the season, at least one team will offer him a seven-year contract worth more than the $161 million the Yankees gave CC Sabathia a few years back. So Amaro is bidding against an assumption, but it's a pretty safe assumption.

The Phillies' philosophy, which made very good sense, was to limit pitchers' contracts to three years. These are guaranteed deals only in that the player gets the money. There is no guarantee a pitcher's arm remains healthy and effective.

But philosophy winds up on the dugout floor with sunflower shells once the market opens. Amaro signed Roy Halladay to a three-year extension with a vesting option for a fourth season. But when it came time to compete for Cliff Lee a year later, Amaro had to go five years, with a vesting option for a sixth season.

Going six or seven for Hamels, then, flies completely in the face of the team's very reasonable philosophy. But Amaro is in the same bind as Poile. Although he has aggressively spent hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the Phillies competitive, Amaro will get roasted for lack of commitment to winning if he loses Hamels.

That helps explain Paul Holmgren's thinking in offering Weber the megadeal in the first place. The Flyers GM wasn't able to sign Ryan Suter or Zach Parise this month. Several weeks earlier, he watched players he traded away, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, carrying the Stanley Cup around the ice. Even though the Flyers have a talented young team, there was a sense the fans expected Holmgren to do something.

Never mind that Holmgren still has half of Pronger's contract sitting on his books, or that he already had reason to second-guess himself for goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov's nine-year, $51 million deal. The pressure to win - or at least look as if you're doing everything possible to win - trumps logic at times like this.

If anything, the Bryzgalov deal probably pushed Holmgren to pursue Weber. Adding an elite defenseman, whatever the price, will make Bryzgalov better. The better Bryzgalov is, the better his contract looks.

If there is too much emphasis on the business side of sports (and there is), it is because it so directly impacts the playing field. Maybe the real takeaway here is that Philadelphia fans are fortunate that their teams are able and willing to add payroll in order to compete for talent. Better in this case to be the predators than the Predators.

Then again, the 2008 Phillies had just two players making $10 million or more, and they won the only title here in three decades.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster and his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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