Inside the Phillies: Phillies must go free-agent route to improve

Carlos Beltran of the Cardinals is one of the free agents who could interest the Phillies.
Carlos Beltran of the Cardinals is one of the free agents who could interest the Phillies. (Associated Press)
Posted: November 04, 2013

The free-agent market, filled with 147 players, opens at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. The next three months will serve as further evidence that Major League Baseball's 30 clubs have never been more profitable.

Almost every contract this winter - much like last, when Ruben Amaro Jr. lamented the lack of economic rationality - will be viewed as an overpay. (New standards for evaluating contracts are required.) Every team has money to burn even as demand far surpasses supply. Welcome to modern free agency.

While the Phillies are on the verge of selling their television rights for billions, money in this specific arena carries less of an advantage. Most teams can boast competitiveness on the open market. Every team will receive a $24 million check in 2014 without lifting a finger. That is the reward, according to an industry source, for MLB's national TV contract. Revenue-sharing and lucrative local TV deals fuel the smaller-market teams.

Less and less top talent reaches free agency. The game's finest players are typically younger than 30 and locked into long-term contracts before reaching the market. Meanwhile, free agents are paid for past performance. Of those 147 free agents who filed Thursday, one day after Boston claimed its third World Series championship in a decade, how many are worthy of a four-year guarantee? Robinson Cano, for sure. Jacoby Ellsbury? Probably. Brian McCann? Maybe, as long as it is with an American League team.

So while Amaro was reluctant to participate in last winter's madness, he is stuck with this vehicle as the primary way to improve his team. The Phillies general manager cannot trade from a depleted minor-league talent pool. He could deal Domonic Brown for a righthanded bat, although the return must be significant because Brown will not hit free agency for another four seasons and offers cost-efficient production.

The Phillies are unlikely to exceed the $189 million luxury-tax threshold, although they have plenty of funds to support a payroll north of that figure. Team president David Montgomery is a close friend of outgoing commissioner Bud Selig and a staunch supporter of his policies. Both believe in competitive balance.

"Obviously, we had a lot less people coming to the ballpark this year," Amaro said at the end of the season. "We have to be cognizant of that. We have been greatly supported - our payroll was, what, $165 million? That should be enough to put a contender on the field."

Even with a ceiling, there is room for large expenditures. The Phillies have committed approximately $118.5 million in payroll to eight players (when calculated for luxury-tax purposes). That is not counting five arbitration-eligible players - Kyle Kendrick, Antonio Bastardo, Ben Revere, Kevin Frandsen, and John Mayberry Jr. - who could tally another $13 million. Mayberry and Frandsen are non-tender candidates.

If everyone returns, that leaves about $38 million in 2014 salary to procure a catcher, an outfielder, a starting pitcher, and bullpen help. Since baseball is flush with cash, the smartest way to approach free agency could be in the form of shorter-term contracts with inflated salaries. (Think Chase Utley's two-year, $27 million pact.) The most fatal deals are the longest ones.

That is not to say the Phillies' impending TV rights renewal with Comcast SportsNet has lost its value. Money is integral to a franchise's success, just less so through free agency. Even the lawlessness of the international market, long skewed toward the highest spenders, will diminish when baseball soon implements a worldwide draft.

There has never been a higher emphasis on drafting and developing talent. The money can be funneled into that process. There is no infallible way of projecting young talent, yet some clubs are better at it than others. Study them.

Baseball's decision-makers are at a constant search for the market's next inefficiency. The teams that devote the most resources - be it more scouts, advanced metrics, or new technology - toward unlocking the secrets behind identifying future stars will be the most successful.

For years, the Phillies have failed in that area. It is why they face an uncertain fate with a muddled payroll teeming with 30-somethings. Boston prospered only when its GM, Ben Cherington, was able to reset his entire payroll in August 2012 by dumping $264 million in aging veterans on attention-starved Los Angeles. There is no such escape for Amaro.


Inside the Phillies: The Phillies and Free Agency

Here are 10 free agents who could draw attention from the Phillies this offseason.

Carlos Beltran, OF: He is one of this generation's most underrated hitters. But at 37, and after a draining season with St. Louis, how much is left?

A.J. Burnett, RHP: His market could be limited to two options: Pittsburgh or retirement. Burnett, though, is a close friend of Phillies assistant general manager Scott Proefrock.

Nelson Cruz, OF: The Dominican has bashed at least 22 home runs in each of the last five seasons. That was before the stain of Biogenesis. It could lower his price.

Matt Garza, RHP: His last two seasons - shortened by injury - give pause. Still, at age 30, Garza fits the mold of mid-rotation man the Phillies crave.

Curtis Granderson, OF: He is lefthanded. He is older (33 in March). He played in 61 games last season. His track record is excellent and difficult to ignore.

Mike Morse, OF: The Phillies have inquired about him before. His 2011 season with Washington (31 homers in 146 games) looks like an aberration.

Edward Mujica, RHP: He comes with myriad health issues. The Phillies want relievers with late-inning experience. He saved 37 games for St. Louis.

Ricky Nolasco, RHP: The market is loaded with third-starter types, and Nolasco is another. He will be 31. He knows the National League East.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C: The switch-hitting catcher with dismal career numbers vs. lefties (.599 OPS) will seek a major payday. He was benched for the final three games in the World Series.

Joe Smith, RHP: The man with an ordinary name is quietly one of the game's best middle relievers. His 2.42 ERA ranks fifth among pitchers with at least 200 games since 2011.

- Matt Gelb


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

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