Time for Phillies to spend some of their windfall

Masahiro Tanaka pitches against the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. (Toru Takahashi/AP)
Masahiro Tanaka pitches against the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. (Toru Takahashi/AP)
Posted: January 11, 2014

The rich got richer last week and the poor/middle-income people who buy the tickets sure would like to know what the rich plan to do with all that money. What's going to happen to the Phillies payroll now that they have won baseball's version of Powerball on Steroids, which also goes by the name mega-billion-dollar deal with local regional sports network?

The short-term and long-term answers appear to be nothing, and that's not entirely a bad thing. When Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, the Phillies payroll jumped from 15th among baseball's 30 teams to fifth. It has ranked in the top five six times and the top 10 seven times since then. The last time the Phillies weren't ranked in the top 10 was 2008, which was a pretty good year for them.

Team president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. are on the record as saying the payroll for 2014 will remain in the $165 million to $170 million range it was a year ago, when the team ranked third in that department but 24th in the standings.

"That decision . . . we're making, I don't think is reflective of what's going on with Comcast," Amaro said in reference to the 25-year, $2.5 billion deal the Phillies struck with Comcast SportsNet last week. "We're not really affected by that deal right now. It doesn't kick in until 2016."

That statement is a little disturbing, because it represents a mentality identical to the one the Phillies had at the turn of the century, when the new ballpark was being constructed. Wait until next year was the mantra from 1995 through 2002, when the Phillies showed an unwillingness to spend until they got the cash cow that was built with a significant amount of public funding.

To their credit, the Phillies have spent like the big-market team they are for most of this century, and their biggest problem right now is high-priced contracts for aging players who are underperforming. To his credit, Amaro is on record as saying he should be able to win with his current payroll, which is accurate because teams with lower payrolls have won in recent years.

Call him crazy - and he knows that a lot of people do - but Amaro thinks there is still some winning left in the rehabilitated legs and broken-down bats of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz.

"Maybe I'm delusional, but I'm a little more bullish about our club than most," Amaro said. "We won't know until spring training what kind of club we have as far as health, but right now the only guy on the projected 25-man roster who is behind is [reliever] Mike Adams, and he's throwing. The Howards and the Utleys and the Reveres are 100 percent ready to go."

Other teams that recently have cashed in on the mega-billion-dollar regional sports network craze have used some of their newly found money to dip into the most expensive part of the free-agent pool in recent years. Seattle, for example, took advantage of its increased TV revenue to sign second baseman Robinson Cano this offseason to a 10-year deal worth $240 million.

The Angels couldn't wait to spend their TV money on Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, and Josh Hamilton, although their results have yielded the perfect example of why you should be careful on what you spend.

The Dodgers, who got a TV deal that dwarfs all the others, have surpassed the Yankees as baseball's highest-spending team, but the fact that they haven't done much this offseason is a reflection of how shallow the free-agent pool is.

The Rangers used some of their TV money to take on Prince Fielder's contract in a trade with Detroit this offseason; they signed star Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish two years ago. A lot of teams are lined up now trying to sign Masahiro Tanaka, the new star Japanese pitcher. He's the one player the Phillies could sign to rekindle rapidly sinking fan interest, but there is little sense that it's going to happen.

"We have to have some responsibility to the organization as far as fiscal responsibility," Amaro said. "If there is a player or players there that we could bring in to our ball club to justify making the payroll higher, then we'd have a discussion with David. Some of the asks and the expectations [from free agents] right now, I don't feel like are in the right place or the right way to utilize our dollars."

Tanaka, who is 25 and went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in Japan last year, is worth a long conversation with Montgomery. The pitcher, according to reports, is about to start his tour of teams soon.

"I've spoken to [Tanaka's agent] Casey Close, and I'll leave it at that," Amaro said. "Obviously he's a great talent. There's always a risk when you're talking about a player who has not played in the major leagues and you have to see how he responds to being here. I do think that's what is holding up other [free-agent signings]."

It wouldn't be a sin if the Phillies failed to sign Tanaka, because they have other obstacles to overcome. Places such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York obviously have a bigger Asian population and teams with a better history of signing Asian stars.

But once Tanaka signs, the Phillies should be willing to spend some of their new money, which also includes a large increase of national television dollars, to bid on pitchers such as Matt Garza and reliever Grant Balfour. They should at least be willing to take the payroll to the brink of the $189 million luxury tax threshold.

That's not Amaro's decision to make. Only Montgomery and the ownership partners can sign off on extending the payroll that much before the Comcast deal kicks in. That's the right thing to do, because that's how the biggest boys in the business play the game.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|