Let's start with what we know. We know that, within the last five months, the Phillies have signed three aging players to multi-year contracts at significant dollar amounts. If we accept as truth that a team that views itself as rebuilding would not sign those kinds of players to those kinds of contracts, then the logical conclusion is that the Phillies do not view themselves as rebuilding. If we accept as truth that a team that does not view itself as rebuilding would not trade all of the players best equipped to help them contend in 2014, then the conclusion is that the Phillies will not trade all of the players whose names have recently been reported by usually reputable members of the national media as being available. In order: Domonic Brown, Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels. To me, the logical conclusion to all of this is that the Phillies are in an information-gathering phase. They are in the process of finding out the trade value of each of their marketable players, and at some point, they will digest all of that information and move forward.
In other words, apart from Papelbon, the Phillies probably are not trying to trade anybody. But the smoke that is wafting into the air from the Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel is a pretty good indication that Ruben Amaro Jr. and Co. feel that they might end up needing to trade one of those aforementioned players in order to facilitate whatever it is they are attempting to accomplish this offseason.
So what are they attempting to accomplish?
This is an educated theory on what, exactly, is happening.
The Phillies know they need at least one starting pitcher. But the free agent market, which was underwhelming to begin with, has seen plenty of action in the middle tier, where the Phillies were expected to shop. Already off the board are Ricky Nolasco, Hiorki Kuroda, Scott Kazmir, Tim Hudson, Dan Haren, Jason Vargas, Josh Johnson and Phil Hughes.
The only middle-of-the-rotation-type starters remaining who are likely to sign for salaries under $12 million are Bartolo Colon, Paul Maholm, Jason Hammel, Bronson Arroyo, and Mike Pelfrey. Of those pitchers, Maholm, Hamel and Arroyo profile as guys the Phillies might pursue. But it is an underwhelming group that, judging by the contracts awarded thus far, could command overwhelming salaries relative to their skill sets.
The top of the market features Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and A.J. Burnett, all of whom possess serious risks.
There is a chance the Phillies have reached a realization that if they are going to add a pitcher who offers a significant upgrade over Kyle Kendrick or Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez without throwing their finances -- current and future -- into disarray, they are likely going to have to do it via trade. That, or make a serious play for highly-touted Japanese righty Masahiro Tanaka, who isn't even guaranteed to be posted by his club.
Perhaps the Phillies' No. 1 option heading into the offseason was Ricky Nolasco, but they weren't willing to exceed the four-year, $49 million deal the Twins offered him. And let's say Bronson Arroyo, a secondary target, is also finding teams willing to offer a deal that the Phillies are not comfortable with. In that sort of light, all of the recent scuttlebutt emanating from their camp would make a lot of sense. The offseason is a fluid animal, and the sudden swell in Phillies-centric speculation suggests and a team that is rapidly attempting to adjust to the market factors they are encountering.
Chances are, the Phillies do not know what they are going to end up doing.
Here are some logical scenarios that they could be brainstorming:
1) The GPS (Recalculating, Recalculating…): Tanaka is five years younger than Hamels, who is five years younger than Cliff Lee. If the Phillies can end up signing Tanaka to a contract and convince another team to take Lee or Hamels, it could end up being a cost neutral move that adds at least one major league ready piece to their arsenal for 2014 and beyond (as the return for Hamels or Lee) while also shaving five-to-10 years off of one of their $20+ million per year starters. Maybe that piece is a young starter with significant upside who could slot into the middle of their rotation this season.
2) The Hail Mary: With the Rays dangling David Price to interested teams, the Phillies could use Lee to position themselves as a more affordable Plan B. As you see in the salary chart below, Lee has $62.5 million remaining on his contract, which runs through 2015 and includes a $12.5 million buyout for 2016. Price also has two years of control left and, barring injury, would likely approach $30 million in salary through arbitration in 2014 and 2015. If the Phillies were to offer to eat half of the remaining money on Lee's deal, Price's affordability would no longer be as much of an advantage for the Rays (although Lee's money is guaranteed, while Price is on a year-to-year basis). Keep in mind, the Rays managed to land blue-chip outfield prospect Wil Myers. If the Phillies were able to land that kind of player, then perhaps they would feel free to trade Domonic Brown for the aforementioned young, controllable, high-upside starter who they could add to the middle of their rotation. Brown gets replaced by the Myers type, Lee gets replaced by the young pitcher, and the Phillies end up with an extra $15 million per year in payroll space in 2014 and 2015, which they could then use to sign a starter like Garza or Jimenez.
3) The Usual: The Phillies use Domonic Brown to get their young middle-of-the-rotation starter with upside and sign Nelson Cruz or Mike Morse to a multi-year contract to play left field.
Long story short, the Phillies can't allow a potential deal to slip through the cracks simply because they did not open their minds enough to dream it up. That being said, it's hard to imagine them believing that they must choose between a hitter like Domonic Brown or a starting pitcher. They need both, and they should not be in a dire enough financial position to force themselves to choose one over the other. If they trade Brown, they need to land a hitter to fill the void he will leave, along with a starter. With a projected payroll of $162.2 million, the Phillies should have room to add money, and should not be worried about subtracting money. If they are worried about subtracting money, then 2014 is a lost cause.
Phillies payroll through 2017 (dollar amounts in millions)