DENVER - Aaron Rowand had been through the mosh pit that clinching a title tends to be before, felt the joy in his heart and the happy sting of champagne in his eyes three times as the Chicago White Sox marched to a world championship in 2005.

At the end of that season, he was traded to the Phillies.

Leaving the only organization he had ever known, a team and a city he had grown to love, was a shock to his system. But he put that aside, buckled down and helped the Phillies make it to the postseason this year for the first time in 14 years.

Now he has to wonder if history is about to repeat itself.

"I don't want to start a trend," he said wearily early yesterday morning after the Colorado Rockies bounced the Phillies from the National League Division Series, completing the sweep with a 2-1 win at Coors Field.

"I'm comfortable. It's been awesome the whole time I've been here. It's a great team. Great guys. Great fans. Great city. Great stadium."

Rowand became a folk hero in Philadelphia when he busted up his face running into the centerfield wall to make a catch in his first 2 months with his new team. And his contributions to the team go far beyond his .309 batting average, 105 runs scored, 27 homers and 89 runs batted in.

He's a clubhouse catalyst, the guy who organizes the off-day get-togethers, who's always preaching the importance of putting the team ahead of individual egos.

He also can file for free agency 15 days after the World Series ends. And that's where it starts to get tricky.

Fans waving their rally towels don't like to think about it, but baseball is a big business, a $5 billion-plus industry. Looking at the Phillies from a cold, hard, dollars-and-cents perspective, it's not hard to imagine that two things could happen.

The first is that they won't re-sign Rowand.

The second is that they could well come to regret it.

The confetti from the White Sox's World Series parade had barely been cleared from Michigan Avenue when Rowand and two minor league pitchers, Daniel Haigwood and Gio Gonzalez, were sent to the Phillies for Jim Thome and cash.

And while there are many reasons for what happened next, the fact is that the White Sox went from winning 99 games and a world championship in 2005 to winning 90 games and not even making the playoffs in 2006 to going 70-92 and barely finishing ahead of the Kansas City Royals this year.

There are many in the White Sox organization who believe that losing Rowand's spitfire approach played a big role in that decline.

Late in the season, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel was asked how many wins could be directly attributed to Rowand's intangibles. "I have no idea," he said. "But he's a huge part of our team. He plays a part in everything you think about. Clubhouse. Standing up. Defense. Offense. He's always talking about 'we' and 'us,' always talking about winning every day.

"And I believe in that. I believe you see how people react to it. It's easy with the salaries and the schedule for players to get complacent, or down at times. But he takes care of that for you."

So why wouldn't the Phillies do whatever it takes to make sure he's back? Well, it's kind of like needing to remodel your kitchen . . . but also wanting a new car and that high-def television you've had your eye on. Most people can't afford everything they want. And whether people want to hear it or not, baseball teams can't either.

Yes, money is coming off the Phillies' payroll. Freddy Garcia's departure saves $10 million, Jon Lieber another $7.5 million. If you assume Rod Barajas won't be back, they're up to almost $20 million already.

Don't forget, though, that Ryan Howard figures to get a huge raise from the bargain-basement $900,000 he got this year. So pencil him in for at least $7 million. Brett Myers and Chase Utley have significant built-in raises. J.C. Romero can be a free agent and Jayson Werth and Ryan Madson are arbitration-eligible for the first time. See? It doesn't take long to blow through that stash.

Rowand made $4.35 million this year. He's expected to command at least what Arizona gave outfielder Eric Byrnes during the season: $30 million for 3 years.

There figure to be several quality centerfielders in addition to Rowand up for sale at the annual free-agent bazaar this winter: Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter, Mike Cameron, even Japan's Kosuke Fukudome.

The thing is that there also could be plenty of teams with centerfielders prominent on their shopping lists: Nationals, Orioles, Rangers, White Sox, Braves, Padres (if they lose Cameron).

The Phillies made a brief overture to Rowand around midseason. It apparently fell well short of what he was looking for. Now it seems inevitable that he'll test the market. That rarely works out well for the team hoping to retain a player. Think Billy Wagner. Think Randy Wolf.

In the immediate aftermath of the crushing disappointment of Saturday night's loss, Rowand deflected questions about his future. "I don't know," he said. "We'll see what happens. I have no idea. I'll let my agent take care of all of that, and then he can give me a call."

If he signs elsewhere, the Phillies probably will say that he had a career year. They might point out that they have other options in center: Shane Victorino, Werth, Michael Bourn. They will certainly make the argument that they needed to set priorities and that pitching had to top the list.

All these points are fair enough. But the suspicion lingers that he's also the type of player that teams don't really realize how much they'll miss until after he's gone.

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