NASHVILLE - The handwriting has been on the center-field wall for months: Aaron Rowand will not be a Phillie in 2008.
It's nothing personal. Team officials like Rowand. They liked what he brought to their club on and off the field in the last two seasons. They'd like to see him in red pinstripes on opening day 2008.
It's opening day 2010, 2011 and 2012 that scares them.
At the prime age of 30, Rowand is on the free-agent market, and he finds himself there at an opportune time. He is coming off his best season, and a number of teams need a centerfielder.
Rowand wants a five-year deal. Given that it might be his last big financial score in the game, you can't blame him for seeking a deal of that length.
He just won't get it from the Phillies. Rowand's agent, Craig Landis, seemed to know that during a conversation about his client at baseball's winter meetings yesterday.
"The door is not completely shut," Landis said of Rowand's chances of re-signing with the Phillies. "We'll see. We feel it's up to them, but they haven't been one of the front-runners.
"Aaron had a good experience there. He loves the manager. He just went to Hawaii with Chase [Utley]. But it has to be the right situation, and length [of contract] is an issue. The Phillies have signed other guys to five-year deals. Utley got seven. [Pat] Burrell and [Jimmy] Rollins got five. The Phillies want Aaron as a player, but they don't want to pay him what we think the market dictates."
Unlike the teams that are openly seeking help in center field, the Phillies have a young, inexpensive option at the position in Shane Victorino.
"That's probably the problem," Landis conceded. "Plus, Pat [Gillick] is resistant to lengthy deals."
Well, not all lengthy deals.
A year ago, the Phils' general manager signed Utley to a seven-year, $85 million extension. That transaction actually was an organizational decision. Everyone from club president David Montgomery on down liked the idea of locking up a talented, hard-nosed, homegrown, team-first player like Utley.
Rowand is as hard-nosed as they come and, like Utley, is a team-first guy.
In Rowand's case, though, it appears being a hard-nosed, physical player is working against him in his bid to score a five-year deal from the Phillies. Simply put, the Phils are wary of giving Rowand a five-year deal because they aren't sure he'll be able to stay on the field. Rowand's Ronnie Lott style of play can occasionally lead to an injury, as was evidenced by his two noteworthy trips to the disabled list in 2006 - one for running into the wall at Citizens Bank Park, the other for running into Utley at Wrigley Field.
Is Rowand a victim of his style of play?
"Possibly," Landis said. "People say he could get hurt. Well, what are we supposed to do, tell him not to play so hard?
"Aaron played 161 games this year. It's pretty clear with him: Bumps and bruises won't keep him out of the lineup. For him to come out, something has to be broken."
In perhaps the clearest sign yet that the Phils don't intend on re-signing Rowand, Landis said he had no formal talks planned with Phillies officials about his client.
Landis surely will speak to other clubs here. He estimated that 10 clubs are interested in Rowand, who could command more than $12 million per season.
The big question is whether Rowand will get five years. The buzz in hallways yesterday was that a number of teams like Rowand, but they were also leery of a five-year commitment. Count the Dodgers and White Sox among them. Both teams like Rowand but would favor something more in the three-year range. Heck, if Rowand would take a three-year deal, the Phillies might step up efforts to retain him.
The Twins, Royals, Rangers and Orioles also could be in on Rowand, especially if he would sign for three years. The X factor team is the Yankees, who could pursue Rowand if they include centerfielder Melky Cabrera in a deal for Minnesota pitcher Johan Santana. A number of executives believe Santana could be dealt to the Yankees this week. Rowand's people would be wise to see how that shakes out.
Even with Torii Hunter, who signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Angels, off the market, the class of free-agent centerfielders remains relatively deep and talented, especially when compared to the class of free-agent pitchers. In addition to Rowand, Andruw Jones is out there. Veteran Mike Cameron as well as Japanese star Kosuke Fukudome are also available. The was some buzz among scouts yesterday that the Cubs were interested in Rowand, but a lefthanded bat like Fukudome seems to be more of a preference.
The hunch here is that Rowand will get the long-term deal he is seeking, probably four years.
It just won't be from the Phillies, though that's no shocker. The handwriting has been on the center-field wall for months.