NASHVILLE - Before the start of baseball's winter meetings last week, $795.8 million had already been issued to free-agent pitchers this offseason. It was nearly nine times the amount that had been spent on position players.
The second day of the meetings brought the first major trade as Shelby Miller - a decent pitcher - was sent by Atlanta to Arizona in exchange for a top prospect, a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder, and the top pick in last June's draft. A huge haul, indeed.
It was clear that pitching was every team's first priority. Top-of-the-rotation starters have become a premium as baseball continues to shift toward teams built around strong staffs and stout defenses. The cost to acquire arms - either in free agency or through trades - is at an all-time high.
It raises the question: Should the Phillies have waited to trade Cole Hamels?
Atlanta's deal to send Miller to Arizona came just four days after Zack Greinke signed with the Diamondbacks for $206.5 million. Jordan Zimmermann signed on Nov. 29 with Detroit for $110 million. Hamels is owed just $94.5 million over the next four seasons.
The Phillies received a great package from Texas in July. All five of the acquired prospects have a chance to play for the Phillies in 2016. General manager Matt Klentak was not here when the trade went down. He said he is "pretty pleased with the return." But it's not wrong to be greedy.
Just five months later, the Diamondbacks were willing to part with the No. 1 overall pick (Dansby Swanson) for Miller, a pitcher not as proven as Hamels. Miller comes cheaper, but Hamels is much more affordable than Zimmermann or Greinke. Perhaps the Phillies could have had some leverage in the winter and forced Texas to add No. 1 prospect Joey Gallo after the Rangers saw what it would cost to sign a free-agent pitcher.
"We never know exactly what free agents are going to sign for. There's market forces that determine that," Klentak said. "The acquisition cost in a trade is directly correlated to the acquisition cost in free agency. If one is really expensive, then naturally, the suitors are going to gravitate toward the other side and vice versa."
The rebuilding Phillies are wisely staying away from the free-agent market. Klentak does not expect his team to contend this season. So, of course, it did not target Greinke or Zimmermann. A free-agent pitcher signed this winter could be well past his prime by the time the Phillies are ready to reach October.
But Klentak did make subtle moves that will put the Phillies in position to land whoever the big available pitcher happens to be in two or three years.
"You've heard me say this before: If you can pitch, you have a chance to win every single night," Klentak said. "And the best way to acquire pitching is to do so internally and develop those pitchers yourself and have them learn and grow at the major-league level."
The Phillies arrived at the Opryland Resort knowing they needed another starting pitcher for their young rotation. It was expected they would sign a veteran starter, perhaps righthander Doug Fister to a multiyear contract. Instead, Klentak acquired a young starter - Vincent Velasquez - as part of the trade that sent Ken Giles to Houston and traded for veteran Charlie Morton, who will make $8 million this season but can become a free agent next winter. The Phillies added their extra starter but added little to their payroll beyond this season.
Moves like this - which seem incremental on the surface - will keep down the payroll in the coming seasons as the Phillies' surplus of young talent rises to the major-league level. Those players - such as potential stars J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams - are years away from big paydays. As is whomever the Phillies select with the No. 1 pick in June.
Hamels is gone, and his money is, too. The less the Phillies spend in 2016 or 2017 will allow them to spend even more in 2018 or 2019 when they could team Aaron Nola, Maikel Franco, Crawford, and Williams with a superstar pitcher or even a middle-of-the-order hitter.
Moves such as the Giles trade will hurt the Phillies in 2016. They will not have a closer who throws 100 m.p.h. and buckles batter's knees with a nasty slider. But they will be spending less money when the team is winning fewer games. And when they are ready to win more games, there will be more money to spend.