It was a week of intense activity for the Phillies, as general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. moved aggressively to address nearly all of his off-season needs. The team signed three players in the last six days, sealing the starting lineup and most of the bench for 2010.
Entering baseball's annual winter meetings tomorrow in Indianapolis, the primary question for the exhaling Phils has become: Gee, what's left to do before spring training?
In the most likely scenario, the team will round out its bullpen and back end of the starting rotation with inexpensive acquisitions and might fill one more spot on the bench. It will continue to negotiate with Scott Eyre and Chan Ho Park, and deliberate over whether to offer contracts to Clay Condrey and Chad Durbin.
Team brass has maintained that the payroll will not increase significantly, meaning it is not likely to exceed $140 million. That means the team is not certain to add even one high-end reliever such as Fernando Rodney or Brandon Lyon, though it is clearly interested in Lyon. (Kind of makes you wonder why the Phillies were so willing last winter to give Jamie Moyer $6.5 million per year, but that's an issue for another day.)
So is that it? Are the two-time National League champs set to make little news while cruising into February? Probably, but not necessarily.
There is one thing the Phillies could do. There's a pitcher out there available in a trade - oh, what's his name, that guy who is desperate to play for a winning team, won a Cy something?
Oh, right. Roy Halladay.
Sigh. We dredge this up with full awareness that last July's Roy Fatigue has not yet fully passed, and that he will probably never wear red pinstripes. But it would be negligent - despite Amaro's continued insistence that he is content with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation, and that his budget is tight - to dismiss the possibility of a trade bringing Halladay to the Phils this winter.
First, though, the persuasive case against it. The times, they have a-changed since July, when the Phillies were considered front-runners to land Halladay for a number of since-expired reasons. With Hamels' career in an awkward phase, the team did not have a true No. 1, and that situation was exacerbated when Brett Myers (remember, he was the opening-night starter) had hip surgery.
It was Myers' injury that ignited Amaro's pursuit of a top starter, but the GM was never willing to part with prime minor-league talent to do so. The Blue Jays wanted pitchers Kyle Drabek and J.A. Happ, and outfielders Domonic Brown and Anthony Gose for Halladay.
Amaro, you see, is 44 years old and wants to make a career of this GM thing. He hopes to preside over long-term success. While the front office has clearly calculated that its aging core of position players grants it a window to snag another championship soon, it also is concerned with sustainability. A few days ago, Baseball America ranked the Phils' farm system fourth best in baseball, and the team wants to keep it intact.
Mostly because of the economy, Amaro did not have to put a sizable dent in that system to acquire Lee in late July, when the price for Halladay did not decrease. The GM pilfered Lee at a deep discount because the Cleveland Indians, hit by the recession plaguing many American corporations, needed to shed payroll. And because Lee is a genuine ace, the Phils' need for Halladay immediately diminished.
There are no indications that new Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos will accept much less for Halladay this winter than his predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi, sought in July. The Phils have a very good top four in Lee, Hamels, Joe Blanton, and Happ, and should not risk the future to add a luxury item like Halladay. Plus, the Phillies claim they can't afford him. For all those reasons, the man called Doc will never be a Phillie.
Unless. What if the Yankees and Red Sox, widely regarded as the top two suitors for Halladay, both determine that they do not want to give much away for a guy who will become a free agent in fewer than 12 months?
There is strong precedent to suggest that will happen, because it happened two years ago with Johan Santana. Both AL East behemoths dropped out of the bidding for the then-Minnesota ace, allowing the Mets to acquire Santana for a bunch of second-tier youngsters.
Let's say that happens this week with Halladay. He would still be more likely to become an Angel than a Phillie, because Los Angeles figures to lose its top pitcher, John Lackey, to free agency. The Angels need Halladay more than the Phils do and would therefore presumably be more motivated to sacrifice excellent players.
But if negotiations between the Blue Jays and those three teams somehow collapse, the Phils would be in the best position to present a more modest offer for Halladay. Because Toronto's leverage would suddenly be crippled - Halladay has a no-trade clause, wants to play for a championship-caliber team, and has threatened to veto any trade after the beginning of spring training - the Phils could exclude Drabek from any package, and perhaps replace Brown with Michael Taylor, the young outfielder they unsuccessfully dangled as a trade prospect in July. They could become the Mets of two winters ago, snatching a top pitcher at a reasonable price because the other teams bailed.
We admit, that is a remote scenario. And even if events did unfold that way, Amaro would have to persuade the Bank of Montgomery to open its vaults (not a ridiculous request, given all those sellouts, fan support, and, you know, general success in recent years). He would also face the possibility of losing Lee and Halladay after next season. That's hardly a sustainable strategy, building a rotation around two pitchers who will become expensive free agents at the same time. (Caveat: If the Phils were able to extend one of the two this winter, they could more easily absorb losing the other.)
It is probably wise for the Phillies to avoid the temptation to get overly exuberant about today at the expense of tomorrow. Sustainability and restraint are sensible if against our nature as American consumers and sports fans. But there is a small chance with Halladay, in the scenario described above, that bringing home the shiny new item would not create future problems. And that's when you go for it.