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Inside the Phillies: With Lee, franchise is now playing with the big boys

The pack gathered around Scott Boras in a back hallway at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel as the end of the winter meetings neared, because there are few major-league cities not interested in what the superagent has to say.

The Phillies have solidified their place among the league's big players. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
The Phillies have solidified their place among the league's big players. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

The pack gathered around Scott Boras in a back hallway at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel as the end of the winter meetings neared, because there are few major-league cities not interested in what the superagent has to say.

Boras fielded questions of reporters hailing from Cleveland, Denver, Milwaukee, Boston . . . just to name a few. Philadelphia was included. Boras had secured a massive deal for Jayson Werth and remarked how the Phillies' offer was significantly smaller.

"They're really one of the Goliaths in the industry," Boras said. "They can do what they want to do, what they choose to do, economically because they're that successful."

That comment later prompted some snickers from Phillies officials. Yes, the Phillies had baseball's third-highest payroll in 2010 and never has the franchise been healthier. But there are limits - assured more than once by David Montgomery and Ruben Amaro Jr. - a refrain rarely repeated by the Yankees and Red Sox, the two true Goliaths.

Well, Boras had it right all along.

Everything changed when the Phillies' payroll was stretched even further to sign Cliff Lee less than a week after Boras' comments. Not only have the Phillies assembled one of the greatest rotations (on paper) of all time, but the franchise has taken its biggest step yet in this baseball revolution the city of Philadelphia has never seen nor ever dreamed possible.

The Phillies, playing in one of the nation's largest markets, hadn't acted like a big-market baseball team until recently. Even after building Citizens Bank Park and winning a World Series in 2008, there remained signs of frugality. Given the chance to have both Lee and Roy Halladay last off-season, would the Yankees or Red Sox have passed like the Phillies did?

Now, Amaro has corrected that mistake and, with the blessing of ownership, has proven the Phillies are indeed in the pantheon of the Yankees and Red Sox. They are an elite, big-market team. They have sold out 123 consecutive regular-season games at Citizens Bank Park. They are reaching revenue totals they could have never dreamed.

Maybe that is what 2010 will be remembered for most when it comes to the Phillies. Until the reintroduction of Lee, the defining image was Ryan Howard taking the final strike of the season in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. Those Phillies fell two wins shy of a third straight National League pennant, but perhaps it is that failure that caused the final nudge from ownership.

In 2011, the Phillies will have a payroll larger than $160 million. How remarkable is that? The Phillies' payroll was $41.66 million in 2001, ranking 24th in the majors, according to USA Today's salary database. That same season, the Yankees' payroll was $112.29 million - the first time any team crossed the $100 million mark. Boston's was $109.68 million. The Los Angeles Dodgers' was $109.11 million.

By 2007, the Phillies' payroll was $89.43 million, ranking 13th in the majors. They made the postseason for the first time since 1993 that year. So in just four seasons, the payroll has almost doubled.

Most intriguing is the landscape of the National League. The Mets, Dodgers, and Cubs are all big spenders, yet haven't spent wisely in the past five years. The Giants made smart in-season moves during 2010, but do they have enough to keep up? The Brewers have a talented roster for 2011, but their market restraints will prevent them from re-signing numerous key players. The Cardinals and Braves have been good, but not great.

In reality, the Phillies have become the league's model franchise - and again, who would have ever imagined that? The commitment to player development has resulted in homegrown players becoming stars in Philadelphia and mined prospects to be used in trades for Halladay, Lee, and Roy Oswalt.

The ballpark has become a destination spot all summer. TV ratings are off the chart. That has allowed the Phillies to lock up much of the roster. The entire infield (with the exception of Jimmy Rollins) is under contract through 2012. All four aces are under control through 2012.

Now, the challenge is to live up to the annual expectations of a World Series. The Phillies have $106.95 million committed to just nine players in 2012 and $80 million to four players in 2013. As some of the multiyear deals the Phillies have handed out like candy reach their later stages, the salaries grow and flexibility decreases. That is, unless ownership keeps expanding the limit as it did with Lee. This is the nature of a Goliath.

Inside the Phillies:

Five Phillies Points

to Ponder

1. Pitchers and catchers report

On Valentine's Day, the season unofficially begins. Has there ever been this much anticipation for a team to start a season in Philadelphia sports history? The 2004 Eagles, with McNabb and Terrell Owens, are probably the closest.

2. The education of Domonic Brown

From August through the end of the postseason, Brown was normally seated on the bench. He went to the Dominican Republic and couldn't hit well enough to stay on the field during winter ball. Now, can the top prospect make a good-enough impression in spring training or does he go back to the minors for more seasoning?

3. Opening weekend at Citizens Bank Park

There is no pennant to unfurl. But how fitting is it that the Houston Astros come to South Philadelphia for the christening of the 2011 season? With former GM Ed Wade, whose drafts set the foundation for the Phillies' ascension, watching from the opponents' side, three of the four aces will be unveiled.

4. A World Series preview?

The last week in June has already been circled on the Phillies' schedule. That's when the Boston Red Sox come to Citizens Bank Park for a three-game, midweek interleague series. Boston is the off-season's big winner, having acquired Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.

5. The next off-season

If you thought this winter had enough drama, there is plenty more to come. The Phillies will be faced with interesting decisions on free agents Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Madson. Brad Lidge and Roy Oswalt each have expensive options for 2012. If Raul Ibanez departs, as expected, who plays left field?

- Matt Gelb