MILWAUKEE - As Ruben Amaro Jr. unveiled his latest prize 900 miles to the east, baseball's general managers trickled into this city for their first face-to-face contact of the winter. Amaro soon joined them in this charming Midwest city, but only after awarding the largest-ever deal for a relief pitcher.
At its core, the Jonathan Papelbon deal epitomizes the debate of a closer's importance. The Phillies will be accused of overpaying, but that label is usually applied to most reliever contracts. Papelbon's performance will dictate the appropriate label. If Papelbon pitches 268 2/3 innings - his total from the previous four seasons in Boston - over the length of the contract, the Phillies will pay him $62,035 per out. (For a reference point, Roy Halladay earned $28,530 for each out he recorded in 2011.)
That is what will cause some to wonder if the money could be better spent on a position that will have a greater effect on the outcome of the next 648 or so Phillies games. Others will say those outs for which Papelbon is paid handsomely are the toughest of the game. Ultimately, the Phillies paid a price for acquiring the top relief talent on the market.
But money is hardly an object for this franchise, which previously was an inconceivable statement. Each time Amaro has maintained his budget is nearing its threshold, he's made a move that adds salary. The Phillies were tops in the majors in attendance in 2011 and are raising some ticket prices. By the end of the 2012 season, they will have reached 285 straight regular-season sellouts. Their local TV ratings were the best in all of baseball and a massive new rights contract - while still a few years away on the horizon - will eventually help defray personnel costs.
"We have some flexibility still," Amaro said when introducing Papelbon in Philadelphia.
That's an understatement. The Phillies will spend money as they deem necessary and it's hard to see finances standing in the way of any reasonable deal this winter. If they go over the luxury tax limit, so be it. That's the reality of a franchise that spends more than any other National League club. They can overwhelm the best closer on the market with an unprecedented contract. Is it prudent? Time will decide.
The Papelbon deal is a poor one for the Phillies if it restricts them from making other essential moves. Of course, Amaro and his lieutenants have a number in mind for everyone. Jimmy Rollins is still their preferred shortstop, but only on certain terms. Another bat like Michael Cuddyer or Josh Willingham would boost the lineup, but other suitors could offer more. There is a bench to fill and perhaps another veteran bullpen arm in the mix.
Cole Hamels' potential free agency is a year away, but looms even larger now - and not just because a few national columnists questioned the Phillies' ability to retain their homegrown ace in the wake of Papelbon's addition.
It's hard to see Papelbon having any effect on Hamels. The Phillies have not engaged Hamels' agent, John Boggs, in formal discussions for a contract extension. That does not preclude the Phillies from having a figure in mind. Hamels is probably in line to make at least $100 million and it's an agreement both sides want to forge.
Amaro has handed out the first two contracts of four or more years to pitchers in team history and Hamels should be the third. Any long-term deal for a pitcher involves risk, Amaro said, but the track records of Cliff Lee and Papelbon dictated the leap of faith. Hamels is in a similar class.
Brad Lidge earned $12.5 million per season as (sometimes) closer from 2009-11. Papelbon will earn the same. This is a deal made for the next two years and not the two years after that. That can be said quite often about Amaro's trades in recent years and theoretically those moves will catch up.
Then again, the stated goal for 2012 is to win a World Series. Even after Lidge's three mostly ineffective seasons, there is still sentiment to bring him back as a middle reliever because he recorded a few outs late in 2011 and dropped to his knees one October night three years ago. If Papelbon is on the mound to clinch a championship, the contract is forever viewed favorable no matter what.
The risk is in its length, and the most criticism should be for that. Of the 10 relievers who signed contracts of four or more years in the last decade, five needed surgery, another was released and one was traded.
One contract will not derail the money-making baseball machine in South Philadelphia. Now, how does Amaro spend the rest of his millions?