AN HOUR before game time, a soft breeze lapped against the pennants hanging on the flagpoles in centerfield, a cloudless blue sky painted above the heads of a grateful city that had spent most of the previous 2 months in sweltering heat. High above leftfield, the multimillion-dollar videoboard flickered to life, a closed-circuit video feed of Ruben Amaro Jr. and Cole Hamels appearing in high definition as the early birds trickled into their seats. What unfolded over the next half-hour was the latest milestone in the Phillies' improbable rise from National League doormat to major league Goliath, the general manager and the homegrown superstar fielding questions about the 6-year, $144 million contract extension they had consummated the night before.
The money, an average annual value of $24 million through the 2018 season, borders on the absurd. But these are absurd times, and those are the dollars that an elite lefthanded starter commands in the world of Major League Baseball. You can wrap yourself in righteousness and compare such salaries to the ones carried home by teachers and preachers and social workers, or you can acknowledge that Amaro and his bosses are not charged with building a high school or parish or rehab clinic. They are charged with building a baseball team, and doing so sometimes requires expenditures that run counter to human intuition.
The Phillies understand this. If that was not abundantly clear before Wednesday, their decision to hand Hamels the 15th-richest contract in major league history should remove whatever doubt remained. Such an understanding is important, because the Phillies had reached a point where they could have justified a radical shift in philosophy. They entered the day 10 games under .500 and 9 1/2 games out of a sixth straight postseason berth, despite a 4-year spending spree in which they seemed to be anticipating the collapse of the dollar. Their payroll already featured a pair of starters making $20 million or more in annual salary, and their meager farm system begged for the kind of young, cheap talent that could have been added had they made the justifiable decision to bid Hamels adieu and ship him to a contender desperate for pitching. But a justifiable decision is not always a rational one. And when they elected to make a strong push to keep Hamels in the fold, they erred on the side of common sense.
Common sense says that Roy Halladay will not finish his contract the way he started it, and that Cliff Lee will follow him down the uncompromising slope of physiological decline. Common sense says that the Phillies will need a new No. 1 starter to lead them into a new era, a foundation to build upon as the aging stars of the previous decade continue to fade away. And common sense says that Hamels is that foundation, a 28-year-old starter who is still in the thick of his prime, who many talent evaluators feel has his best days in front of him.
"We have a lot of decisions to make, but the one thing that is clear is we are committed to winning," Amaro said. "We're committed to bringing another championship, if we can do that, and we are committed to try to continue to improve, whether it be in the course of this [trade] deadline, whether it be beyond that, whether it be in the offseason. Our job as a front office is to do what we can to try to improve the club. Money is not necessarily the deciding factor on being a contending club. It helps, there's no question about it. And we've been given a tremendous amount of leeway. Our partnership has been extraordinarily supporting of that, but it's our job to put the right pieces together, and hopefully we can do a good job of doing just that."
Hamels was always the first piece. Since 2008, he ranks 10th among major league starters in innings pitched, eighth in strikeouts, 15th in complete games. At 11-4 with a 3.23 ERA and 133 2/3 innings in 19 starts, he has been the Phillies' best pitcher this season, and there is no reason to believe that will not be the case for the majority of this new contract.
The Phillies approached Hamels with a proposal last season, but it soon became clear that their best strategy was to wait until this season, when the type of deal he was looking for would better justify the risk they would have to take in offering it. His agent, John Boggs, said talks began to progress shortly after the All-Star break. Once the Phillies demonstrated a willingness to offer a deal that matched Hamels' wishes, the two sides hammered out the particulars, exchanging two offers and counteroffers before finally sending Hamels for a physical on Tuesday night.
Now, the focus turns toward the multitude of other issues that will determine the Phillies' competitiveness moving forward. In addition to the bullpen, which Amaro continues to try to upgrade via trade, the positions that most need addressing are third base, centerfield and leftfield. They will need to be creative, which is why you are likely to hear the names of high-priced yet in-demand players like Lee and Hunter Pence percolate through the rumor mill in advance of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
The luxury-tax threshold, which is $178 million through 2013 and $189 million after, is a deterrent, but not to the point where the Phillies will rule out exceeding it.
"We may very well need to do that in order to do the right things on the field," Phillies president David Montgomery said.
The decision to re-sign Hamels was another reason to believe in those words.