IT WAS ONLY 4 years ago that the trendy storyline was the Phillies' supposed emergence as the Yankees of the National League.
Part of the basis for the narrative was the fact that the two teams were playing each other in the World Series. But the Phillies were also portrayed as an emerging financial behemoth, a characterization they would burnish over the next couple of offseasons, raising their payroll from the $100-million range up to the $165-million range. Club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. did their best to downplay the similarities between their organization and the infamous money printers from the Bronx. Now we know why.
As the Phillies' contingent of executives and personnel men packed their rolling suitcases and vacated the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort yesterday morning, they left an important lesson in their wake.
They are not the Yankees. Not even close.
By the end of the winter meetings, the Yankees had doled out a whopping $307 million in guaranteed free-agent contracts, a predictable reaction to a season that saw them finish 85-77 and miss the playoffs for just the second time since the 1994 strike. They added the top centerfielder on the market (Jacoby Ellsbury), the top catcher on the market (Brian McCann), one of the top corner outfielders on the market (Carlos Beltran), and a second baseman whose lefthanded power stroke should play well at Yankee Stadium (Kelly Johnson). They still have plenty of work to do to get back to the top of the American League, particularly with regard to a rotation that's currently 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, 26-year-old Ivan Nova, and an ace in CC Sabathia, whose arm seems liable to fall off one of these years. But they are trying their damnedest, and they aren't going to let any self-imposed financial constraints stop them.
The Phillies, on the other hand, have acted like a team that is ready to accept its own mortality. Yesterday, they reportedly agreed to terms with a righthander named Roberto Hernandez who used to be named Fausto Carmona. It isn't a bad move. At a reported $4.5 million plus incentives, it could even turn out to be a valuable one. But Hernandez has pitched like a borderline No. 5 starter for five of his major league seasons, and a No. 3 starter in the other two. He's Kyle Kendrick with a slightly higher ceiling and a dramatically lower floor. And for a team attempting to recover from a 73-win season, that kind of pitcher is not going to move the needle much in either direction.
Maybe there is more to come. There are still a handful of starting pitchers available who would dramatically upgrade a rotation that last season experienced life without Roy Halladay a year early.
The Phillies know all too well that such a life is a hard one. But the signals that they have been sending suggest they aren't going to do much to stabilize things. Forget the luxury-tax threshold. Amaro says his payroll probably isn't going to creep much higher than $165 million, where it stood last season. Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. Prior to 2012, the Phillies had a clear need for a corner outfielder, but elected to enter the season with a combination of Juan Pierre, John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix rather than meeting the asking prices of the free-agent market.
Last year, they went with a low-cost signing of Delmon Young after trading Hunter Pence, who stood to earn close to $15 million in arbitration. They also traded for Ben Revere, removing themselves from consideration for the centerfielders available on this year's market, and opted for John Lannan instead of a more expensive starter who might have provided some insurance for Halladay.
"We should be contending with this kind of payroll, at $165 or $170 million, wherever it shakes out to be," Amaro said earlier this week.
The Phillies appear to have convinced themselves that they will be contending with their current payroll. Really, they do not have a choice. But when you see the Nationals adding a legitimate No. 3 starter in Doug Fister and an excellent reliever in Jerry Blevins, and the Mets adding centerfielder Curtis Granderson, and the Marlins adding Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones, you wonder whether the Phillies have even done enough to tread water in the NL East.
On paper, this is better than a 73-win team. But improvement is relative to the improvements of others. And while the Phillies are counting on 82 more games of Ryan Howard and 74 more games of Ben Revere, the Nationals are counting on 44 more games of Bryce Harper and 33 more games of Jayson Werth, and the Yankees are counting on 147 more games of Mark Teixeira, 145 more games of Derek Jeter, and 104 more games of Alfonso Soriano.
Amaro and Montgomery would have told you 4 years ago that it will never be fair to compare their finances to the Yankees. But world titles are not adjusted for inflation, and the two teams entered this offseason in similar personnel situations: old, expensive, and short on internal options. It is a combination with two possible antidotes: out-spend depreciation, or cross two fingers and hope.
Those two roads diverged, and for all of the talk of exploding gate receipts and looming television revenues, the Phillies appear to be traveling alone.