Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cliff Lee Signing Signals Phillies Are and Will Remain an Elite Organization

Lee Signing Signals Phillies Are Now and Will Stay an Elite Organization

The Philadelphia Phillies surprised the baseball world, and perhaps even themselves, when they snatched Cliff Lee on the free agent market a couple weeks ago. 

Not only did the signing seemingly come out of nowhere due to the stealth negotiations, but they undercut the New York Yankees in the process. Ever since Lee appeared headed to test the market, the big money has been on the Yankees to land him for the same reason— big money. 

The Yankees have deep pockets and a long history of paying top dollar to get the players they desire the most. A-Rod, Mark Texeira, CC Sabathia, Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Dave Winfield, Goose Gossage, and Andy Pettite are just some of the big name, big dollar signings. 

And, if the Bronx Bombers couldn't entice Sabathia's ex-Cleveland Indians buddy to sign, the Texas Rangers were poised to offer up the necessary dollars and years to keep the hurler that led them to their first World Series in October. Additionally, Lee loved his brief tenure with the Rangers, the team possessed the talent to win, and Arlington was relatively close to his home. 

Just days earlier, the Phillies lost their own free agent, Jayson Werth, to the Washington Nationals and a monster contract. 

Although they hated to see him go, the Phillies already possessed a payroll that stretched way beyond the limits most would imagine just a year or two ago. They seemed to be in a holding pattern with their salary budget, still trying to get comfortable with what they already had on the books. 

Then, suddenly, word crept out that the Phillies might be a mystery team in the hunt for Lee's services. In the coming hours, speculation turned to rumor and then to news. 

The Phillies had reached an agreement with Lee pending the customary physical examination as well as the requisite dotting of the i's and crossing of the t's.  

With the move, the Phillies had assembled a starting rotation of historic proportions and suddenly went from top contender to the favorites for 2011. 

It was a leap that most long-term Phillies fans could have never imagined. 

Heck, just a year ago, the team dealt Lee away when they acquired Roy Halladay— and even if they wanted to replenish the farm system, most everyone knew the key driver was economics.  

The Lee signing also sent a bright signal that the Phillies have officially become a "big market" team after operating as a "small market" team for virtually all of its 127-year existence. 

The Phillies have ascended to the level of the Yankees and Boston Red Sox- two teams that annually set their sights on winning a championship and make the financial commitment to support that goal. 

And, like those teams, the Phillies appear poised to remain in that stratosphere for the foreseeable future. 

Some could view the situation as a temporary phenomenon that will change as high priced players start to roll-off the payroll, but here are five reasons that the Phils are here to stay for awhile. 

1. Ruben Amaro

After a long stint in a secondary role, Ruben Amaro has proven himself to be among the best in his short tenure as Phillies GM. Before the Lee signing, RAJ's resume already included an Executive of the Year award and several blockbuster trades.

Amaro is grounded with the principles, philosophies and approaches established by Pat Gillick. That is proven to be a great foundation as evidenced by the former Phillies GM's election to Baseball's Hall of Fame.

But, it does not end there, as Amaro brings his own skills and qualities to the job. 

Besides having astutely schooled from the master, RAJ has displayed creativity, intellect, persistence, and the boldness to turn his desires into reality. He knows what he wants and he goes after it. 

And, perhaps most importantly, Amaro has been remarkably influential— both externally and internally. He has managed to entice players and convince counterparts around the league to make deals, while persuading Phillies ownership to take some risks and dramatically increase its payroll.   

2. Citizens Bank Park and the Fans

"The Bank", as it is affectionately known in Philly, is one of the best venues in sports. It offers an appeal that makes players want to be there.  

It has become the "it" spot for the tri-state metropolitan area spring, summer, and now fall. This past year, almost four million fans overstuffed Citizens Bank Park during the regular season and five postseason contests. 

The ballpark provides a marvelous combination of modern luxury and retro charm. It also provides an intimate setting with an abundance of great sight lines that keeps players and fans close. 

And, speaking of the fans, the team's unparalleled support makes for an electric environment every game of the year. 

Players love the daily playoff atmosphere. Cliff Lee cited it as one of the key reasons that he re-signed with the Phillies, while Jayson Werth will surely miss it.  

And, the loyal fanbase should continue to generate the revenues to sustain the team as long as the organization continues to "play to win." 

3. Ownership and Economics

The Phillies ownership long possessed a reputation as being highly conservative and frugal. It is not a coincidence that the organization has accumulated the most losses in baseball history. 

Former high profile players such as Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling pushed to get out of town because they were convinced that ownership would never make the financial commitment to be a  consistent winner. 

Tight management of the payroll meant passing on big ticket draft picks, trading expensive players,  and avoiding the best that free agency had to offer.  Philadelphia operated as a "small market" team despite demographics that suggested otherwise. 

The confluence of a highly appealing ballpark and a nucleus of stellar home grown talent set in motion the current metamorphosis into a "big market" mentality. 

A Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels-led ball club playing in a great setting provided the foundation for championship aspirations and growing attendance figures. 

In 2008, ownership got a taste of winning a World Series Championship with a core group entering its prime. It was easy for both insiders and outsiders to see that the Phillies were staring at the possibility of an extended run if they could retain talent and complement it with other quality players. 

Enter Amaro. Since taking over for Gillick, he has acquired more star players than the organization had over decades. Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee, Placido Polanco, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cliff Lee, again.

Along the way, Amaro convinced ownership to expand its risk tolerance and push the payroll to unimaginable levels for the Phillies organization. 

The bar is now reset. Ownership has seen first hand that by spending money, they can consistently compete for championships— and make money.

At the newly established levels, as big salaries roll off, money becomes available to pay other quality talent. If fans continue to fill the park every night, expect ownership to maintain the same financial commitment. 

4. Attractiveness to Players

Lee provided 30 million or so arguments that Philadelphia is a highly appealing destination for players. 

Despite enormous dollars and lengthy contract terms being offered, the former Cy Young winner deliberated waiting for the Phillies to make an offer. Once they did, despite being for fewer years and considerably less money, Lee jumped at the chance to don a Phillies uniform again. 

Many around the baseball world were surprised that he would turn down so much money to play in a city that made news for tasering and projectile vomiting. 

But Lee knew those unfortunate exceptions are greatly overwhelmed by the positive energy and adrenaline rush that accompanies each home game. He referenced an atmosphere that is simply different than any other (in a very positive way.)

Lee also cited the terrific clubhouse environment that housed a "true team" in every sense. Before his exit, Werth often made similar references as he expressed his desire to stay in Philly. 

The bottom line is that Philadelphia has become a destination spot for major league players. With a great ballpark packed with knowledgable, passionate fans every game; winning, talented players; and a front office committed to winning; the "City of Brotherly Love" has become one of the most attractive spots for MLB players to call home.  

5. Scouting and Farm System

The trades for Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt over the past couple years substantially depleted what had been an abundance of minor league talent. 

Of course, it was this pipeline of prospects that afforded Amaro the bargaining chips to lure these stars away from other clubs in the first place. But, despite dealing all this young talent, the Phillies still possess some attractive prospects, particularly at lower levels of the system. 

The home grown nucleus in Philly along with the array of prospects that have come up through the organization serves as testimony to the quality of its scouts, minor league system, and the front office.

This did not all happen by accident. Although the stockpile of major league ready talent is down at the moment, it is reasonable to assume that the same philosophies and evaluators will replenish the pipeline. 

This should allow the Phillies to replace aging players down the road as well as provide bargaining chips to make future deals. 

The Final Word

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Phillies have a two to four year window to capture more World Series rings. This may be true for the current composition of the team, but it appears that the organization may be poised for years of continuing success. 

Throughout the team's current era, the Phillies have morphed into both a big market team and a model organization.  

The franchise has risen to rub elbows with the sport's true elite teams.  The Phillies also possess the key elements to remain in the same company for years to come.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Money Aside, All Lose with Jayson Werth's Departure from the Phillies

San Francisco Giants' shortstop Juan Uribe goes air born as he makes the throw to second after tagging out Philadelphia Phillies' Jayson Werth during game 1 of the NLCS in Philadelphia on October 16, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom

Yesterday, conjecture became reality. After many months of speculation that Jayson Werth would leave the Phillies when his contract expired, it became official when the Washington Nationals signed him to a mega-deal.

Most everyone would agree that the terms of the contract widely exceeded expectations. Even the Nationals GM Mike Rizzo admitted as much by implying that the 7-year, $126 million deal had to be inflated to attract a high profile free agent due to the team's less than stellar track record. 

Beyond the obvious financial windfall benefiting Werth and his agent Scott Boras, all parties involved seem to lose at some level. Additionally, each will be subject to risks that will not be easily overcome.

Although the Phillies abundance of remaining talent, headed by the Big Three, will still position them as strong contenders in 2011, the team is clearly worse off without Werth. 

It is apparent to most all observers that the club loses its one big right-handed power bat to break up its lefty sluggers. More peripherally, though, they lose the type of patient hitter that runs up pitch counts and on base percentage. 

And, for Phillies fans who suffered through watching the Bobby Abreu era, Werth's defensive range, aggressive baserunning and all out hustle were highly valued. In fact, these qualities along with his work ethic make him the type of player that Philly fans embrace (although not now that he has jumped ship.) 

In anticipation of "J-Dub's" exit, most pundits and fans have envisioned replacing him with a platoon scenario. Names such as Ben Francisco, John Mayberry Jr, Matt Diaz, and Jeff Francouer have surfaced to pair with left-handed rookie phenom Domonic Brown. Unfortunately, none of them possess Werth's combination of speed, range, arm, or gamer mentality-- let alone batting capabilities. 

Besides securing a five-tool player, the Nationals also lose on many fronts with this deal. Even if they can shrug off the scorn from most every other GM and team owner around baseball for raising the bar by handing a 31-year old player with a history of injury a seven-year contract at an average annual salary of $18 million, they still have issues. 

Should Werth's production start to fade as he moves out of his prime, their return on investment will nose dive. Or, even worse, if the injury bug returns, it could happen sooner. 

Part of Rizzo's rationale for overspending right now is that his club needed to acquire the type of centerpiece necessary to build a winner and signal to other players around the league that Washington has a bright future. 

This seems particularly risky considering that Werth never played that role in Philly. The free spirited right fielder resided more in the supporting cast behind big name stars such as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge, and Cole Hamels.

This is not to say that Werth is incapable of stepping up to be "The Man," but placing a nine figure bet on that happening makes a former round Philadelphia hoops star's gambling look like child's play.    

Lastly, the Nats have been accumulating some nice young talent, but still appear to be a year or two away from serious contention. The return of Stephen Strasburg from Tommy John surgery and the development of fellow phenom Bryce Harper seem to point to 2012 or 2013 as the season for Washington to emerge from the bottom feeder depths.  
The signing of Werth does not quite align with that timeline. 

And, importantly, despite now being financially set for life, Werth loses a lot by inking this contract. The next seven years will likely never rival the fun and excitement that he experienced while in red pinstripes. 

It all starts with the chemistry in the clubhouse, created by a rare mix of talented, selfless, and winning ballplayers. The Phillies have the intangibles to go with the skills that translates into an enjoyable environment and ultimately success. 

As for today's Nats- not so much. 

When he steps out of the clubhouse onto the field, it is highly unlikely that Werth will experience the same electric atmosphere that was a constant throughout his stay in Philly. 

Philadelphia's NL-leading attendance last season was more than double the numbers in Washington. Nat's fans occupied 53.9 percent of the stadium each game, while Phillies fans over-stuffed Citizen's Bank Park at 103.5 percent of capacity. 

Perhaps an even more important difference can be found in the DNA of each set of fans. Let's just say that Washington fans don't exactly come to mind when terms like "passionate," "knowledgeable," and "vocal" are thrown around the baseball world— but are almost synonymous with those residing in the City of Brotherly Love.  

Werth's switch of red uniforms also brings a ramped up set of expectations and pressure. It remains to be seen how he will respond to it, but history suggests that those two elements often rob some of the joy of playing a kids game as your everyday occupation. 

Wrapped around all of this is the fact that the Phillies are still built to win now. No matter how much money is sitting in a bank account or portfolio, winning is always a lot more fun. 

Washington might have a bright future. But, if the Phillies can figure out how to patch the gaping hole left by his departure, it may be a tortuous couple years for Werth watching his former teammates strive for historic excellence. 

Some have reacted to Werth's contract with anger and disdain, incensed that he would choose money over winning. Although it is disappointing to see one of my favorite and most admired Phillies players leave town, it is virtually impossible to begrudge him accepting a deal the magnitude that was offered. 

If recent reports have been true, the Nationals offer was three or four years longer and $62-78 million greater than what Ruben Amaro extended to Werth. 

That goes way beyond the range of a hometown discount and vaults into the category of "an offer that can't be refused."

Its sad, but true that Werth is no longer a Phillie and is now a National. As a result, it will be a little bit less fun for Phillies fans when they head to the park next season.  
And, I suspect, the same will hold true for Werth— perhaps even more-so.