The Philadelphia Phiilies' payroll in 2014 will be at least $74 million. That's based on the $63 million they'll owe to Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, and Jonathan Papelbon, plus 22 players at something close to the major-league minimum. There's a pretty good chance they'll pay some of those additional players more than the minimum, so it will probably be an expensive team. A ludicrously expensive team, even, especially if they're still contending and adding parts in subsequent offseasons. You can see how they'd prefer to avoid more big contracts.
But with Shane Victorino and Cole Hamels free agents after 2012, and with Utley and Howard already into their 30s, is there a team that's more built to win now? The Phillies admitted as much when they traded two of their best prospects for two-plus seasons of Hunter Pence. It's exceptionally tough to win and build at the same time, and it looks like the Phillies are choosing to eat the damn cake now, and hope that they'll figure out a way to have it too when they need to. It's exactly what they should do.
The Phillies' strength is pitching. And though that statement is based on internal and proprietary Baseball Nation metrics, I'll hope you take our word for it. But the offense was almost exactly average for the National League. Ryan Howard will miss at least a part of the 2012 season, and Chase Utley's knees aren't ever going to be right again. Except for the right knee, maybe. Carlos Ruiz is an over-30 catcher, and Placido Polanco has already fallen off from his previous seasons.
Those players are all still good, though. It's not like the Phillies should dig through the pants they wore in 2009, looking for the receipts and hoping the rest of baseball has a good return policy. There are a lot of reasons for the Phillies to cross their fingers, but there are also a lot of reasons the team should still feel pretty good about the team in 2012. The offense was average last year, and there's a chance it could be average or worse next year, but they're not going to turn into the Giants or Padres overnight. It's still a collection of players that can support a pitching staff.
But each loss -- whether to injury, age-related decline, or free agency -- will bring the offense further toward or below the league average. Which is why this …
And hitting eighth, starting at shortstop, Wilson Valdez!
… seems like a ridiculously unlikely thing to hear for 162 games next season. Jimmy Rollins is a free agent. He's looking for a lot of money for a lot of years. The Phillies are looking for a shortstop. They're pretty good at paying players a lot of money for a lot of years. It seems unbelievable that the two aren't going to reunite.
You'll hear rumors to the contrary. Rollins is from the Bay Area, and the Giants are looking hard at any of the 639 professional shortstops who might improve on the production the team received from the position last year. The Brewers will have some money to spend, and they've recently deyunied their roster. The Cardinals and Braves are looking for a shortstop, as are several other teams.
No team, though, is better equipped to say "screw it" and give a long-term contract for short-term results quite like the Phillies. And they happen to have the incumbent advantage, with Rollins already a fan favorite. Even if Rollins were a free agent from the Marlins, Angels, or Orix Buffaloes, the Phillies would probably still be a good choice as the team leading the race.
Buster Olney quotes a scout who calls Rollins one of the more underrated defenders in the league, and that's an important part of his game. FanGraphs had him as a $10 million player in his worst offensive season. He's a good bet to be valuable in 2012, and possibly 2013, even if he doesn't hit like he used to.
After that? Don't know. And it's not like the Phillies seem especially worried about that sort of thing right now, nor should they be. The time to throw up their hands and act surprised that they've committed to a lot of salary in 2014 has passed. The tipping point was the Papelbon contract. After that deal, the Phillies basically waived their right to worry about 2014 at the expense of 2012. And in 2012, Rollins should be a heckuva lot better than Wilson Valdez.
Prediction: Phillies -- four years, $44 million