Phillies, Cole Hamels Playing Free-Agency Chicken

You can find a lot of things in a box, at least according to popular culture. Brad Pitt wants to know what's in the box at the end of Seven. Justin Timberlake humbly requests that you open the box. And now, courtesy of Ken Rosenthal, we can picture the Phillies in a box:

But regardless of how one might assess those deals — (Ryan) Howard looks like a thumbs-down, (Cliff) Lee and (Jonathan) Papelbon are wait-and-sees — Amaro is in now in a box with left-hander Cole Hamels.

In this box, there is an ATM. But it's not a Citizens Bank ATM, so they're going to get dinged for all kinds of fees. Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies might not have enough money for Cole Hamels. The way they were spending money on Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, and Jonathan Papelbon, it made sense that there'd be a reserve fund, or an understanding that those moves weren't going to prevent the re-signing of Hamels

Instead, it looks like it could be an either/or situation. It was going to be either Lee or Hamels. Howard or Hamels. Uh, Papelbon or Hamels. There wasn't an unlimited budget at any point. And Amaro defends his decisions to Rosenthal:

"(Ryan Howard) was probably the most productive player during that span of anybody, including Pujols. This is not a slight against Cole — he has had some phenomenal years. But he is not the most decorated player in baseball."

That's why Amaro locked Howard up two years before he was a free agent, signing him to a five-year deal that didn't even kick in until a few months after Howard tore his ankle up making the last out of the Phillies' season. And he's right to say that Howard was more productive than Pujols if he's ranking players alphabetically by last name.

But you could almost see it for Howard. His platoon splits might prevent him ever becoming a truly elite hitter, but as a productive fan favorite, you can understand the urgency to lock him up. The baffling move of the last couple of offseasons, then, was the signing of Papelbon, which Amaro also defends:

"We didn’t just want any closer. The way our team is set up, we wanted the best guy, or one of the top two or three guys. We could have gotten a ‘B’ or ‘B-plus’ closer. But we wanted an ‘A.’ With (Papelbon), as good and as durable as he has been, I felt he was the right fit for us."

In theory, sure. Get the best guy; make the best team. But the Phillies aren't going to lose out on Cole Hamels because they're $50 million short of the winning offer. They won't miss out because they're $25 million short, most likely. So it's not a stretch to say that they'd choose Papelbon's short-term benefit to the team over Hamels' long-term benefit.

It's not a given that Hamels will leave. He might be likely to stay, even. The Phillies shouldn't get or expect a hometown discount, but there's still a great chance that he'll re-sign. But if he doesn't, if the Phillies let him go, they'll essentially have chosen a closer in 2012 over a front-line starter for beyond. They'll have other options for the rotation, of course. Some good ones you might have heard of. But it would still be a curious decision. And Amaro has no problem explaining why he might make it.

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