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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Phillies Give Fans a Love-Lee December Day; Could Albert Pujols Be Next? (There is Some Logic To This, So Read On!)

The days are short. It's dark out early and late. It's cold, unseasonably so. Most people in Southeastern Pennsylvania do not like this time of year. For Philadelphia-area sports fans, the college basketball season is young, the pro basketball and hockey seasons just got started, and the Eagles are on their annual roller coaster of "perhaps this is the year, but then again, perhaps it is not." And the Phillies are a few months away from spring training. Fortunately, in this era, they've been very good.

After last season, fans were wondering if the team suddenly was getting very old. It's payroll was advertised to be high for them, the once-vaunted bullpen was weaker, Jayson Werth was a goner, and their leader, Jimmy Rollins, has two disappointing seasons in a row. The average age of a starting position player was about 31. Last week, we saw their best prospect, Domonic Brown, pack it in for the winter after going 2-29 in the winter league in the Dominican Republic. All they did at baseball's winter meetings was sign a journeyman lefty reliever for a pay cut to serve as their #1 lefty out of the bullpen. (And his name is confusing, at that, because they now have journeyman righty Danys Baez and journeyman lefty Dennys Reyes). They were in no hurry to find a solution in right field not named Ben Francisco, the other guy in the trade of '09 that sent four prospects to Cleveland for Cliff Lee.

Over the past couple of weeks, we saw Werth sign (surprisingly) for what seemed to be a way overmarket sum with the lowly Nationals, where he'll bat third or fourth for seven years and make plans for a post-season October fishing or hunting trip in July every season. We saw the best available outfielder, Carl Crawford, sign with the Red Sox, who also traded three top prospects to the Padres for 1B Adrian Gonzalez, whom they inked to a lucrative long-term extension (why this is important I will reveal later on in this post). And then we all had to read about how the Rangers and Yankees were dueling over who would sign the best available free-agent pitcher (by far), Cliff Lee.

That was a sore spot for the Phillies' faithful, for two reasons. First, many wonder why the Phillies traded Lee to Seattle after the '09 season for three prospects who right now look like suspects. Second, we had to watch the Yankees try to re-load once again, and, secretly, we were rooting for the Rangers, well, because we didn't want the Yankees to land Lee. Most of us thought that Lee would choose one or the other by Monday at some point. That was what all of the writers on ESPN.com and SI.com were telling us.

We went to sleep last night having noted that Brett Favre's consecutive-game streak ended at 297 and that the Giants were beating a lackluster Vikings team (the solace there is that the Eagles will get to beat up on that same lackluster Vikings team soon enough). And then the rumblings turned into news after midnight, and we woke up to this:

THE PHILLIES HAVE SIGNED CLIFF LEE.

Say what? Okay, so my son just turned 11 last week and I wanted to give him a good birthday present, but I thought that consisted of two very good seats to a 76ers game. But Cliff Lee? Sure, he didn't get his letter from Hogwarts (which disappointed him), but the next best thing to knowing that you having magical powers is learning that in addition to Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, you'll get to watch Cliff Lee too. (And, for what it's worth, for a less lucrative deal than the Yankees offered).

And all you or I can say, is "Wow." Followed by, "I sure didn't see that coming." Especially in the world of professional sports, where you believe that the players all measure themselves against each other by the coin of the realm -- the length of a contract and the guaranteed money in it. That's why Werth went to Washington, for sure, and that's why Crawford signed with the Red Sox. They got great deals.

But Cliff Lee left money on the table, and that's a bit confounding because most professional athletes do not do this. Their egos are big, their handlers urge them on, and their agents strive to get them the most money. Most of the rest of us don't find ourselves in this precise situation, but there is some similarity to it. Most of us like to work where we're connect with a team, where the work is meaningful, where we make a difference and where we have a good relationship with the boss. We might stay in a place for a long time despite offers for more money elsewhere, because that elsewhere has many unknowns -- you might have to move, your family will have to get adjusted, you don't know what's expected of you, and, well, you like your current situation, it fits your needs, and it enables you to balance your life in a certain way. So, the lure of more money is just a lure, as it cannot guarantee the stability and comfort that you seek. Now, of course, that's different for Cliff Lee, whose dollars could buy a lot of comforts, but the thing of it was, according to reports, that Lee really felt comfortable in Philadelphia and that his wife liked it. That meant a lot (memo to Yankee fans: treat the spouses of opponents well, for in the future if their husbands are potential free agents, they'll have good feelings about your city and your team). And that meant that Cliff Lee is returning to Philadelphia.

Observations:

1. Many Phillies fans, while giddy, will ask, after their giddiness subsides (perhaps in February, when spring training opens) why the Phillies just didn't keep Cliff Lee after the '09 season. It's a great question, but remember that Lee did say that he wanted to test the free agent market. It might have been the case that Lee was asking for more then than he got now, which is why the Phillies did what they did and traded for Roy Halladay. It could be that Lee needed to take the free agent journey to realize that signing for less money in Philadelphia than he could have received in New York was the right thing, but he probably didn't realize that right after the '09 season. Still, it remains a good question, because few fans can name even one of the prospects the team received from Seattle for Lee (except that one is a 6'7" French Canadian pitcher who had control problems last season).

2. Are the Phillies done? That's a big question. I am not sure that they are, unless they are very content with the potential of Ben Francisco in right and are confident enough that Raul Ibanez (on the last year of his contract) can contribute enough in 2011 in left field. If that's the case, consider that Cole Hamels will be arbitration-eligible next year. Now, peddling Hamels seems out of the question, because he's one of the youngest Phillies, and keeping him addresses the "are they getting too old?" concern. The Phillies also will have Brad Lidge coming off his big contract after next season, and Jimmy Rollins as well (and those two will prompt some big decisions for Phillies' management). So, there could be money to keep Hamels for a while. But suppose the Rangers, who have plenty of hitting, who have a good team and who need a #1 starter, offer one of their good young hitters for Hamels? Would the Phillies make the deal?

3. What does the Lee acquisition (along with the Giants' World Series victory) say about the current era of Major League Baseball? Offensive numbers have dropped for a few years in the post-steroids era, and this could be the era of the pitcher. So, the reasoning would go, if you have a dominant rotation, you can get back to the World Series.

Halladay
Lee
Hamels
Oswalt
Alfred E. Neuman (or whoever else you want to put in the #5 spot).

Wow!

4. What does this do for the best hitters in the game? Sure, the top pitchers are commanding premiums, but if offense is down and you're one of the best hitters, what number can you command? So, figure this logic. . .

The Yankees have a long-term commitment to Mark Teixeira.
The Red Sox have a long-term commitment to Adrian Gonzalez.
The Cardinals might have trouble signing Albert Pujols to a new deal.
Ryan Howard is signed to a long-term deal and is from St. Louis.
So. . . if you do the math and the Phillies could sign Pujols to a long-term deal, might the Phillies try to engineer a trade to St. Louis for Pujols? The Cardinals would get an excellent first baseman and a marquis name at a more affordable price, and the Phillies, well, they will get the best hitter of the era and pay accordingly. The only wrinkles in the works are a) that Prince Fielder will be out there as a free agent and is a more consistent hitter than Howard and b) the Angels (and a few others) might not sit idly by. Still, the possibility is intriguing?

5. What are Mets, Nationals, Marlins and Braves fans thinking today? If you're a Met fan, you're just more down in the dumps (heck, the Mets signed a free-agent catcher who will miss the first 8 games this season because of a PED-related suspension -- that was one of their biggest splashes). If you're a Nats' fan, you still have to be scratching your heads regarding Werth, even if you're happy. If you're a Marlins fan, well, how many of them are there? And if you're a Braves fan, you have to be reminding yourself that the tortoise did beat the hare after all was said and done. If you're a Phillies fan, you're thrilled, and, also happy that if you're a season-ticket holder they raised their prices before they signed Lee, not after.

6. What are Yankees' fans thinking? C.C. Sabathia has a bad knee, Phil Hughes is terrific, A. J. Burnett was awful and has 3 years to go on his contract (he might make them forget Carl Pavano), and Andy Petitte might retire. The Red Sox seem to grow young arms on trees. Who else is out there?

A great day for Philadelphia sports fans, for sure, with more to think about as spring training approaches.

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