The baseball off-season is in full swing, and the Phillies are caught in a dilemma primarily of their own creation. With Ruben Amaro already stating that the team has the funds to sign Josh Hamilton, but is leery about the years he is seeking (rumored to be at least 7), the best outfield solution for what the Phillies really need may be difficult to obtain, but on the other hand may be their only viable option to fill their most pressing need.
If one wants to point to the Phillies current conundrum, it can be embodied in one player-Ryan Howard. He represents both aspects of why the Phillies may be so conflicted in signing a player like Hamilton. Howard has provided throughout his career a proven track record of 40+ home run power, and RBI totals among the greatest in baseball history to start a career. He penchant to use the long ball to spur late-season winning streaks is also well established. He hit 250 homers quicker than any player in major league history.
The other side of Ryan Howard is his contract. a 5-year, $125 million extension that was signed in 2010. His subsequent seasons of 2011 and 2012 were marred by a drop-off in offensive productivity, and a brutal Achilles injury to end the 2011 playoff run. This past season he did not play until July, and then suffered another injury, a broken toe which ended his already abbreviated season. These developments have led to the tough spot that the team finds itself in. As the past couple of season have illustrated, the team is in dire need of long-ball threats and proven RBI men. Chase Utley‘s health and age has taken a toll on his offensive production, the outfield has not proven to be power threats, and Howard’s situation is well documented. The Howard contract has been a source of endless criticism for the team and specifically their gun slinging GM Ruben Amaro, and has forced them to become distasteful of long-term deals with any players.
However, signing a player such as Josh Hamilton, even for the long-term years he is seeking, may be their only viable option. Hamilton, although just a year younger than Howard and also injury-prone himself, has not suffered the more serious setback that Howard has in the past two seasons. His numbers, a career .304 average, an AL batting title, and an AL MVP, along with his home run clout, is just what the Phillies need to infuse their lineup. Several factors go against this signing, the most glaring being the off-field drug issues that have plagued him, as well as the usual risks of a player changing leagues in mid-career. He is also not a young player, and would be signed by a team with aging stars in their lineup as well as their pitching staff. Hamilton is also yet another left-hander in a lefty-dominated lineup.
Amaro has already signaled, with his willingness to push or break through the salary cap (as the Yankees have made an annual tradition of) that he is not concerned with the personal risks of signing Hamilton. Instead, thanks primarily to the Howard experience, it is the significant number of years that is scaring Amaro away. However, the long-ball outfield options are dwindling. Torii Hunter has signed with the Tigers, and the remaining power players are on the downsides of their careers, such as Scott Rolen and Kevin Youkilis. In addition, such players can assist the Phillies in the outfield, where young players like John Mayberry, Jr. and Domonic Brown have not established themselves as a long ball or defensive asset, and promising rookie Darin Ruf, despite his lofty minor league numbers, will just be wetting his feet in the big leagues next season.
In the end, given the history of Amaro as a fierce competitor, and the fact that teams like the Red Sox may now have entered the Hamilton sweepstakes, the Phillies may find themselves violating their own self-imposed standards to take a final shot at a championship ring. The Howard contract notwithstanding, what other option is there to account for the power number drop-off that has doomed this team in big spots the past two seasons? What other anchor would fortify an outfield that is the weakest it has been in years? Ruben may be forced to bite the bullet and give Josh Hamilton the long-term deal he seeks, and cross his fingers with the rest of us that in a few years it will all seem more than worth it.Tags: Chase Utley, Darin Ruf, Domonic Brown, free agency, Hot Stove, John Mayberry Jr., Josh Hamilton, Kevin Youkilis, MLB, Philadelphia Phillies, Ruben Amaro, Ryan Howard, Scott Rolen, Torii Hunter