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The Payroll Question

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After just one full day of free agency, the calls are mounting for the Phillies to boost the budget. Bill Conlin uncharacteristically goes the indirect route, pointing to a news item that our Dave Cohen noted awhile back: the financial windfall of Phillies limited partner John S. Middleton. In the Inquirer, meanwhile, Bob Ford suggests it's time to knowingly overpay for Aaron Rowand and Kyle Lohse.

It's worth taking a look at the particulars of Ford's argument:

The roster payroll was approximately $100 million last season, and the budget calls for essentially the same number in the coming year. ...

So the plan, as closely as it can be determined, is to lurk on the edge of the free-agent spotlight and pick off a pitcher who is: (a) under-recruited, (b) likely coming off injury, and (c) grudgingly willing to pitch in a hitter-friendly ballpark for a short contract. For reference, see: Garcia comma Freddy.

In the outfield, the idea is that Shane Victorino will move to center, Jayson Werth will be the rightfielder, and a fourth outfielder will be acquired for a reasonable salary.

Nonsense. Not the kind of moves befitting a team that deserves its chance to capture greatness. Spend the money for Lohse and Rowand, and it will be returned to the organization two-fold. Fail to do so, and the team easily could slip back into its comfortable, maddening rut.

The Phils drew 3,108,325 during the regular season, the third-largest attendance in club history, behind only the 2004 opening season for Citizens Bank Park and the wild 1993 ride. They drew that many despite having a team that stumbled along most of the way - 48-48 on July 20 - and seemed destined to disappoint once again. There were 24 sellouts and 38 crowds of 40,000 or more.

... The fans are in. The organization should get in, too. It doesn't have to front a $200 million, Red Sox-type payroll, but maybe $125 million.

I guess my problem here is that while I'm sympathetic to an argument that the team should boost its payroll--especially considering the attendance windfall and playoff revenues of 2007--I'm not at all convinced that what should be done with that money is to re-sign Rowand and Lohse.

I set out my argument last week against committing four years and $50 million or so to Rowand; in Lohse's case, I'd like to see him back but I'm not at all sure he'll be better over the next three or four years than many, many other guys who will come cheaper--including Randy Wolf and Bartolo Colon, both of whom are evidently on the team's radar screen.

The problem with free agency--and why the union fought so hard to get it, and in this form, back in the day--is that supply generally runs way short of demand, and it's timed such that teams looking to grab headlines and sell season ticket packages have those factors as strong incentives to make moves they'll regret two or three years down the line. The Phillies could drop huge dollars on Rowand, or Andruw Jones, or Torii Hunter, without clearly making their team better. Same with Tom Glavine, Kenny Rogers or the other "names" on the free agent pitching market. The only sure effect of this would be to reduce the team's budget flexibility for in-season moves next year, and perhaps even the budget for international or above-slot draft signings.

So while a commitment to raise the payroll would be a welcome development--and moves that would do so through trade should remain under active consideration, though the Lidge deal might have all but ended the possibilities there--spending money for its own sake would likely do more harm than good. The satisfaction of knowing that Bill Giles, Claire Betz and the Buck Brothers have slightly smaller piles of money to roll around in shouldn't distract us from the real goal here: to put a championship team on the field.