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'08 or '09?

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I was thinking last night about how historically rare it must be for the Phillies to have four players as good and as cheap as Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. By one measure, the quartet combined for 97 of the team's 260 total Win Shares. For 2008, the Big Four will earn about $21 million combined--$7 million for Rollins (can we now agree that Jimmy's contract was Ed Wade's greatest achievement?), $7.5m for Utley, about $6 million for Howard and $500,000 or so for Hamels. I haven't looked at it closely, but of the ten or so best teams in baseball, I doubt any of them are getting so much production from their four best players, for so little money.

But after 2008, a couple things happen: Rollins and Utley enter their 30s, with Howard a year behind, and three of the four get considerably more expensive. Rollins gains just another $0.5 million--all (well, much) is forgiven, Ed!--but Utley's compensation jumps to $11 million, and unless they suddenly turn into pumpkins, Howard and the arbitration-eligible Hamels stand to make about $9 million and $4 million respectively for 2009. The Big Four combined will pull down about $34 million--still quite reasonable, but less so. (All contract information from the great Cot's site.)

Given that 2008 will be the last year that the core guys will be relatively cheap, the temptation is there to say that the Phils should declare "championship or bust," doing whatever it takes to bring a title to Philadelphia. It's also Pat Gillick's final season in the GM chair, which must work toward a win-now mindset. But there's a counter-argument as well that suggests 2009 is the year to reach for it all.

This has to do with all the contracts that will come off the books after next season, at which point the team's payroll should better align with the value of its roster:

OF Pat Burrell, $14 million
SP Jamie Moyer, $5.5 million
RP Tom Gordon, $5.5 million
IF Wes Helms, $2.15 million

That's over $27 million, more than enough to absorb the increases due the Big Four (as well as secondary players like Shane Victorino, assuming he's still on hand) and make at least one, probably two, big-ticket additions. Actually, depending on how the team chooses to handle Brad Lidge, who's likely to make about $6.5 million for 2008 and is a free agent afterward, there could be even more flexibility. (The post-2008 budget windfall also explains the Phils' late pursuit of Mike Lowell, who probably was offered a heavily backloaded contract.) Finally, I think the Phils' obligations to the White Sox stemming from the Jim Thome trade are either complete or much diminished after 2008.

A final consideration might be that the farm system is likely to look better a year from now than it does today. If 2006 top pick Kyle Drabek can return from last spring's Tommy John surgery and '07 first-rounder Joe Savery continues his good work, the team could have a crop of nearly-ready power arms including current top prospects Carlos Carrasco and Josh Outman. Right now, the system lacks the depth or high ceilings needed to make a run at available superstars like Miguel Cabrera and Johan Santana; that might not be true in twelve months' time.

So, all things considered, whoever succeeds Pat Gillick will be handed the keys to a pretty nice car. He'll have to replace Burrell's production, almost certainly from outside the organization--there are no power bats in the upper levels of the system. But in-house replacements for Moyer and Gordon seem a reasonable expectation, given the young pitching talent of the system.

This isn't to say that the Phils shouldn't be aggressive over the remainder of this Hot Stove season. But the big picture could look even better in a year's time.