So, according to Cot's, the Phillies have a $165 million payroll this year, but only $113 million in commitments for next year. Let's assume for present purposes that the payroll will grow next year, but only modestly, not by some exorbitant amount.
A big chunk of the remainder of the budget will presumably go to Cole Hamels, through either arbitration or an extension. That will still leave a fair amount of money to play with. But there are three positions not yet accounted for: 1 SP (now Roy Oswalt), 1 High Leverage RP (now Ryan Madson), and SS (now Jimmy Rollins).
All three guys are very valuable to this team, but there's an argument to be made that, at least in Oswalt's and Madson's cases, the Phillies should let them walk so they can be replaced by current minor league prospects. At starter, Vance Worley had a very good season in the high minors last year, acquitted himself well in a brief major league audition, and is off to a good start so far this year (25/6 K/BB, 2.78 ERA in 22.2 IP). There's also Austin Hyatt, who's more of a longshot but is off to a decent start in AA (18/8 K/BB, 3.00 ERA in 21.0 IP). At reliever, there are a whole slew of guys with talent in AA and AAA.
Worley, Hyatt, and the relievers are solid mid-level prospects, but they aren't blue chippers, and it would be silly to expect any of them to come close to matching Oswalt's or Madson's value in 2012. But it might still be more efficient to let Oswalt or Madson go: if you have a choice between paying six figures for X WAR vs. paying eight figures for 2X WAR, it's often wiser to take the first option. Even though Worley has almost no chance of being as valuable as Oswalt, Worley + $14 million of cash does have a chance to be as valuable as Oswalt. You can take the extra $14 million and reallocate it to some other area of your team where your alternatives are weaker, and come out ahead on balance.
Everything above was just a convoluted preface for my main point. Let's say for the sake of argument that choosing Worley over Oswalt is, in fact, the right decision at a micro level, because the difference between them is not as big as the value of $14 million on the open market. What would the Phillies use that $14 million on? The most obvious options are: an upgrade at LF (currently projected to be Ben Francisco) or an upgrade at SS (current alternative is to re-sign Rollins).
But the problem is: it doesn't appear that there are any really good LF options on the upcoming FA market. There is a potential upgrade available at SS, but his name is Jose Reyes, and I just can't bring myself to want that no matter how much sense it might make.
If you're with me so far, I think that leaves the Phillies with three defensible options.
First, they can bite the bullet and use the money on Oswalt and/or Madson after all. The upside is that both guys are very good players. The downside is that, as discussed above, it might be inefficient. What if some of these AA/AAA prospects turn out to be good? By not giving them a shot, the Phillies will be needlessly foregoing a lot of valuable low-cost production, not just in 2012, but also from 2013 all the way through their arbitration years ending only in 2017 or later. It would be a big missed opportunity.
Second, they can save the money for later. They can then use it to pay higher amateur signing bonuses. Or to increase their 2013 payroll more than they otherwise would have been able to do.
The third option is a more creative one. Essentially, the Phillies would go into the winter with "budget space" being their primary asset for trades. Even though there may not be any good FA options on whom that budget space can be used, the Phils could get around this by offering to take on the contract of some good-but-overpaid corner outfielder (I don't think there are any shortstops who fit that description). As a purely hypothetical example, take a guy like Torii Hunter of the Angels. He's off to a terrible start right now, but he posted 3.9 and 3.6 WAR the last two seasons and will probably be fine as the year goes along. He's a better player than Ben Francisco. He also has one year, $18 million left on his contract, and the Angels have maybe the best outfield prospect in the game playing in AA. If the Angels decide they'd like to dump the rest of Hunter's salary, the Phillies can accommodate them and it would be a win-win. The Angels would free up $18 million in salary and a roster spot that they'd otherwise be devoting to a guy they no longer need, while the Phillies would upgrade LF - yeah, they'd be overpaying for it, but not by a ton, they'd have money to burn from the Oswalt and Madson decisions, it would only be for one year, and they wouldn't have to give up any compensation picks.
What do you all think? Based on what we know now, which option looks the best? Are there any others that I haven't thought of?