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Phillies Treading Line Between Smart and Stingy

Ruben Amaro is right. Spending money on some of the free agents still available would be dumb. But the Phillies must also be careful not to return to the dark days of over-frugality that crushed them for two decades.

The Phillies are not interested in overpaying for pitchers like Matt Garza.
The Phillies are not interested in overpaying for pitchers like Matt Garza.
David Banks

Ruben Amaro is right. Free agency is flat-out crazy right now.

The price tag for free agents is insane. Shin Soo Choo just turned DOWN a 7-year, $140 million offer from the New York Yankees. Turned it DOWN, y'all.

Pitchers like Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ervin Santana are going to get huge deals they probably won't live up to. Mid-level pitchers like Bronson Arroyo, Scott Feldman and Bartolo Colon all have either gotten, or will get, at least one extra year and $10-15 million more than they are really worth.

So, when Amaro told reporters that the Phillies are staying away from many of those players, his reasoning was sound.

"It's about spending money wisely and spending it intelligently," Amaro said. "Why would you spend money not well spent? I think that's the important part. That's why with the way the market is set up right now, I'm not real comfortable with going the extra mile for some of the guys out there still that may improve us a little bit, but in the long run may be detrimental to us."

Even though the luxury tax number for MLB teams this year has increased to $189 million, and even though every team in MLB is getting an extra $24 million from new national TV contracts, the Phils are not going to go much past last year's budget of around $165-170 million.

The reason they're not going any higher makes total sense. Rich people don't become rich by throwing good money after bad. Even if you have the money to spend, spending it foolishly doesn't do anyone any good. And right now, there aren't any options on the free agent market that seem worth the cost. There certainly aren't any real difference-makers out there, except maybe for Masahiro Tanaka, but he's a virtual unknown and a big risk who may not even be posted by his Japanese team anyway.

So, Amaro's comments on Wednesday were a positive development. You don't spend money just for the sake of spending money. But the Phillies are walking a very fine line here, and must be careful about their next steps, or they risk losing the fanbase the way they did after the strike in 1994.

When the Phillies payroll nudged right up against the old luxury tax ceiling in 2011, most assumed that would be the organization's new modus operandi. Most fans figured the Phils were becoming the Yankees of the National League. Obviously, that is not the case.

And that's OK. The Yankees' model isn't necessarily one that many other teams can, or should, follow. And let's face it, a $165-170 million payroll is still big money.

But Amaro and the Phillies have to be careful not to return to the dark days of the late '80s, 1990s and early 2000s, the times of cheap payrolls and, more importantly, the days of skimping on amateur talent development and the draft.

If the Phillies are not going to spend all this new cash from the national TV deal, the money from a soon-to-be new local cable TV deal, and merchandising and ticket sales on the free agent market, then they need to become one of the biggest spenders on their minor league system and on the international market.

When the Phils were going on the cheap during their two-decade long playoff drought (save for 1993, of course), they weren't just being miserly on the big league roster. They were also small-timing it on the player development side of things. Year after year, they refused to pay over slot and missed out on more talented players in the draft, instead opting for players with a worse pedigree who would sign for less.

Of course, with MLB's new slotting system, the Phillies cannot go over slot and steal amateur talent from other clubs. That window of opportunity, one the Phils historically never used anyway, has closed. But hiring top scouts, hiring more people who know about the analytical side of the game, spending big money on the top international talent, is still something the Phillies can do.

It's one of the few ways Amaro and the team can continue use their financial surplus in a smart and efficient way.

It's understandable that the Phils don't want to dip their pens in the poisonous ink of the current free agent market. There's a lot of Sizzler steak out there being paid like Morton's prime rib.

And it's not fair to look at the Phillies' payroll numbers and call them cheap, because they aren't. As Amaro said on Wednesday about the high-priced veterans he's already paid...

"We've committed to them. We have to roll with them. I believe in these players. I know Ryne Sandberg does. I know our staff does. The proof will be in the pudding. If they don't play well, then we won't do well."

So, they're trying to be more fiscally responsible on the Major League level, and that's commendable. Hopefully, when they have re-established a core group of players that are ready to contend, they can afford to overpay one or two big-name free agents that will help get them over the hump, like they did in 2003 with Jim Thome, or in 2011 with Cliff Lee.

But until the Phils are ready for that, they need to take all this extra revenue, all these extra dollars, and throw them into their amateur scouting, the international market, and maybe even create a REAL analytics department, so they can more quickly find the next Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Carlos Ruiz.

That would be a smarter expenditure of their cash right now. And hopefully, that is the next step in the Phils' plans for future world domination.