November 12, 2011

The value of value.

Every fantasy league has that guy who's constantly trying to one-up everyone else.

You know who I'm talking about. The dude (or dudette) who needs to come out on top, no matter what. He'll open negotiations by offering LeGarrette Blount for Ryan Mathews and Greg Jennings, and then call you names when you counter with something reasonable. He doesn't just want to help his team; he wants to squeeze you dry, and he wants everyone in the league to know just how smart and savvy he is in the process.

Lately, many Philadelphia Phillies fans have become that kind of guy. It's not enough for the team to make noise, sign some good players and compete for a championship year after year, which they do. To them, the Phillies need to win every trade; they need to get maximum value from every signing; they need to be the most well-oiled, smoothly operated machine in the history of baseball. Some folks make it seem like treason to expect any less.

And yet, it used to be that the Phillies didn't sign anyone of consequence. Once upon a time, they gave Rheal Cormier three years and $8.75 million; players like him were the best they could do. They operated on the periphery, occasionally thinking big with guys like Gregg Jefferies and Andy Ashby, only to see these attempted forays into respectability blow up in their faces.

Now, they're able to sign respected veterans like Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon at the drop of a hat. It's no big thing to spend $120 million on an ace or $50 million on a closer; it's what a competitive team in a big market does. You'd think that long-time Phillies fans would be ecstatic; look at all the money they're spending! And almost all of it on talented players who, in one way or another, can help the team. But you'd be wrong; every signing (sans Lee, of course) is nitpicked to no end. It's not just about bringing in good players anymore; it's about getting fan-approved value.

Is this justified? With all this cash being thrown around, is the team consistently getting its money's worth? There is a way to calculate this sort of thing, at least when it comes to numbers. According to FanGraphs, Raul Ibanez returned $18.1 million of "value" in his three years with the Phillies (compared to his $30 million salary) but that was lowered considerably by the left-fielder actually "costing" the team $6 million with his disappointing 2011 season. But he did return $17.4 million in 2009 alone, when the poor play of Brad Lidge and Cole Hamels, not Ibanez, cost the team its second championship in a row. If Raul had ended up being a key cog in another title run, do we really care how much he "lives up" to his deal?

Contracts in sports are based on performance, sure, but in the end they're all business decisions. The Ryan Howard extension might end up being a mess in terms of value on the field, but if they get a few more years of Howard's recognizable presence at first base, along with 30+ dingers a year and some mashing of right-handed pitching, maybe the bucks all even out. And hopefully, the other perks of employing Howard and Roy Halladay and Papelbon -- name players who'll sell jerseys, ticket packages and other revenue-generating goodies  -- mean that the team around them will continue to improve. Even if Howard isn't worth $25 million on the field, the money can be made up elsewhere. And if the Phillies recognize Howard's on-field limitations and allocate the rest of the payroll wisely, the team stays competitive.

I'm not saying we need to agree with every move Ruben Amaro Jr. makes, and I don't think we should rationalize each signing by saying, "But think of how many tickets he'll sell!" But I am saying that the team won 102 games last year and will almost certainly contend for a title again in 2012 and 2013. And there's no way Amaro thinks Papelbon is the last piece of the puzzle; he wouldn't blow his last $12.5 million on a closer. In the end, will Jonathan Papelbon earn his inflated salary? Probably not. But will he increase the team's chances of winning in the near future? Yes.

The Phillies don't have to win every move they make; that's short-sighted. They need to bring in veteran personnel that can help them compete for a championship while also developing (and eventually, relying on) cheap young talent like Antonio Bastardo, Dom Brown and Trevor May. A solid mix of both is key, along with ensuring that the big contracts you do offer up aren't back-breaking. Is blowing $50 million on a closer smart? I'd say there are better uses for the money, but if Amaro still has a big chunk of cash to spend on the Michael Cuddyers and Jimmy Rollinses of the world, why not?

In the end, I respect his give-to-get, rolling-the-dice style of aggressiveness, and I remember the days when that kind of fire, and especially the kind of dough to bankroll said fire, weren't a part of baseball in Philadelphia.

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