As time passes in July teams begin to look at the calendar. Clubs stare at the multicolored combination of team logos and predict how they might fair in the last grinding months of the Major League Baseball regular season. Some teams do a double eyebrow raise and walk away, while some teams lick their lips, stutter, and then glance around, hoping a teammate can give them answers. The Philadelphia Phillies are something in the middle of this divide and the monster contract they just gave to Cole Hamels proves not that they have hope for 2012, but that they are aiming for the fading sun in the distance.
Cole Hamels’s 6-year deal worth $144 million was a statement. Not only did it state, “Hey, I got moneyyyyyyy!” but it showed the mind’s eye of Rubén Amaro Jr. His mental canvas paints an image of him raising one last Commissioner’s Trophy. Giving the second-largest contract to a starting pitcher behind CC Sabathia’s 7-year, $161 million deal, was a piece of Amaro’s brain showing. He knows there is one last championship run left in his team; it’s just too late for it to occur this year.
Of course the Phillies weren’t able to do anything this season because of so many impairments. Ryan Howard’s swing against Chris Carpenter in October last year ended the current season for the Phillies, as Howard missed the first half of 2012. Add that painful slaughter onto losing Chase Utley, their other offensive anchor, and Roy Halladay dissipating for two months, and even an ace version of the 2012 Cliff Lee wouldn’t have supported the club to a postseason drive. The Phillies’ offense has labored this season without Utley and Howard, scoring less runs a game than half the other National League teams. What was once a brotherly imitation of the Big Red Machine is no longer; Jimmy Rollins is a pale reflection of the Most Valuable Player he once was, the catalyst for the Phillies team of old. The Phillies’ pitching, hampered by the early loss of Halladay and the ineffectiveness of Lee (an ERA of 3.95 and an ERA+ of only 100 this season), is at the bottom of the National League in runs surrendered. They’re giving up more than four and a half runs a game, with an offense that drives in less than four and a half runs a game. I think you can see the predicament. With so many pieces missing it’s no wonder they’re nine and a half games out of a Wild Card spot.
They are hot right now, yes; Howard, Utley, and Halladay all came back in the last month and as soon as they arrived, the Phillies showed verve: They’ve won eight games since the All-Star break and are within snapping distance of the Miami Marlins in the NL East (that is significant since the Phillies have been in last place for most of the season). They’re even showing their riposte spirit, as they’ve won three straight comebacks (against the Milwaukee Brewers, but still, it’s a step up). Whispers fractured the air; fans and pundits began to conjecture if perhaps the Phillies have a miracle dash in them. Heat, after all, can befuddle people.
In reality, it’s too late for the Phillies to make the postseason this year. They could and should do well in these last few months, but the other Wild Card-leading teams would have to fall asleep until September for the Phillies to make the postseason again. The Nationals are in a completely singular world from the rest of the East teams; the Braves, Pirates, Dodgers, and Cardinals are all scrapping for two spots, with the Diamondbacks, Mets, and Marlins ahead of the Phillies, obstructing their way to enter the mix. There may be another hole to enter the playoffs, but half a dozen are combating to squeeze themselves in. It’s late-July and very good, but too late for the fighting Phils.
So why not sell off their stars? Because the Phillies have everything ready for next season. Hamels is 28. Comparatively, Roy Halladay is 35 and is signed until 2013, with an option for 2014. Cliff Lee is locked up for at least another three seasons and is 33. There are trade rumors surrounding Lee but the Hamels deal shows the Phillies are committed to winning. And if they are committed to winning, then they’re committed to Cliff Lee. On the batting side, Utley’s contract expires after 2013, so the Phillies conceivably have at least one more season with all the cogs together. Hamels couldn’t have skirted away, otherwise the Phillies wouldn’t have been able to work out one last World Series run. Halladay, Hamels, Lee, Utley, Howard, Rollins, Papelbon – they’re all there for 2013. They all will be healthy and can start April of 2013 the way they’re starting July of 2012: hot.
Lee and Halladay almost definitely won’t have repeats of this season. They’ll be back to their Cy Young powers once the slate is clean and Halladay has some time to rest up. The Hamels deal, even though the front office says it is, is not about maintaining a Philly family member. Hamels is in his prime, but everyone else is starting to age. The Phillies know their time is running out. Their farm system won’t pump out any more stars at this time. It’s win a World Series now, or watch the $100 million-plus investments fall to the winds and let the young Nationals take over the Phillies’ division. The 1-2-3 of Halladay, Lee, and Hamels is about as good as it can get, so the Phillies are always competitors while they are fit (a.k.a. they will compete next year). They have one year left to win it all and then go into a long reclusion of less-than effectiveness. They have one year left to boast about having the best 1-2-3 punch in baseball. They have one year left to end this prime generation of Phillies with a bang. They couldn’t let one of their golden boys leave; he would have missed out on a chance to have one last hurrah with his friends. 2012 may be practice right now, but the Phillies continue to stare on, more and more gazing into the red horizon, watching the gorgeous opportunity. They have history and hope behind them, but they know the horizon is fading. They know they have one last chance before the red sun sets on them for good.