The Philadelphia Phillies are a dying powerhouse, but they could soon find themselves celebrating a major victory off the field that could, in turn, make them winners on the field again.
You can count on the major victory part happening, but the whole "make them winners on the field again" part is another story.
According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, there's some buzz going on about the Phillies' next local television contract. Their current deal with Comcast expires at the end of 2015, meaning they're very much in line for a new deal very soon.
Given their status as one of baseball's premier franchises, the Phillies' next deal is sure to be a big one, perhaps so big as to put them in Los Angeles Dodgers territory.
Meaning billions. Not one. Not two. But several billions.
What's more, Fox Sports is out there waiting to give Comcast a run for their money. There could be a bidding war for the rights to show Phillies games on the tube.
"And they want Philadelphia," a source told Passan of Fox. "They got the Yankees [by buying a share of the YES Network], which helps. They're not going to have the Red Sox. They're not going to have the Mets. They want another East Coast team."
So...How much money are we talking here?
Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote about the situation last year and threw a number out there: $5 billion. But this was before the Dodgers arranged their $7 billion TV contract, as well as before News Corp struck a deal with the YES Network.
So $5 billion now sounds a bit conservative. A $6 billion TV deal is more like it. A $7 billion TV deal to match the Dodgers should not be counted out.
Exactly how much TV money the Phillies are raking in per year now isn't clear, but Wendy Thurm of FanGraphs put it at $35 million per year last November. That's nothing compared to the potential hundreds of millions the Phillies could be raking in per year in a few seasons.
This amount of money would more than make up for any attendance revenue on which the Phillies may be missing out, which is a legit issue these days. Attendance at Citizens Bank Park is way down in 2013, and Matt Gelb crunched the numbers and determined the Phillies could be missing out on $25 million just in ticket revenue.
Beyond that, so much TV money would allow the Phillies to maintain a high payroll. That's important seeing as how, you know, it's hard to imagine the team without one.
Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Phillies have had an Opening Day payroll north of $110 million every year since 2009. They've been north of $150 million the last three years, and could surely go north of $200 million once they get their new TV deal squared away.
For all the money the Phillies have spent since 2009, however, they've only gotten one trip to the World Series out of it. For all the money they could spend in the future, they first have to decide what sort of direction they want to go in.
As to that...well, shoot. Place your bets.
Not even general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. knows where the Phillies are headed. In a talk with Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com last week, Amaro admitted that he's not sure what's going to happen over the next four months, much less next year. He knows his club is headed towards a crossroads.
“We’re going to have to turn left or right. We have to decide," said Amaro.
One direction means staying the course, which means not selling veterans like Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, Michael Young and Carlos Ruiz at the trade deadline and then going from there when the offseason arrives. The other direction means blowing it all up and going young.
Which, of course, is the non-euphemistic way of saying "rebuilding."
The Phillies are knocking on that door. According to Baseball-Reference.com, their offense is the third-oldest in baseball. Their pitching staff is also the third-oldest in baseball. Thus far, their aging roster has compiled a 12-15 record that puts them well behind the youthful Atlanta Braves and slightly behind a youthful Washington Nationals team that is much better than it's shown.
Halladay, Utley, Young and Ruiz will be free agents at the end of the season. Charlie Manuel's contract is also running out. Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard will be sticking around, but only the first two are still stars. If the Phillies do end up falling out of the race, it's not hard to imagine Lee and his contract finding their way to the block.
So yeah, this is certainly a team ripe for a roster blowup and subsequent reboot. It just seems to be a matter of when, not if Amaro is going to give the go-ahead to make it happen.
A quick rebuild could happen Red Sox-style, a notion proposed by Morosi that seemed to intrigue Amaro.
The Red Sox cleared a bunch of payroll with last August's trade with the Dodgers. The Phillies could do that by dealing their veterans at the deadline, or they could just hang onto them and hope to make a few qualifying offers at the end of the season. Then they would just have to use their newfound payroll space wisely.
The Red Sox did that by collecting short-term contracts that won't bog them down several years from now. By the time these contracts are over, the Red Sox will have graduated some talented players from the minors. They could then augment their young core by spending big again. Badda-bing, badda-boom.
This is where things get tricky for the Phillies, however. They can manage the short-term contracts part, but making like the Red Sox would require a commitment to rebuilding their farm system over the next few years.
The Phillies are not without talented youngsters, but their system as a whole is lacking. Heading into the season, Baseball America ranked Philly's farm system 24th in MLB. ESPN's Keith Law (Insider post) put it at No. 27.
The Phillies are going to have to make a commitment to rebuilding up their farm system to what it was a few years back. Let's not forget that the system gave the big club three superstars in Howard, Utley and Hamels and provided the trade chips that brought guys like Halladay and Hunter Pence to Philly.
If the farm system continues to be neglected, the Phillies will be forced to rely on their money to keep the wins coming. Even with an influx of new TV revenue, that's not going to be an easy thing to do.
Buying up free agents is going to be an option, but there are only going to be so many good ones available. In this age of long-term extensions, fewer and fewer stars are going to hit free agency in their primes.
We've also seen that even the ones who do hit free agency in their primes are likely to provide only a couple of good years before fading. Trying to build a long-term contender strictly with free agents is a fool's errand.
The Phillies' TV riches could also be used to orchestrate trades with teams looking to dump high-priced players they no longer want, like the Dodgers did with the Red Sox last year and the Toronto Blue Jays did with the Miami Marlins over the winter. That would be one way for them to land slightly younger star players, which would be nice.
What's easy to overlook about those deals, however, is that the Dodgers and Blue Jays had to surrender some quality young players. Taking on money wasn't enough. For the Phillies to pull off deals like that, they're going to need a strong reservoir of young players from which to draw, which of course leads back to the farm-system conundrum.
Money is good. Money can cure many ills in baseball, and it's certainly better to have it than to not have it. But it only translates into wins if the baseball people are making good decisions, and the size of the accompanying check is not the measure of a "good" baseball decision.
So I'm not about to draw a straight line between the Phillies signing a massive TV contract and them returning to juggernaut/perennial World Series-contender status. To borrow from South Park, the progression here is more like:
- Phase 1: Sign TV contract
- Phase 2: ?
- Phase 3: Win World Series
With or without the hundreds of millions in TV money, Phase 2 is going to be a doozy.
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