For the first time in years, the Philadelphia Phillies are flying under the free-agent radar, but don't completely count them out of the impending Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes.
When the hot stove isn't burning in Philadelphia, there's a problem. Under the reign of general manager Ruben Amaro, the Phillies have been one of the boldest franchises during the winter months. This offseason, that mentality has been dormant thus far.
With the revelation of a conversation taking place between Tanaka's agent and Philadelphia's front office, it's just a matter of time before the Phillies are included on the list of teams that could chase the 25-year-old righty.
On the surface, the Phillies have had a confounding offseason. Stuck between competing in 2014, rebuilding for the future and featuring a misshaped roster ill-fit for the rigors of a pennant chase in the NL East, Amaro has likely explored many avenues, including planning for the long-term good of the organization.
Of course, the impetuous Amaro hasn't done anything to truly take that route. Instead, by signing Marlon Byrd to a two-year deal and re-signing Carlos Ruiz to a three-year pact, the team is signaling a desire to bring the band back together for one more run at relevancy.
Clearly, a pitcher of Tanaka's caliber would aid in that quest.
Yet, the link between Tanaka and Philadelphia runs deeper than just wins and losses for 2014. The Phillies are a true sleeper in this sweepstakes due to three factors: finances, Amaro's history and the ability to keep their options open over the next few years.
First, as many of you will correlate, is the connection between Philadelphia's new television deal and Tanaka's projected contract.
Comcast SportsNet and the Phillies agreed to a 25-year contract worth more than $2.5 billion last week, per Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Although the actual value isn't quite what it seems when breaking down the numbers, per David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News, the layout is still massive and will afford the Phillies a chance to hold a significant payroll for the foreseeable future.
As of now, the Phillies have over $141 million committed to their 2014 payroll, per Cot's Baseball Contracts. Although the new television money won't begin to roll in for two years, the franchise can begin to project more cash to spend on payroll in the future.
Tanaka, due to the low posting fee ($20 million) attached to his departure from Japan, age (25) and volume of teams (Yankees, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Mariners, Cubs) in pursuit, could command a contract in excess of $100 million. It's high for a mid-market team, but not for the Phillies in the aftermath of their television riches.
If we realize this, Ruben Amaro undoubtedly has considered his freshly minted financial clout. When blockbuster moves are there to be made, regardless of the price in prospects or cash, Amaro has been far from shy during his tenure in Philadelphia.
Few general managers can boast about trading for Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay—three of the best pitchers of a generation—along with signing Lee off the free-agent market and eschewing the farm system in a quest for World Series berths.
Amaro, as many now-disgruntled Phillies fans can attest, can easily boast about his gambling mentality.
Now, backed by the specter of found money, Amaro can be aggressive again. Although he's shied away from rotation help in the form of Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, those free-agent arms come with concerns. From inconsistency to gigantic price tags, none of the non-Tanaka free-agent arms are great bets for $100 million.
Despite the unknown surrounding a move from Nippon Professional Baseball to MLB, Tanaka will garner a contract bigger than his free-agent counterparts. If Amaro is feeling the need to make his yearly splash, Tanaka makes more sense than anyone else for a rotation that has major question marks behind Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
Of course, even if the Phillies do morph from a sleeper to a favorite in the Tanaka sweepstakes, their chances of competing for a World Series in 2014 seem remote. Yet, having a young, rising star like Tanaka locked up could make Philadelphia's eventual rebuilding process easier down the line.
If the Phillies sign Tanaka to a long-term deal, they can move forward with the knowledge that Cole Hamels (signed through 2018, with team option for 2019) and Tanaka will headline the team in the midst of changes. Moving on from Cliff Lee at the trade deadline, a yearly debate in Philadelphia, would be more palatable with a 25-year-old pitcher entrenched to soak up his productive innings over the next few years.
Since the regular season ended with an ugly 73-89 ledger, the Phillies have teetered between the idea of winning now and sacrificing for the future, but actions speak louder than words. Unless the team takes a dramatic step in either direction, status quo will return for 2014, leading to apathy among a rabid fanbase.
Buoyed by a new television contract, a gunslinger in the front office and the long-term roster-building options that Tanaka's arrival would provide, the Phillies are a sleeper in the offseason's biggest race.