In a plain conference room at a Florida hotel last year, an arbitrator awarded Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard a $10 million salary for 2008. Word of the decision spread quickly around baseball – and panic accompanied it. Not only had Howard beaten the previous record salary for a first-time-eligible player, he shattered it with such enormity that the industry quivered.
All players would now be held to the Howard standard. And $10 million for anyone – let alone a Super 2, a player with three more arbitration years remaining – set the bar Bubka high.
The Phillies understood the ramifications: If Howard continued his mashing ways, the salary would grow to the point where his affordability could come into question. With a World Series victory a month ago adding another notch to a loaded résumé – NL Rookie of the Year, 2006 MVP and a second-place MVP finish in 2008 – his salary could jump to upwards of $15 million next season.
Which brings up a trio of options for Philadelphia: ride out Howard's arbitration years, sign him to a long-term deal or trade him.
"Ryan Howard's a Phillie," Ruben Amaro Jr., Philadelphia's new general manager, said Tuesday." And we expect him to be a Phillie for a long time."
So, option No. 3 is out. For now.
And with No. 1 unlikely to happen again – most teams would not twice risk the sting of an arbitration loss and would instead settle – a multi-year deal is worth exploring.
Amaro said the Phillies have twice tried to work out a long-term contract with Howard, only to reach an impasse with his agent, Casey Close, whom other agents commended for his work on Howard's arbitration case last year. Had Howard lost his case, the parties likely would have gone down a normal pathway toward a longer-term deal, perhaps along the lines of Albert Pujols' seven-year, $100 million deal.
The ruling last year shattered that notion and has the Phillies resigned either to large, incremental increases via arbitration or a stable salary from a multi-year deal that ranks among the highest in the game.
"We never have a problem paying for performance," Amaro said.
How they choose to do it is a matter of philosophy. Some teams stay away long-term deals for big-bodied sluggers while others figure Howard's size allowed him to average 51 home runs the last three seasons. Some teams would blanch at six or seven years for a player who just turned 29 while others would see it as the price of doing business for 140-plus RBIs a year.
"I don't view age as a factor in this discussion," Amaro said. "Who knows how long his prime years could be. His prime could be seven more years. A lot of it depends on how he takes care of himself and genetics.
"Our goal is always to retain our players, especially the ones who have grown up in our organization and had the success they've had. They're important pieces of the puzzle here."
He was talking about pitcher Cole Hamels, too. The World Series MVP is arbitration eligible for the first time, and Amaro also must deal with potential cases for Joe Blanton, Shane Victorino, Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin, Greg Dobbs and four others.
Though all of those players are under the team's control, and the Phillies' core is mostly intact – Jimmy Rollins is signed through 2011, Chase Utley and Brad Lidge through 2013 – it makes for a difficult juggling act, especially if Amaro does want to sign Howard long-term.
"[Amaro] knows it's something he has to address at the appropriate time," Close said. "He'll come in and figure out a way to solve it. The hardest job in sports is being the GM after you win it."
In other news …
• Free-agent outfielder Rocco Baldelli is considering four teams in addition to Tampa Bay, Boston and Philadelphia, said Close, his agent. Though Close wouldn't name those teams, a handful – including both New York teams, the Chicago Cubs, Atlanta, Toronto and others – could use corner-outfield help, particularly in a platoon role.
The 27-year-old Baldelli, who missed significant time last year with a mitochondrial disorder but thrived toward the end of the season, is hoping ultimately to return as a starter.
"Rocco, right now, is going into the season looking at being a very versatile, dependable role player," Close said. "We'll have to see how much healthier he is. He rehabbed on the fly. Maybe after a full offseason and once he figures out how best to use his medication, we'll get a better idea if he can eventually play every day."
The organization turned a profit of nearly $15 million last season. And because of the surplus, owner Lew Wolff has told the front office it can spend upwards of $70 million on payroll for 2009, an increase of about $25 million.
"We have the ability to spend," assistant GM David Forst said. "But we can do it because we have some reserve and are still within our means."
• Though reports have Jamie Moyer returning to Philadelphia on a two-year deal, Amaro said "nothing's imminent." He said the Phillies have spoken with free-agent outfielder Pat Burrell, too, and must decide by Monday whether to offer him arbitration. They almost certainly will, with compensatory draft picks coming should he sign elsewhere.
• Left-hander Eric Milton, who hasn't pitched since having Tommy John surgery early in the 2007 season, is throwing and could reinvent himself as a reliever after starting 265 of his 266 career games.