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Will Phillies become "small-market team" again if they lose Cole Hamels?

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A long, long time ago, former Phillies’ team president Bill Giles referred to the Philadelphia Phillies (who play in the fourth biggest market in the country) as a “small-market team.” For a fan base who witnessed one too many less than spectacular teams grace the Veterans Stadium turf year after year, Giles remarks were the final straw. Those comments followed him until he was replaced in 1997, and it would take a long time for the Phillies to shed this image.Bill Giles photo: images.mitrasites.com

Things started to change in the winter of 2002, in the wake of the inaugural season of Citizens Bank Park. The team’s first big move was signing free agent Jim Thome to a six-year $85 million dollar deal. With the Thome signing, the Phillies’ Opening Day payroll of 2003 was roughly $71 million, a jump of roughly $13 million from the previous year.

Oddly enough, Thome wasn’t even around to see the Phillies’ first World Series title in 28 years in 2008. By that time, the payroll had jumped up close to $100 million! ($98.3).

Fast forward several years later. Even though the Phillies went into 2010 coming off two consecutive World Series appearances, Phillies fans were taken aback by Ruben Amaro’s shocking trade of post-season hero Cliff Lee to the Mariners on the same day the team traded for Blue Jays starter Roy Halladay. Even though the Phillies just landed one of the best starters (if not THE best) in the game, the feeling was bittersweet to say the least for Phillies fans. Many believed the Yankees might have swept the Phightins right out of the World Series if not for Lee’s two wins. Although Amaro said he didn’t want to lose Lee via free agency after 2010 and that the team needed to replenish their minor league system, Phillies fans weren’t buying it, especially when it was reported the Phillies attempted to trade Joe Blanton to make room for Lee’s salary.

There it was- the same old Phillies. Excuses, excuses.

Rumor has it that the Phightins still wished to bring back Lee during the summer of 2010, but the team instead traded for Roy Oswalt. By this time, it was expected from the fan base that Amaro would swing a deal at the trade deadline to improve their team. Despite getting Oswalt to technically replace Lee, the Phillies lost a devastating NLCS to the Giants, who dominated everyone on their way to a World Series title with their pitching. So in a move that shocked the baseball world, Amaro signed Lee almost exactly one year after he traded him away.

In signing Lee, the Phillies had officially put themselves in the class of the Yankees and Red Sox: big market teams with big money that can improve their team on cue if necessary. What made it even more impressive was that unlike their two American League counterparts, the Phillies accomplished this without the support of their own television network.Cole Hamels photo kodyssportskorner.com

However, all good things must come to an end, and the new collective bargaining agreement saw the Phillies (as well as the Yankees and Red Sox) barely increase their payroll last off-season. Combine this with a declining team and it can be a recipe for disaster.

Further complicating matters are the long term contracts that saturate the Phillies’ payroll in the form of aging veterans (Lee), players on the disabled list (Roy Halladay) or veterans past their prime (Chase Utley). Keep in mind that Ryan Howard’s $125 million dollar deal started this season, and he’s scheduled to play for the first time this year on Friday night!

With Halladay still on the DL and Lee’s contract very tough to unload, it seems as though the Phillies are indeed shopping Cole Hamels because  1.They are getting nowhere in negotiations for a long term deal.  2. This team is going nowhere and they want top level prospects in return, and  3. Why in the world would Cole Hamels want to come back to THIS team? Keep in mind the Phillies can still try and sign Hamels this off-season no matter what happens, but a team will most likely want to sign him to a lengthy contract after they acquire him.

This opens the door towards all kinds of possibilities in the next few weeks as well as the off-season. Will the Phillies attempt to move Shane Victorino? Will they try and trade Halladay or Hunter Pence this winter? Possibly Utley with one more year left on his contract? It’s almost given that one or some of these players might not be wearing Phillies pinstripes next Opening Day. With Lee and Halladay getting older, Hamels could anchor this rotation long after their days in Philadelphia are over. Furthermore, losing Hamels would set this franchise back ten years. When the Phillies unloaded Curt Schilling in the summer of 2000, he was five years older than Hamels is now. All Schilling did was win three World Series for the next two teams he played for.

So in a nutshell, the Phillies can’t afford to let Hamels walk, but can they come to terms with him? The team already has two middle-aged pitchers making $20 million. Can they add another $20 million dollar man? And what about that possible luxury tax penalty?

Ah yes, the pressures of being a big market team.

Or should we say “small-market team” after 2012?

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Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

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Hamels photo: kodyssportskorner.com

Giles photo: images.mitrasites.com