David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. owns as many World Series rings as Yankees counterpart Brian Cashman from the past decade, but the similarities don't end there for two teams on opposite ends of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Both have an aging, expensive core of players. Both have dizzying payrolls in the ritzy neighborhood of Major League Baseball's luxury tax. Both face unrelenting pressure to make the playoffs every year, and both reside in what should be the most competitive divisions of their leagues.
"As a friend once said," Amaro noted with a smile, "mo money, mo problems."
Amaro borrowed that line from the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., but you get the picture. Faced with the annual challenge of staying on top -- the Phillies are riding a streak of five straight NL East titles -- Amaro must walk the line between spending to win now and having enough left to keep the party going well into the future.
"I don't want to offend anyone," Amaro said. "I don't think that we're necessarily on the level of the Yankees. But I know that as far as payroll is concerned, we're not there and hopefully we don't get there. The sky is not the limit for us.
"We're not going to do everything in the world to win every year. Is it important for us to try to win the World Series every year? Yeah, of course it is. But I think the most important goal is to be sure that we're putting ourselves in a position to be a contender every single year."
With a 2012 payroll of roughly $174.5 million, the Phillies are second only to the Yankees, whose $197.9-million tab for this season gives them a comfortable lead. But two of Amaro's most valuable investments -- Ryan Howard and Chase Utley -- are on the shelf indefinitely as they work their way back from serious injuries.
Howard, who will earn $20 million this year and is guaranteed another $105 million through 2016, is recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon suffered on the final play of the Phillies' NLDS loss to the Cardinals. Utley, due $15 million this season and next, is dealing with chronic knee issues.
Former MVP Jimmy Rollins re-upped this offseason for three years and $33 million after his previous six-year, $48.5-million deal expired. Next on the homegrown-star agenda is Cole Hamels, who is playing out a one-year, $15-million contract.
Moving forward, it gets trickier. The Phillies already have $112 million committed to 12 players for 2013. In 2014, they are on the hook for $74 million to only four players -- Howard, Rollins, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon -- and hold a $20-million option on Roy Halladay. Figuring out how to navigate these transition years while remaining an elite team is the hard part.
The luxury-tax threshold for this year and next is $178 million; it jumps to $189 million after the 2013 season, and for teams like the Phillies and Yankees, it will affect how they do business.
"You want to keep the core players together," Amaro said. "But as years go on, they become less and less productive over time. That's not uncommon -- it's just part of the progression. You have to understand that there are some difficult decisions that have to be made."
In the past three years, the Phillies have traded for Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence in deadline swaps, as well as acquiring Halladay from Toronto during the offseason. That comes at a cost for the farm system, but it's a sacrifice made to keep the turnstiles moving. Yesterday's Citizens Bank Park sellout against the Mets was the 209th straight of the regular season for the Phillies, and Amaro depends on that cash flow.
"Where we are with our payroll," Amaro said, "you want to be able to continue to show your fans that you are going to make every effort to put a contending team and a winning team on the field. At the same time, we can't continue to do that unless they keep coming to the ballpark."
Lannan is the odd man out
Long Beach's John Lannan was stunned when the Nationals optioned him to Triple-A Syracuse, and with a $5-million salary, he has the dubious distinction of being the highest-paid player ever demoted during spring training, according to The Washington Post.
That's quite a shock, considering that Lannan was the Nationals' Opening Day starter twice before and as recently as 2010. Now, after offseason moves that added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, along with the emergence of Ross Detwiler, Lannan is the odd man out. Despite his request for a trade, the Nats prefer to keep him as insurance, especially with the shaky health of Chien-Ming Wang.
"That's not a slight to Lannan -- I mean, he's getting paid pretty good," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said last week at Citi Field. "But we definitely were not going to just hand him to somebody else and let him beat up on us."
If numbers are any indication, Lannan has not taken the demotion well. In his first two starts for Syracuse, Lannan is 0-2 with a 13.50 ERA. He's allowed 15 hits in six innings, so that's not helping his trade value.
"With the competitive edge that he has, he'll be fine," Johnson said. "He's still starting, he's still highly thought of in this organization. But one of the things about winning is good development, and having backup plans. And this is the best backup plan. It's the best of not a lot of good scenarios."