The 21st century Phillies know only one speed: full steam ahead.
Philadelphia extended lefthanded starter and free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels for six years and $144 million late Tuesday night, with a vesting option for a seventh season, according to USA Today, matching the $24 million annual value that teammate Cliff Lee received prior to the 2011 season.
In terms of overall contract value, Hamels is now the richest player in a team history that's suddenly very accustomed to rich contracts.
"The goal was to keep Cole in our uniform for the foreseeable future," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said in a televised press conference Wednesday. "It's unprecedented for us, but I think we did it for the right person. We think this is the best way for us to win another championship -- with him rather than without him."
Hamels, who is only 28, may well be worth every penny of this megadeal, as much as any one player can be worth such a huge sum. He is 11-4 this season with a 3.23 ERA and another sterling strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.97). He may not have had a singular season of dominance -- he's only received Cy Young votes twice in his career and has never finished better than fifth place -- but he's an elite pitcher for not only his performance but also his consistency and durability.
Since 2007 Hamels is 76-50 with a 3.30 ERA and 3.89 K/BB ratio, while averaging 31 starts and 206 innings per season. He ranks 10th in the majors in both games started and innings pitched during that time while ranking 16th in ERA; his ERA+, which adjusts for league and ballpark, is tied for ninth with, among others, the Giants' Matt Cain, the other almost-free agent pitcher who signed for $127.5 million this spring.
"I wanted to give the Phillies every opportunity [to re-sign me]," Hamels, the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, said at his press conference. "It's really hard to leave a place where you have so many good memories and so many more good ones to come."
Such extensions are obviously not about the short term, and this season is far from over, though time is dwindling. The Phillies' recent three-game winning streak has only cut their deficit in the Wild Card standings to 9½ games -- a not insurmountable hill to climb but a difficult one, to be sure. The Phillies could move into sell mode at this year's deadline in an effort to re-tool for 2013.
The question isn't so much whether Hamels is worth the money (probably yes) but whether this huge contract for Hamels puts the Phillies in the best position to win in the years to come. Thanks to huge annual revenues -- and even more money projected to fill their coffers in a few years -- the answer is, again, probably yes.
Depending on the structure of Hamels' new deal and if any money is backloaded, the Phillies may have as much as $104 million invested in just five players: Hamels, Lee, righthanded starter Roy Halladay, first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley. Closer Jonathan Papelbon and shortstop Jimmy Rollins account for another $24 million. That might be seven players for $128 million, a sum that lags behind the entire payrolls of only the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Tigers this season.
Philadelphia is expected to gain relief from a few other prospective free agents not expected back and/or possible trade chips in centerfielder Shane Victorino and starter Joe Blanton; similarly, rightfielder Hunter Pence, who is under team control through 2013, could also be moved.
And of the club's three aces, retaining the 28-year-old Hamels certainly made the most sense, given that Halladay is 35 and Lee will turn 34 next month. Each of the latter two starters has already made trips to the disabled list this year. Either would be desirable on the trade market, should the club need salary relief, though the club may be able to keep them all.
Certainly the Phillies, whose payroll has climbed for six straight seasons to this year's team-record $172 million, are not hurting for cash, particularly given the club's sellout streak of 269 games. According to Forbes.com, the Phillies had the league's best local television ratings last year, when they received $25 million from Comcast; that deal reportedly expires after the 2015 season and the new one will undoubtedly be much, much richer, given the precedents set by the Angels, Rangers and others.
With Howard and Utley having returned to action within the last month, Philadelphia's daily lineup -- the NL's oldest with an average age of 31.5 years -- is finally intact and, with Halladay's return, so too is their rotation. Only two regular position players, however, are under the age of 30 (Pence and suspended infielder Freddy Galvis), as are only two of the starting pitchers (Hamels and Vance Worley).
This year has been marred by early-season injuries, and the decline of its aging core may eventually become precipitous -- but, the Phillies are betting, not just yet. They should have at least 2013 and '14 in which they can seriously contend, as long as they can remain healthy.
No matter how successful they prove to be, the Phillies, whose investment in an older core had passed the point of no return, were better off with Hamels than without him.