Phillies boldly raising the bar in NL

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INDIANAPOLIS -- After Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin just spent $37.25 million to get veteran pitchers Randy Wolf and LaTroy Hawkins, he had an interesting take on what has happened to the level of competition in the National League. "You have to respect the Phillies," Melvin said. "They're starting to create a powerhouse in our league."

After almost a decade in which democracy ruled in the NL, Philadelphia is becoming the Yankees of its league: the king who wants more. Already the two-time league champion, the Phillies, given their aggressiveness and stockpile of young talent, are emerging as the favorite to land Toronto ace Roy Halladay. Anybody want to pick against the Phillies being the NL's first three-peat champ since the 1942-44 Cardinals if Cole Hamels is their number three pitcher behind Halladay and Cliff Lee?

"They've been very aggressive," one baseball source said about the Phillies' pursuit of Halladay. "They're putting together a package, even if they need another team. They're trying to find the players [on other teams] the Blue Jays want to get it done."

The Angels also have been aggressive on Halladay. Owner Arte Moreno knows by now he must build a team not just to win the AL West, but also to beat the Yankees, and he knows he's not doing that unless he gets an ace like Halladay to pitch against that lineup in October. But remember, Halladay owns a no-trade clause. He lives minutes from the Phillies' spring training site in Clearwater, Fla. He is 32 years old and married with two children. If he were a free agent, and assuming both teams are World Series-type contenders, would he choose to play for a team that affords him eight more weeks at home, or one that trains in Arizona and plays its home games across the country?

The Phillies represent the biggest growth brand in the baseball industry, similar to how the Red Sox began to rise in 2003 under new ownership. Their farm system is so flush that they could trade for both Lee (who cost them four prospects) and Halladay inside of six months and still have hay in the barn. Their attendance has risen 38 percent since 2006, climbing from 2.6 million -- ninth in the league -- to 3.6 million. Their payroll in those three years jumped 49 percent, from $88 million to $131 million and is likely to approach $140 million in 2010. Local television ratings for the Phillies on CSN Philadelphia, their regional sports network, soared 24 percent last year alone -- the team's seventh consecutive season with increased viewership. The Phillies' 7.13 rating and 210,000 average homes are team records. Only the Yankees and Red Sox reach more households with their local networks -- making the Phillies the most watched team in the NL.

"And you would be shocked at how little they pay in revenue sharing," griped one GM.

After the Braves' mini-dynasty drew its last breath in 1999, the NL was a free-for-all in which just about any team a bit better than mediocre had hope of playing king for a year. Of the eight NL champions from 2000 through 2007, seven of them did not win their division or won fewer than 93 games. Seven different NL franchises claimed one of those eight pennants, including the 2005 Astros, who didn't play a meaningful game in their division race all year, and the 2006 Cardinals, who won 83 games.

And then the Jimmy Rollins/Chase Utley/Ryan Howard/Cole Hamels core asserted itself -- all of them homegrown, just as the Yankees did it with a homegrown core through their four titles in five years. Philadelphia has improved its win total three consecutive years, from 85 in 2006 to 89 to 92 to 93. Over the past three seasons the Phillies have the best record in the league, nine wins better than any other club.

The Phillies are not quite the Yankees in terms of institutional strength, but they have raised the bar in the NL and, like the Yankees, they do act boldly. Rookie GM Ruben Amaro let Pat Burrell go from a world championship team to replace him with a 37-year-old left fielder, Raul Ibanez. He traded for Lee in a stealth, pennant-worthy midseason deal, and he signed Pedro Martinez. He stepped out quickly this winter to replace Pedro Feliz at third base with free agent Placido Polanco. Does anybody really think he's going to let Halladay -- the best pitcher in baseball who likes the idea of training in his backyard -- be traded without the Phillies making a bold offer?

The Phillies can give Toronto enough talent back and they can give Halladay everything he wants: the chance to pitch for an established perennial contender, eight more weeks every year at home, NL lineups to carve up after all those years in the rugged AL, a devoted fan base and a monster contract extension. There's only one thing they can't give Halladay: his uniform number. Number 32 was retired to honor Hall of Fame Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton.

• The addition of Kevin Millwood is a perfect addition for a Baltimore team that needs a veteran influence around its young pitchers, and the Orioles aren't done spending yet. They still have enough money for a third baseman (they lost top choice Feliz to Houston) and closer (Fernando Rodney).

• The Dodgers like utility infielder Jamey Carroll and need a cheap innings-eating starting pitcher, but even those modest additions will be difficult given their payroll constraints. Money is tight in Los Angeles because of the divorce battle between owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, but the boatload of arbitration raises on the roster -- costs yet to be determined -- also has brought their business to a near halt.

• Yes, the Giants need a bat, but they don't have the payroll room to add a big one such as Jason Bay or Matt Holliday. They are looking at first basemen Nick Johnson and Adam LaRoche.

• Two different GMs were aghast to hear the Astros are paying $15 million over three years to reliever Brandon Lyon. Both of them had to have the numbers repeated to them twice, thinking surely they had misheard what will be one of the worst contracts of the winter

• How sharp are the Yankees operating these days? On the day he handed in his World Series roster before Game 1, New York GM Brian Cashman called Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski, who was so stunned by the timing he had to ask Cashman, on the eve of the World Series, "Why are you calling me?" Even with his team in the World Series, Cashman was beginning his offseason diligence in an attempt to make the Yankees' outfield younger and more athletic. That conversation with Dombrowski was the start to Curtis Granderson becoming a Yankee. It's reminiscent of how John Schuerholz ran the Braves in the 1990s, getting a jump on the market and refusing to play the stalking horse in postseason bidding.

• Carlos Delgado is scheduled to play in Puerto Rico next week to showcase himself to teams.

• Cuban free agent Aroldis Chapman will throw for teams next week in Houston, though think of it more as a meet-and-greet session for teams than a full-blown workout.

• Melvin may have added pitchers two pitchers during the winter meetings, but he lost his Mercedes -- to a parking valet who couldn't find the keys, only to have the keyless car impounded. After the Rule 5 draft Melvin cracked, "We were thinking about drafting a car so I can get home."