Phillies won't contend until at least 2017
by Scott Butler 12/26/13

Your Phillies roster includes Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee, and Carlos Ruiz... 2016.

Those five players, who will all be over the age of 35, are either under contract or have vesting options through the 2016 season.

Oh, for the love of Pete.

If those players unmercifully remain in 2016, they will have an average age of over 36 and a combined salary of $89 million, which is $11 million more than they earned in 2013.

In 2016, Howard's and Ruiz' contracts are guaranteed, Utley's contract automatically vests with 500 plate appearances in 2015, Papelbon's vests with 55 games finished in 2015 or 100 games finished from 2014-15, and Cliff Lee earns $27.5 million or a $12.5 million buyout.

We witnessed this offseason the oppressive nature of these bloated contracts. Entering this offseason, the Phillies had salary obligations and estimated arbitration salaries totaling $135.7 million for 13 players. When added to the roughly $10 million in player benefits, it left around $20-25 million to spend on the rest of the roster before hitting their self-imposed cap of around $165-$170 million. The Phillies literally did not have enough cash in their pockets to afford Ellsbury, Choo, McCann, or Cano, so they were forced to sift through the bargain bin for Marlon Byrd and Roberto Hernandez.

It gets no better in 2015 or 2016, either. A quick glance at their salary obligations (prior to the offseason) from 2014 through 2016 shows just how dire a situation the Phillies find themselves in.

2014 (not including arbitration): $122.5 million for 8 players
-- Of those 8 players, 7 are over 30 and 6 are over 33

2015 - minimum $116 million for 8 players/maximum of $128 for 9 players
--Of the potential 9 players under contract, 8 are over 31 and 6 are over 35

They are already committed to a minimum of $89.5 million in 2015 to 6 players over the age of 34, which already surpasses the final payrolls of 10 teams last season. If Rollins meets his vesting option, that total jumps to $100.5 million for 7 players over 34 - that number alone is above exactly half of the team payrolls from 2013.

2016 - minimum of $74.5 million for 4 players/maximum of $123.5 million for 8 players
-- Of the potential 8 players, 7 are over 32, 5 are over 36, and 3 are over 37

Utley, Papelbon, and Byrd have vesting options and Cliff Lee has a buyout in 2016, making the range of impact of the large contracts enormous.

How does this affect each season?

The roster is mostly set for the upcoming season and there is no reason to believe the Phillies have improved enough over last year to contend in 2014.

Little will change in 2015. Mike Adams and Jimmy Rollins are the only two salaries which may come off the books. Adams has a vesting option for 2015 which he will not reach, so his salary will be gone. Jimmy Rollins only needs 434 plate appearances to meet his option, something he has easily accomplished in all but one of his 13 full seasons.

It gets a little more hectic in 2016, with four contracts possibly coming off the books:

Cliff Lee: the Phillies can buy out Cliff Lee for the hefty sum of $12.5 million if they choose not to pay his $27.5 million club option.

Jonathan Papelbon: His option automatically vests if he finishes 55 games in 2015, a feat he has only accomplished once in the last four seasons. But don't get your hopes up. The option still vests if he finishes 100 games between 2014 and 2015 - the lowest two-year total in his eight full seasons is 102 and he has reached at least 107 games finished in six of seven opportunities.

Chase Utley: Chase, as I pointed out at the time of his contract, signed a very team friendly contract which guarantees him little after the 2015 season. Utley's contract vests in 2016 if he reaches 500 plate appearances in 2015. If not, his buyout is just $2 million, or the Phillies have club options set at $5 million, $7 million, $9 million or $11 million, based on days on the active roster.

Marlon Byrd: Byrd has an $8 million option in 2016 that vests with 600 PA's in 2015 or 550 PA's in 2015 and a total of 1,100 PA's in 2014 and 2015. If the option does not vest, it becomes a team option at $8 million.

Oh, and you'll love this, Ryan Howard's contract doesn't fully expire until 20-freakin-18. The Phils are locked in for another $25 million in 2016 and it will cost them $10 million to buy him out in age 37.

For once, Ruben Amaro is right. "We've committed to them," Amaro said, "and we have to roll with them." After suffering through the '14 and '15 seasons with a similar group to last season's 89-loss squad, the Phils still only have the potential to escape these bad contracts.

It is like a nightmare that won't end.

If the Phillies are lucky enough to avoid the final year of those contracts it means players were hurt, unproductive, or both. It would essentially guarantee at least two losing seasons. If they do actually stay on the field, as I discovered recently, their production is still probably below average and it just extends offseasons like this past one for another year.

Of course, if the Phillies are in a position at next year's trading deadline, they could attempt to move some of those players. Unfortunately, with so much money left on these contracts, the Phillies can hope for little more than a salary dump. Rebuilding normally infers a package of prospects to replace a proven commodity, but in the Phillies' case they will have to essentially give players away while also eating a chunk of their contracts.

The Phillies can hope the options don't vest, stick with the same declining group, or attempt trades. "Either way," as Colonel Jessup said in A Few Good Men, "I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to," because there aren't many scenarios in which the Phillies escape with all their limbs in tact.

As painfully as it is to admit just two season removed from 102 victories, the Phillies probably won't contend until at least 2017.

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