CLEARWATER, Fla. - Early one morning last week, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. stood on a practice field and talked about risk and reward. The topic was the international labor market, specifically the supply of impact players that had flooded into Major League Baseball from Cuba over the previous few years. The sport was buzzing with anticipation about the most recent blue-chip talent to be declared a free agent after leaving the communist island, a 19-year-old infielder named Yoan Moncada who had drawn comparisons to Robinson Cano.
With three straight losing seasons, a thin minor league system and a lucrative TV contract kicking in next year, the Phillies seemed to have both the motivation and the means to make a strong play for Moncada. But as had been the case with previous Cuban sensations Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Jorge Soler, Jose Abreu, Rusney Castillo and Yasmany Tomas, the bidding would prove to exceed their comfort level.
"At some point," Amaro said, "you get to a point where the risk outweighs the reward."
We learned yesterday that the Red Sox set that point somewhere north of $63 million, the price tag for their reported deal with Moncada, who will join Castillo in the organization's rebuild-on-the-fly. About half of that will be paid to MLB as a penalty for exceeding the international bonus pool. The Yankees bid $25 million, according to the New York Post. We don't know the Phillies' upper bound, but at no point in the weeks leading up to yesterday's news did anybody in the organization offer any suggestion that their bid was high enough to warrant serious consideration.
That's not to say the Phillies were too conservative with their valuation of Moncada. But the juxtaposition of their inaction with Boston's boldness certainly doesn't help the impression that they are a team without a concrete plan. In 2012, the Red Sox and the Phillies were both coming off disappointing seasons that seemed to be harbingers of imminent decline. Since then, Boston has won a World Series and remade its roster by trading for pitchers Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly and signing free agents Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval while outbidding everyone for Moncada and Castillo.
For the Phillies, meanwhile, an offseason that began with Amaro and president Pat Gillick preaching the need to acquire and develop young, cornerstone types is now drawing to a close without the addition of any such players. It is far too early to predict that the careers of Castillo and Moncada will be a referendum on the early stages of the Phillies' attempt to rebuild their roster and return to the days of perennial contention. The Red Sox' Cuban shopping spree means they will be prohibited from signing any international free agents for more than $300,000 over the next 2 years (starting July 2). If the past few years are any indication, the international market will present plenty of opportunities for the Phillies to flex some financial muscle.
Yet the impression exists of the Phillies as also-rans in the hunt for any assets that do not already have significant wear and tear. On the one hand, $63 million for a 19-year-old is a lot of money. On the other, it is roughly the amount the Phillies paid A.J. Burnett, Jonathan Papelbon, Marlon Byrd and Cliff Lee last season.
"When you have a major league player who is actually performing at the major league level, that has great value because the kid that you give $5 million to who is 17 or 18 or 19 years old, there is absolutely no guarantee that that player is going to be of any value to you in 2 years," Amaro said. "When you know you have an actual major league entity, that's a known. I understand the devaluation as a guy gets older, there's part of that too, but to me, it's a risk/reward evaluation process that we go through all the time. Certain clubs have different ways of valuing or putting their dollars into the club and we have a little bit of a different one. Every club is a little bit different."
Indeed, the Yankees have all of the means and the motivation that the Phillies possess, plus a better reputation for progressive market analysis. They didn't sign Moncada, either.
The Phillies feel they made strong efforts to sign Cespedes, who signed a 4-year, $36 million contract with Oakland in 2012, and Soler, who signed a 9-year, $30 million deal with the Cubs the same year. They backed off recent Arizona signee Tomas not because of an unwillingness to spend but because of concerns about his makeup and conditioning.
"When you talk about the Cespedes and the Puigs and the Solers of the world, were we in on them? Sure," Amaro said. "Did we get to a point where we signed them? No, but that doesn't mean that we weren't part of the process."
The real question, of course, is whether that process is one in which fans should believe. Can a front office that has only just begun to utilize economic and statistical data analysis really compete with organizations like the Red Sox and Yankees, who have spent much of the last decade building and fine-tuning their models for projecting future value, and thereby establishing present price points?
Risk and potential reward. The rebuilding Phillies have yet to acquire much of either.