Milton Deal Puts Phillies In Tough Situation

On the surface, acquiring Eric Milton from the Minnesota Twins probably wasn't a bad move. There are a lot of scouts around baseball, including a few of them in the Phillies organization, who believe that Milton is on his way to being a definite top of the rotation pitcher. The problem is that his contract - $9 million in 2004 – puts the Phillies in an interesting, but potentially damaging situation.

The Phillies needed to make their rotation stronger. The Twins were looking to cut payroll and dangled Eric Milton to the rest of the major leagues. The cost in players – Carlos Silva, Nick Punto and a player to be named later – wasn't too high, so Ed Wade made the move. There was a strong, underlying reason why Wade moved when he did.

The night before making the deal, Wade spoke with Scott Boras, the agent for pitcher Kevin Millwood. Basically, Boras asked Wade to increase his offer to his client and Wade didn't want to move. He did so with the knowledge that if Millwood walked, he had the deal for Milton in his back pocket. Boras, as is his custom, held to his guns and told Wade that he didn't see Millwood striking a deal with the Phillies if their offer wasn't going to be getting any better. The conversation ended and Wade turned his focus to Milton.

Giving up the players that he did wasn't too difficult for Wade. There were debates within the organization about Carlos Silva. Some thought he was a starter others thought he was a reliever and some went so far as to say that he had the ability to be a major league closer. Needless to say, the opinions on Silva varied. Nick Punto is a decent young player, but can be replaced. The Phillies have young middle infielders and don't figure to replace them any time soon. As for the player that the Phillies will owe Minnesota, the decision will be made after the Rule 5 Draft, which likely means the player is someone that the Phillies have left exposed. In other words, it's someone that the Phillies had decided they might lose and get nothing in exchange anyway, so including him in the deal to get Eric Milton couldn't hurt.

So far, everything fits.

The problem is that along with Milton comes his contract. The deal expires at the end of the 2004 season and calls for the left-hander to make a cool $9 million this season. Not the worst of contracts out there, but bad enough to put the Phillies in a rough spot.

The Phillies must decide by Sunday whether or not to offer arbitration to Kevin Millwood. With the decision comes the answer to whether the Phillies will get compensation for the loss of Millwood if he does sign elsewhere.

Scenario 1: An arbitration offer

The Phillies can offer Millwood arbitration,which means that if he signs with some other team, the Phillies get that team's first round draft pick, plus a "sandwich" pick after the first round in next June's draft. Having lost their first and second round picks in the 2003 Draft after signing Jim Thome and David Bell, the Phillies could use a couple extra picks in the 2004 Draft. Of course, signing two more first round picks could be a pricey proposition for the Phillies.

Offering Millwood arbitration also does one other thing. It gives Millwood and Boras the right to simply say, "fine, we accept" and instantly returns Millwood to the Phillies roster. If the two sides don't reach an agreement, an arbitrator would decide on Millwood's contract value for 2004, based on figures that each side would submit.

Interestingly, Millwood might put the Phillies in the same situation that brought him to Philly in the first place. It was Scott Boras, who surprised the Atlanta Braves last offseason and accepted the Braves offer of arbitration rather than having Greg Maddux sign elsewhere. The return of Maddux pushed the Braves payroll to a place that they didn't want to go and pushed them toward a desparation deal with the Phillies to shed Millwood's contract. Boras could put the Phillies in the same situation this offseason.

If Millwood were to accept the Phillies arbitration offer, he could conceivably get a deal in the area of $13 - $14 million from an arbitrator. That may be a little tough for the Phillies to swallow. Milton will make roughly what Millwood made last season, so that keeps their payroll in line. Of course, there are the obligatory raises that players will be due as their contracts mature. There is also the addition of Billy Wagner, who will make $8 million in 2004. The Phillies can afford those increases, but likely can't afford the readdition of Millwood with a bigger contract than he had when he filed for free agency.

Scenario 2: No arbitration offer

Not offering Millwood arbitration means that when he signs elsewhere, the Phillies get no compensation for him. Expanding that theory a little, basically means that the Phillies got to rent Millwood for a season – one that did include a no-hitter that was a highlight of the season – but in exchange, gave their division rival the Atlanta Braves a good, young catching prospect in Johnny Estrada.

It would also mean though, that the Phillies would know exactly where their payroll would fall. After all, if Millwood did accept arbitration, the Phillies might be in the same situation that the Braves were in last season when Maddux accepted arbitration. That might necessitate a desperation deal of their own to dump some salary off of the 2004 roster.

Not offering arbitration does another thing. It makes Eric Milton – in the eyes of many fans - responsible for the Phillies getting no compensation for Millwood. Fans will see this deal as Silva, Punto, a player to be named later and Johnny Estrada for Eric Milton. It means that Milton will be compared to Millwood. It's an unfair albatross to hang around the neck of a relatively young pitcher who is simply coming to a new team trying to do what he can to help them win. After all, in the days of big time contracts, Milton got what was offered and can't be blamed for that. The Phillies were the ones who decided to accept the final season of that contract, even if it does have a ripple effect on the status of Kevin Millwood. Milton is just lucky that Millwood never really became a fan favorite, or he would face the ire of Von Hayes when he came to town in a five-for-one deal with Cleveland years back.

The end result…

The Phillies must offer arbitration to Kevin Millwood. If he goes elsewhere, the Phillies will get two necessary draft picks to add to their organization in 2004. Yes, that would be expensive, but the Phillies do need to make up for the picks that they lost in 2003 and adding the two as compensation for Millwood's loss would be the way to do that.

If Millwood accepts the arbitration offer, the Phillies payroll jumps, perhaps to a level that they had no interest in allowing it to go. That's a tough pill to swallow, but with the added revenue of a new stadium and the killer rotation that the addition of both Milton and Millwood would give the Phillies, it might be worth the added cost.

The backlash of not offering arbitration to Millwood would be huge. The good feeling that the Phillies developed after the additions of last offseason and the addition of Billy Wagner this offseason would vanish. Already, message boards are filled with posts calling for Wade's head if he does as he hinted and doesn't offer arbitration to Millwood this weekend.

Wade was the one that told the media that he is considering not offering arbitration to Millwood. The comment came during the press conference to announce the addition of Milton to the Phillies. It was a scenario that the media had only speculated on, but was ever present.

The comments from Wade didn't close the door to arbitration, but they didn't open it wide either. It's also possible that Wade is engaging Boras in a little bit of public negotiating, hoping to get Boras to blink and accept the three year deal that the Phillies had offered to Millwood.

The pessimists among us, especially those who hang out with the conspiracy theorists among us, would propose that Wade, the Phillies and Boras are still fighting their war that started with the J.D. Drew saga. The two sides have been pretty unfriendly since then and the Phillies have gone so far as to shy away from Boras clients ever since things went south on the deal to sign J.D. Drew as he looked to enter major league baseball. While the fans openly let Drew know what they think of him every time that he plays in Philadelphia, Wade may be sending a quieter round of displeasure toward Boras and his client. If that battle is the reason that the Phillies would allow Millwood to completely walk from Philadelphia, it adds insult to the injury that would result from the loss of Millwood with no compensation.

After all, Wade never said that their offer to Millwood was off the table. That offer called for Millwood to collect approximately $10 million per season for three and possibly, four seasons. If the Phillies are allowing those numbers to stand, then Millwood accepting arbitration wouldn't be the full body hit that it appears. It would actually only put the Phillies about $4 million over a level that they might accept for their payroll.

Bottom line is that there is still pretty much time between now and when the Phillies must offer arbitration to Millwood. A lot can happen in a relatively short period of time, so the end of this story hasn't been written. We never know what may be happening behind the scenes. After all, Millwood could still agree to the Phillies offer, wanting to return to what would be one of the deepest rotations in baseball. Millwood would be the ace of that rotation and he would have a legitimate shot at a World Series ring. Those are attractive scenarios for any pitcher.

If the Phillies don't offer arbitration, it would be a reminder of the miserly ways that their fans had to endure for many ways. Offering arbitration sends the message that the Phillies are doing all they can to win and win now.

The criticisms of Wade that have been leveled, assuming that he won't offer arbitration to Millwood are perhaps, premature. After all, as Robert Redford said in the movie Legal Eagles, "Let's give him a fair trial and then hang him."

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