Excepting the Cole Hamels contract, the biggest personnel issue the Phillies will face following the 2012 season is that of Shane Victorino, as the 31-year-old center fielder will hit free agency for the first time in his career.
Victorino, who came to the Phillies in the 2004 Rule 5 Draft, has been a staple in the outfield since becoming a full-time player in the wake of the Bobby Abreu trade in 2006, and has since proven to be a vital cog in the Phillies winning machine. He's got a cannon for an arm, good defensive chops and great speed, and enough personality to fill the hull of the S.S. Titanic.
But it's been his bat, not his glove nor speed, that has proven to be the biggest difference, as he's matured into a legitimate top-of-the-order hitter with enough power to be dangerous, solid on-base skills, and a terrifyingly quick bat against left-handed pitchers.
In 2011, it all clicked. He put up his best season to date, as he led the league in triples (19), and came just shy of setting career highs in home-runs (17), RBIs (61), and walks (55) despite only playing in 132 games. All told, Shane's .847 OPS led the team, and he once again proved to be one of the most valuable position players on the roster.
And, with less than a year to go until he hits free agency, Shane made his intentions clear, via ESPN's Jayson Stark:
"What that statement was saying," he said, "was that I'm willing to give up free agency. A lot of guys won't. In the game of baseball, free agency is what every major league player dreams of. You want to maximize your value, and of course I do, too. But what's important to me is, I want to be here. I love playing here. My family loves the city. I love the city. So when I made that statement, that's what I meant."
It's certainly good news for the Phillies, despite the fact that Shane is sort of taking a page from the free-agent-to-be-playbook, where one of the go-to moves is to gush about how much you love the city and the team in an attempt to curry even more favor with the fans so that the front office feels obligated to re-sign you, lest they face a mutiny. I mean, rarely does a pending free agent send vitriol towards the fans when he still has an entire season ahead of him.
Regardless, it feels like Shane actually wants to stay in Philly. And why not? He does a lot of charity work, he is on a great team, and he gets to play October baseball. There is no down side.
However, while Shane says that he wants to stay, it's not without conditions, the biggest (and only, really) is money. With a payroll that's only going to get bigger and (hopefully) a contract extension for Cole Hamels on the horizon, the Phillies aren't going to be flush with cash. And considering that Victorino is going to want a raise on his 2012 salary of $9.5 million, that is going to further complicate things. After all, a hometown discount only goes so far.
Added to the mix is the notion that whatever Shane's contract ends up being, it's going to be because of his performance over the past six years, because players rarely get better when they cross into their 30s. To that end, it's a matter of answering the question “Will Shane's performance over the next four or five years justify the salary that he earned thanks to the last six?”
I would love to see Victorino return after 2013, as most fans would. But at this point, it's certainly worth wondering whether or not a 32-year-old center fielder will be worth the cost.