Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard...
For 44 consecutive playoff games, that "core four" of the Philadelphia Phillies have filled out Charlie Manuel's lineup card. Quite often it was in that order. But the order of their importance for each of those 44 games has switched each game.
It's the group with which they have won five divisions, two pennants and a World Championship.
It’s the group that would allow them to continue to win for the next few years.
Jimmy Rollins got a five-year deal, then a three-year deal. Chase Utley got a seven-year deal. Ryan Howard got a three-year deal, then a five-year deal. Victorino? Just a three-year deal so far from the Phillies, and he is entering the final year of his deal.
Why not give Victorino another deal?
If this is the group they chose to win and lose with, given the long-term deals they already have in place, why not stick with it? Especially if the only person not under contract for the long term is the one best suited to retain, all things considered?
Victorino, in addition to playing in the center of the field, has been in the center of the Phillies' playoff success in recent years. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone more involved with the success of the team than Victorino.
What was their biggest year of success? 2008. Think about his grand slam off C.C. Sabathia in 2008 that indicated that the Phillies weren't just a team that snuck in the playoffs, they were a team that were going to take advantage of anything you gave them.
There was his tremendous catch to rob Casey Blake, the tying run, in Game 2 of the NLCS that same year and preserve the game to give Philadelphia a 2-0 series lead. There was game-tying home run in the huge Game 4. He got things started in Game 5 of the World Series with a clutch bases-loaded hit.
In other years, there still were plenty of Victorino moments that coincided with the fight the Phillies were demonstrating. You may forget because of the end result and how long ago it was, but remember he had that big home run against the Rockies in 2007 in an elimination game? That tied the score and kept the Phillies, although temporarily, alive.
More recently, Victorino was the one who finally broke through on Kyle Lohse this year in the opening game of the playoffs to get the Phillies on the board.
He is a guy that has proved many times that he will contribute to winning baseball. He also is a source of fight and energy. Too often, he's actually the only source of the two, which makes him all the more important.
It's hard to find a reason not to keep him.
It’s pretty clear he is the only one still in his prime, unless Ryan Howard’s Achilles makes a big recovery and his power returns. In fact, Victorino seems to only get better each season. In 2011, he seemed to have a more all-around game. There was even national talk as late as the last few weeks in August that he was the National League’s MVP. And that’s on a 102-win team.
It was his second All-Star season, and he probably would have extended his streak of Gold Gloves had he hit as many home runs as Matt Kemp (that’s a whole other issue). Until last year, Victorino had won a National League Gold Glove in every season as a starting center fielder.
He also showed his speed is still there, leading the league in triples for the second time in three years, legging out an impressive 16 triples in only 132 games. His total stolen bases were down because of where he hit in the lineup and who was in front of him on the bases (Howard and his bad foot/leg), but Victorino had success when he could run and raised his stolen base percentage of success.
Clearly, Victorino is not on the decline. People may tend to group him with guys like Utley in terms of age because it feels like Victorino has been here just as long, but Victorino is only 31. He actually just turned 31 this offseason. He still has a good amount of solid baseball left in him.
Off the field, there is plenty to like about Victorino. There's his community involvement, which is exceptional. He is a leader by voice and example. He's one of the few players on the team that will actually speak. On a team with a lot of robot-like personalities, that's a good thing to have.
These qualities at the very least negate any second thoughts teams may have about keeping or adding a player. From an investment standpoint, there is not much to not like.
And as it is an investment, why not set yourself up now with some certainty? Who knows if Hunter Pence will be here when the team loses control of him in 2013? He could be in line for a big pay day. And will John Mayberry Jr. and Domonic Brown manning the other spot work out in the long run? Again, it is not as certain as Victorino could be.
So what's wrong with signing him at to a deal similar to Rollins for the next three, maybe four seasons? In the worst-case scenario, if Victorino declines slightly, he is a player that could easily transition to being a starting right fielder, much like the move Torii Hunter made.
But again, that is in the unlikely event given his age. Signing him for three more years takes him to age 34, which covers the final stage of his prime before his decline.
That being the case, this spring is the time to act on a deal. You do not want Victorino to even touch the open market for a number of reasons, the first being that you do not want to risk exposing him to the poor center-field market following the 2012 season.
Assume the Yankees will pick up Curtis Granderson's option and keep him in New York. After that, the only names that will be on the market that are even worth mentioning are Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Marlon Byrd and Grady Sizemore. Unless Sizemore puts together a normal, healthy season (which is unlikely), Victorino will be the best available center fielder. That means he is the Phillies' best option.
Upton stinks, Bourn probably won't even be available and Byrd is too old and inconsistent.
Down on the farm, the Phillies don't have much to replace him with anyway. Tyson Gilles isn't ready and won't be in one year. Mayberry patrolling center field full-time is not a very comforting thought, and the same goes for shifting Pence to center. Can they make a trade? Sure, but that only destroys the farm system even more.
Not only does not much being out there mean they can't replace him if they wait to sign him, but by the time they realize this, his price will become inflated. We've seen Phillies outfielders leave before once they hit the open market in guys like Aaron Rowand, Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth. Rowand and Werth left for more money, in part because they weren't signed. Burrell left for less money, but could he have been upset that the Phillies did not already have him locked up? Either way, looking at the alternatives and their inflating payroll, the Phillies do not want to play games here.
That is why this spring, before the season even starts, is the time to sit down with Shane Victorino and work out a deal. He is part of the core with which they've won and will have to be part of the core for them to win with in the future. He's not replaceable.
He's been overlooked because of Cole Hamels' expiring contract, but what makes Hamels a bigger need to address? It's really hard to find one, especially if you can sign a Victorino and another player with the same money you would dedicate to Hamels to pitch every fifth day.
Victorino has played in 44 consecutive playoff games with the core. Hamels? He's pitched in only 12 of those games, averaging roughly six innings per game in those starts and is arguably much more replaceable. This is not to say they should ignore signing Hamels, but Victorino should be the first thing to take care of and everything else will fall into place.
The Dodgers overlooked Victorino already in his career, and the Phillies benefited from that. Don't make the same mistake and let another team snatch him. Get a deal done, and do it before it's too late.