By MIKE HAINES
There might be no fans in sports riding as high right now as Philadelphia Phillies fans.
Over the past five years the Fightins' have taken a step up in class. They developed a core of players, kept them together into their primes and entered the world of big market teams.
Don't forget, it wasn't long ago that offseason aquisitions were guys like Adam Easton or Billy Wagner. Even Jim Thome seemed like a reach, but luckily he worked out well. They would aqcuire those types of so-so players every year and sell them to the fan base as if they were going to propel the team into contention.
Those days are over. Now the Phils go after the big-name player and get them. Cliff Lee in the stretch run last year. Roy Halladay this offseason. Guys that would have been their biggest acquisitions in long-ago offseasons, guys like Brad Lidge, Jose Contreras and Raul Ibanez are now just pieces of the puzzle. They are just players to fill in the gaps left between the homegrown talent that's gotten this team into two straight world series and brought a title-starved city its first championship parade since 1983.
Since the core of this team began moving up to the big leagues the team's been in contention. Before the championships season there were two September rallies that fell just short of a playoff spot. Those seasons left title-desperate fans heartbroken.
Since then the team has delivered fans everything they could want. They assembled a group of hard-working players who, win or lose, seem to give everything they have every night, which is the first thing their fan base wants.
Over the past two years the Phils have become the National League's dominant team. They're the heavy favorite to get back to the World Series. they're now mentioned with powerhouse team like the Red Sox and Yankees.
But with big-market success comes big market issuess. The Phils have done a great job of locking up their top talent. Most of their starters are locked into long term deals. The signing of Ryan Howard to a huge contract has brought on speculation about two popular outfielders, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth.
In January, Victorino signed a huge three-year deal worth $22 million. Werth is on a one-year contract and will be a free agent at the end of this season. With Werth being projected for a huge free agent payday, the prevailing opinion was that his days in Philadelphia were coming to an end. As much as the team spends money, it reportedly holds to a $140 million self-imposed salary cap and signing Werth would put it well over.
With Victorino's new contract locking him up for the next several years and Ibanez signed through the 2011 season, most speculation heading into this season projected Werth to be the odd man out in the Phillies' outfield.
That theory might be changing, however. There are now rumors circulating that the Phillies are considering dealing Victorino so they can sign Werth.
You can make a case for keeping both players.
Werth is hitting as well anyone on the team this season and protects Howard in the batting order. He gives you a great combination of speed and power and could potentially be a 30 home run, 30 stolen base player. Victorino's strengths include being able to hit almost anywhere in the line up, being a Gold Glove centerfielder, and bringing tremendous energy to the line-up.
It's a difficult decision and one that the Phillies' brass will be putting a lot of time into figuring out over the next several months.
As that situation is playing out, the Phillies will being going after their fourth straight National League East Division title, their third straight National League pennant, and their second World Series championship in the last three seasons.
That type of recent success has brought huge expectations. Fans want more from the No. 2-5 starting pitchers, especially Hammels and Moyer. They want a more solid bullpen. And they want the Mets far in the rear view mirror.
Expectations are high for this season. Players, fans and Phils front office all expect another title this year and to be in contention for the next few. If the Phillies keep signing their star players to long term deals and continue making key free agent signings, there a good chance it will work out. That means Phillies fans should be riding high for the next few years.