The public perception of Amaro's first offseason in charge has been largely positive: In a little more than 3 months, he and assistant general managers Chuck LaMar, Benny Looper and Scott Proefrock have signed key contributors Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Ryan Madson and Jamie Moyer to multiyear deals, while settling 10 potential arbitration cases before they reached the table.
They have added one of the top corner outfielders on the market in Raul Ibanez, while also expanding the payroll to in excess of $130 million. They have improved their overall organizational depth, particularly in the bullpen and the infield. But while the heavy personnel lifting has already been accomplished - the one glaring omission, a righthanded bat for the bench, is still on their radar - the real test of the team's fortunes begins tomorrow when pitchers and catchers have their first workout in Florida.
Over the next 7 weeks, the Phillies will attempt to turn their focus solely on the coming season, something that hasn't been easy for previous champions.
The last team to repeat was the Yankees, who won three straight titles from 1998-2000. The last National League club to do so was the Reds in 1975-76.
Humans are logical creatures by nature, and we have spent the better part of our existence attempting to find concrete explanations for the phenomena that surround us.
In reality, though, winning and losing are abstractions, and thus any attempt to fit them into a logical proof is an exercise in futility.
Regardless, that is what we will try to do.
How might the Phillies overcome the parity that seems to have swept the game, so that they make sure there is not another title drought coming? Our five-point plan begins.
1. Put 2008 behind you - mentally and physically
Early spring-training small talk generally starts with the question, "How was your offseason?" This past week, as players and coaches and support staff trickled into Clearwater, the answer was usually one word.
While you won't find anybody willing to trade a World Series ring for an extra month of vacation, the fact that the Phillies' offseason started in early November rather than late September should not go unnoticed. In a recent Daily News story, various championship-winning general managers cited fatigue as a big factor in their clubs' struggle to repeat the following season. Combined with the World Baseball Classic and the potential absences of such key contributors as Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz, the offseason and spring training were and will be anything but routine. The pitchers had an extra month's worth of competition on their arms and a month less to recover from it. Players such as Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz had their surgeries a month later. Add in the banquets, talk shows and other publicity appearances that came in the wake of the World Series, and the recipe could be one for a doozy of a hangover.
Righthander Chad Durbin, who led all National League relievers with 87 2/3 innings pitched, relied on the advice of postseason veterans, including closer Brad Lidge and former Tigers teammate Todd Jones. Jones' advice: Don't skimp on rest. The veteran closer, who played in the World Series in 2006, told Durbin to start his normal offseason routine a full month later to account for the postseason. Durbin did, postponing the resumption of his throwing routine from early December to early January.
And speaking of Durbin . . .
2. Get a repeat performance out of your bullpen
Chad Durbin was one of two Phillies relievers who finished in the top five in the National League in innings pitched last season, joining Ryan Madson, whose 82 2/3 innings ranked fifth. Both players were big reasons why the Phillies' bullpen led all NL staffs with a 3.22 ERA.
The Phillies lost only nine games last season when leading after the seventh inning, and went 79-0 when leading after the eighth. Brad Lidge went a perfect 41-for-41 in save opportunities during the regular season.
With lefthander J.C. Romero suspended for the first 50 games of the season because of a positive drug test that all parties seem to agree came from a tainted supplement, others will have to pick up the slack.
The good news is that the Phillies added righthander Chan Ho Park, and that lefthander Scott Eyre should be relatively fresh (the Cubs used him sparingly before trading him to the Phillies in August).
Eyre was a pivotal performer last season and, with Romero out, will have an even more important role early this season. The good news, of course, is that Romero should be fresh when he rejoins the team.
The Phillies will continue to look to upgrade their bullpen throughout spring training, much as they did last year, when they signed veteran Rudy Seanez at the start of the regular season.
3. Avoid injuries
Even in hindsight, the Phillies' run to the World Series was remarkable, considering some of the personnel issues they endured. Starters Brett Myers, Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton all lost their jobs at various points in the season, while regulars Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell all hit below their career averages. The biggest reason they were able to overcome? The overall health of the team. While Rollins, centerfielder Shane Victorino, closer Brad Lidge, setup man Tom Gordon and rightfielder Jayson Werth all spent time on the disabled list, the Phillies avoided the type of calamitous injury that can derail an entire season (see 2007, when the defending champion Cardinals lost ace Chris Carpenter for the season with an elbow injury on Opening Day).
The Phillies already are starting behind the eight ball in this department, as starting third baseman Pedro Feliz and Utley continue to rehab from offseason surgeries. Feliz is expected to be ready for Opening Day after back surgery, but Utley could miss some time early in the season as he recovers from a hip procedure in late November.
4. Improve internally
It takes talent to win a World Series, but the flip side is that talent has to be paid. As a result, the Phillies' payroll will increase roughly $30 million this season, despite the fact that their lone high-profile free-agent signing was a 3-year, $31.5 million contract given to Raul Ibanez.
The arrival of the lefthanded-hitting Ibanez combined with the departure of righthanded Pat Burrell will give the heart of the order a different feel: Ibanez has the reputation of being more consistent, but the Phillies will miss Burrell's righthanded power. Otherwise, it will be up to the Phillies to improve internally. Perhaps the biggest flaw with the team last year was its struggle to move runners over and manufacture runs. Though the Phillies think Ibanez will help in that department, much of the improvement will have to come from within. Chase Utley's hip injury hampered him for much of last season, so it is reasonable to expect that his play at the plate will improve. First baseman Ryan Howard slugged 48 home runs last season, but there is plenty of room for improvement in his contact numbers (.251 batting average, .339 on-base percentage). And shortstop Jimmy Rollins' 11 home runs were the second-fewest of his career. If any one of the those players turns in the season he is capable of (think Howard and Utley in 2006 and Rollins in 2007), the odds of repeating will improve drastically.
Constructing a squad that is capable of repeating requires a delicate balance of stability and change. The Phillies are hoping that they struck that balance this offseason, retaining every significant position player besides Pat Burrell, while also adding some fresh blood in Raul Ibanez and righthander Chan Ho Park. From a chemistry standpoint, Ibanez would appear to be the only significant wrinkle, although players who have played with him say he will fit right in to the Phillies' clubhouse. Chemistry - both on the field and in the clubhouse - played a big role in the Phillies' performance down the stretch. The suspension of J.C. Romero and the competition for the No. 5 spot in the rotation, the losers of which could find themselves in the bullpen, will provide another dimension to monitor.
Whatever happens, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his new staff have done an impressive job of keeping last year's championship squad together. How the new additions - think J.A. Happ, Park and Ibanez - assimilate into the fold will play a big role in 2009. *