Rich Hofmann: Not even Amaro knows whether Phillies are better

Ruben Amaro's one big splash this offseason was the signing of closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Ruben Amaro's one big splash this offseason was the signing of closer Jonathan Papelbon. (STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: February 10, 2012

OTHER THAN the closer - about whom you might only question the salary, not the performance - the Phillies have done their work this winter along the edges. They have tinkered with their 102-win team but done nothing bold. There was no Roy Halladay under the tree this year, no Cliff Lee. Even that excellent closer, Jonathan Papelbon, is only a marginal improvement over Ryan Madson at his best.

What they have done makes complete sense, adding power potential to the bench (with Jim Thome especially) and turning the bullpen into a crowded, competitive piece of real estate. But John Mayberry Jr.-for-Raul Ibanez in leftfield is a move that makes you nod your head more than clap your hands. Re-signing shortstop Jimmy Rollins, the entirely sensible thing to do, is a plus only when you consider the alternatives. And Ryan Howard will still be missing time at the start of the season with his Achilles', and everybody else in the core group is a year older, and you wonder.

For the first time in several years, you wonder:

Are they better?

"That's a good question," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Healthwise, I think we're a little bit better. I think we're more stable in rightfield [with 2011 trade-deadline acquisition Hunter Pence]. I think, defensively, we're probably a little bit better in leftfield at this stage of the game.

"But, overall, are we better? I don't know."

It is a recognition, more than anything, of the stature of the people in the lineup, the amount of money invested in them, and the time in the franchise's life cycle. This is a very good team, one for which the World Series is the only acceptable outcome, but the clock ticks.

A general manager is never done - and it is still the widespread belief that moves at the trade deadline, neat little moves after you find out what you really have, are crucial. At the same time, given this roster and this payroll, there is only so much the general manager can do. Put another way: When you're running Halladay, Lee and Cole Hamels out there, turn after turn, everything else does tend to fall into the next echelon.

At a certain point - say, this year or next year - this group will repeat the championship it won in 2008 or the historians will begin to do their work.

"It's hard to improve on 102 wins," Amaro said. "But I feel pretty comfortable with the back end of our bullpen. As far as Papelbon is concerned, what he's done and his track record, I'm pretty pleased about that. We came into the last season with [Brad] Lidge as our closer, and then we had three or four injuries. We lost everybody. We had [Jose] Contreras closing. We had [Antonio] Bastardo closing. We mixed it up, and then we had Ryan [Madson] take over. He got back and got healthy."

Again, there is no argument with Papelbon. Adding Chad Qualls, taking a flyer on Dontrelle Willis, just stacking up the bodies in the bullpen - it all makes sense. You see your problems and you do your best to fix what is fixable.

Power off the bench? Thome (although he will need to adjust to the pinch-hitting life). Speed off the bench? Juan Pierre. Versatility off the bench? Laynce Nix and Ty Wigginton. Check, check, check and check.

But can Chase Utley stay healthy and recover his power stroke? Will Howard be able to recover from his surgery and adjust at the plate, so he isn't so much about the feasts and the famines? Can Placido Polanco stay healthy and hit for a high average? And can this group as a whole find the balance between power and consistency that has become increasingly elusive the last 2 years?

Amaro has to assume it will happen because of the financial and emotional commitments the franchise has made to its core players. So when you ask him about his concerns, he points elsewhere - to his young pitchers, mostly.

"I'm paid to worry, I guess," Amaro said. "We'll see how guys like [Vance] Worley bounce back - sophomore year, second time. Guys like [Michael] Stutes and Bastardo, those guys who really pitched well for us. All three of them were outstanding for us. Hopefully, they've got a better level of confidence, but you never know how they'll react and how the league will adjust to them. We have to be aware of those.

"And you always have to kind of hope that somebody steps up - [Justin] DeFratus or [Phillippe] Aumont or whoever - if some guys falter . . . [Michael] Schwimer would be one of those guys, too."

But are they better? It is hard to know the answer when a great team is chasing greatness, and when nothing short of that will matter.

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