Inside the Phillies: A pivotal offseason awaits Phillies' Amaro

Texas slugger Josh Hamilton is among the pricey and risky free agents who could provide outfield help for the Phillies, who also must fill a hole at third base.
Texas slugger Josh Hamilton is among the pricey and risky free agents who could provide outfield help for the Phillies, who also must fill a hole at third base. (CHARLIE RIEDEL / Associated Press)
Posted: September 10, 2012

It is going to be a difficult and defining offseason for Ruben Amaro Jr.

For the first time during his tenure as Phillies general manager, Amaro will not have the benefit of the doubt or a division title as he goes about the business of putting together the 2013 Phillies.

The Phillies are going to finish first in the big leagues in attendance for the second straight season, but that trend will not continue without a rapid rise back to the top of the National League East. That is no easy task when you consider the youth and talent of the two teams - Washington and Atlanta - currently in front of them.

The Nationals have five regulars and an entire starting rotation under the age of 30. Most of their prominent relievers are also under 30. The Braves are not quite as young or as talented, but they have more good, young players than the Phillies. Even after a roster revamp, the Phillies are likely to have at least four regulars over the age of 30 and a rotation that includes two pitchers in their mid-30s - Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay - who spent time on the disabled list this season.

Given the hoopla about the Four Aces the Phillies had going into the 2011 season, it's amazing to think that the Phillies now have the second-best starting rotation in their own division, but that is the truth of the matter.

Amaro has said several times that he intends to use free agency as a tool to improve the roster, and you don't need a GM degree from Doubleday University to identify the Phillies' greatest needs.

You might need one, however, to figure out the best way of improving the situation at third base and the outfield.

When Amaro looks at the potential free-agent third basemen, he is rightfully unimpressed. That is a big reason why he is so intrigued by the prospect of Chase Utley's moving to third base. It's a move that would give the Phillies far more extra-base power at the position than they have had this season.

How bad has it been?

The Phillies had a total of four home runs from their third basemen heading into the weekend, the lowest total in the major leagues. As well as Kevin Frandsen has done since taking over for Placido Polanco, he had only five extra-base hits - three doubles, one triple, and one home run - in 128 at-bats through Thursday.

Still, it's an ultra-risky proposition to think that a guy who hasn't been ready to play a familiar position at the start of the last two seasons is going to be ready to play an unfamiliar one by next April.

The thinking is that if Utley can play third, then Freddy Galvis can play second and the 2013 infield is set. Unless the New York Yankees decline Robinson Cano's 2013 option (not happening), the free-agent class at second base is even worse than it is at third.

Galvis played second base as well as anybody in the big leagues before he fractured his back and drew a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's substance abuse policy. His bat, however, was among the weakest at his position.

Through Friday, Galvis' .617 OPS ranked 33d among big-league second basemen with at least 200 plate appearances and his .254 on-base percentage was 37th. Those numbers also accentuate the value of Utley at second base. Despite his .239 batting average, Utley's .344 on-base percentage ranked eighth in baseball among second basemen with 200 PAs and his .789 OPS ranked third. Move Utley to third base and his rankings would drop to 14th in on-base percentage and 16th in OPS.

The point is, there may be no great solution to the Phillies' immediate problem at third base. Given the talent pool in free agency and the possibility that minor-leaguers Cody Asche or Maikel Franco could be the long-term solution at third base, a one-year stopgap appears to be the best alternative.

Free agency could be a good place for outfield help, but it's going to be pricey and risky because guys like Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher, and maybe Curtis Granderson (the Yankees have a $15 million option) all have issues or flaws.

Still, it seems likely the Phillies will pursue at least one of those big names.

Get it right and the Phillies could be back on top of the NL East by next season. Get it wrong and Amaro could be stuck with a contract albatross that haunts him for years to come.

Standing pat does not appear to be an option, however. As well as John Mayberry Jr. has performed since the departures of Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence, it would be foolish to think he is anything more than a bench/platoon player. The Phillies were fooled by Mayberry's hot second half last year. They cannot allow it to happen again.

If Amaro decides to count on Domonic Brown to play one of the corner outfield positions, he had better be sure he has significantly improved the team at other positions in case the young outfielder disappoints him.

Double-A power phenom Darin Ruf will likely get a big-league look as soon as Reading is eliminated from the Eastern League playoffs, but he'll have to show a lot in a small amount of time to make Amaro believe he is the solution in left field.

Spend wisely (think better than Chad Qualls) and the Phillies can also improve their bullpen through free agency. Mike Adams, Ryan Madson, and Jason Grilli are all interesting names that could hit the open market in November.

Amaro got too many things wrong last offseason and then too much went wrong from the start of spring training. It was a combustible combination that buried the Phils before the all-star break. Soon, Amaro will get his mulligan, and he absolutely cannot afford to shank it out of bounds.

Inside the Phillies: Production Line: It's Not Enough

It's well-known that the Phillies have had offensive production problems at a number of positions this season. Here's a look at several National League statistical rankings at each position through Thursday's games. Rankings are in parenthesis.

Position   2B   HR   RBI    Avg.    On-base    OPS

Catcher   41 (1st)   22 (3d)   83 (4th)   .310 (2d)   .373 (1st)    .899 (1st)

First base    21 (16th)    23 (4th)    81 (6th)    .250 (12th)   .320 (12th)    .746 (11th)

Second base    31 (T-5th)    16 (4th)    68 (5th)    .249 (13th)   .308 (14th)    .727 (6th)

Shortstop    32 (6th)    17 (4th)    55 (8th)    .240 (11th)   .300 (10th)    .704 (7th)

Third base    21 (15th)    4 (16th)    34 (16th)    .259 (11th)   .306 (14th)    .630 (15th)

Left field    21 (15th)    9 (15th)    54 (14th)    .274 (7th)    .326 (8th)    .702 (10th)

Center field    27 (4th)    16 (T-4th)    59 (5th)   .271 (T-7th)   .331 (7th)    .762 (6th)

Right field    22 (14th)    20 (6th)    71 (7th)    .256 (T-12th)    .321 (T-14th)   .739 (13th)

Source: Elias Sports Bureau - Bob Brookover

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