Bob Ford: Do Phillies need big changes or small?

Posted: October 05, 2012

The concourse at Citizens Bank Park was clean and still Thursday afternoon. The small concession stands were wheeled together in tight formations like covered wagons hunkered down for a long storm.

Against a wall, two enormous carts were loaded with hundreds of gallon-sized ketchup and mustard containers. Maybe they will be wheeled off to a special condiment retirement facility somewhere or maybe they will be shipped to winter ball to work on their dispensing. Couldn't hurt.

On the field, one grounds crew worker cut the grass in slow, languid passes. There was no hurry, no bustle, no buzz, unlike the days just after the regular season ended for the previous five years. There was no bunting to hang from the railings, no postseason logos to paint on the grass. There was only the tedious packing at the end of a dispiriting season and the rows and rows of empty seats facing in rigid formation at the emptiness.

The Phillies finished the 2012 season in Washington on Wednesday with an 81-81 record. They finished it during a series in which they watched the Nationals - the Nationals! - become the first team not named the Phillies to win the division since 2006. It is also the only first full-season division title in the 44-year history of the Montreal/Washington franchise, so maybe that team was due. Everything has to happen eventually, something the Phillies found out this season.

The question is whether the Phils need only a minor course correction and some better luck in 2013 or whether they need to burn the old road maps and start over. That's not a question general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. can answer, even if he were so inclined. He would have to know how quickly the franchise's top prospects can contribute and how long the veteran core can continue to play at a contending level.

It is a tricky balancing act Amaro has to engineer as he plugs gaps on the free agent and trade markets. What sort of team does he have? A team that needs two years to retool, which would make the veterans superfluous, or a team that can be tuned up quickly and put back on the road?

"I think we're going to be transitioning into some younger players in certain areas . . . but there is urgency. Our core guys are not getting any younger," Amaro said Thursday when he and manager Charlie Manuel held a wrap-up press conference. "The bottom line is this: If the players we paid a great deal of money do not perform next year, we're going to be in trouble. We think they will, and we're hopeful they're healthier. But we need to support them better and that's kind of my job to be able to try to do that."

The Phils are committed to $128 million in payroll for Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins in 2013. The average age on opening day for that group is 33. So, yes, there is urgency. And, yes, because the Phillies stayed under the luxury tax threshold by dumping Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton at the trade deadline, Amaro should have some financial flexibility in stocking the roster this offseason.

Using that money correctly is the trick. Right now, according to Amaro, the Phillies are encouraged by the quality and depth of their ready or near-ready pitchers. They could assume that the bullpen and the back end of the rotation doesn't need a lot of help for 2013, although that assumption turned out to be disastrous for 2012.

Even if that is the case, Amaro still needs to find a third baseman and two outfielders at the very least. There are some possibilities out there, although Amaro is underwhelmed by the free-agent market. They need right-handed power at the plate and they need it to come with solid fielding attached. That's not an easy exacta to hit.

"I think we're going to have to be kind of creative. I don't know how creative I can be, but we'll try," Amaro said. "I think we still have a very, very talented group of core players. We have to be cognizant of age and health . . . clearly. It kind of bit us this year."

One more bite and the meal is really over. The broom will sweep through and there's no telling who might be brushed out the next time the quiet concourse signals another brooding October.

It appears that Manuel will manage out the final year of his contract, with Ryne Sandberg waiting for his turn. If the Phillies play with their heads engaged with their rear ends again, as they did too often in 2012, that turn might come even sooner.

As it is, following this week's coaching changes, Manuel will be operating without a bench coach next season. That doesn't seem likely, so perhaps there are other shoes left to drop. For the first time in six years, the organization has a very long offseason to figure out that kind of thing.

The figuring better start quickly, however, if the intention is to fix what is broken right away rather than replace it over time. Amaro probably has one shot at keeping the thing going. After that, the empty concourse will seem too familiar for anyone's good.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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