Winter meetings another opportunity for Phillies to upgrade

Posted: December 03, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Opryland Hotel isn't so much a hotel as it is a cavernous, bright facility that looks as if it was destined for the Las Vegas strip but somehow ended up in Tennessee.

With its sprawling rooms on the first level, it's easy for a person to hide or get lost.

But the top executives from all of Major League Baseball's teams, including Phillies senior vice president and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., and a collection of the who's who of the sports-agent world will be able to locate one another. In the next 4 days, they also will have ample opportunities for face-to-face time in an effort to build new relationships, too.

A week removed from seeing division rivals Atlanta and Washington bolster their own rosters, the Phillies have a chance to make a few moves of their own as baseball's hot stove officially reaches a boil at the sport's annual winter meetings.

"There are heightened expectations on many fronts," Amaro said Sunday. "Agents want to get their clients situated, management wants to get their teams situated. So there's an environment to get things done prior to moving forward with the new year and spring training.

"You jump into the new year pretty quickly, with the WBC [World Baseball Classic] and spring training, so generally people like to have things accomplished as much as possible prior to that so-called holiday break."

While the Phils enter Nashville with more than a couple of holes to fill on their roster - most notably centerfield - there is no guarantee that they'll trade for or sign a player to fit those needs this week. If history is any indication, Amaro could lay the groundwork for something this week and complete it within the next 2 weeks, before Christmas.

Amaro signed Cliff Lee (Dec. 15, 2010) and Raul Ibanez (Dec. 12, 2008) after the meetings and also completed the intricate Roy Halladay trade (Dec. 16, 2009) afterward.

When the free-agent market opened last month, Amaro said he didn't think he had to "do anything big," despite that basically being his M.O. since taking over from Pat Gillick 4 years ago. As Amaro has explained it, the Phils already have hefty commitments to established stars, and the fate of the team will rest on those stars being both healthy and effective, something that didn't happen in 2012.

But the question begged to be asked: Do the Phillies have the wherewithal to add a big-ticket item this winter, even if Amaro doesn't deem it necessary?

"We have some flexibility, not a ton . . . but we have the flexibility to do what's necessary to make this club a contender," Amaro said. "It's a matter of making the right decisions now."

The right and wrong decisions in December can make or break a team in June and seal the eventual fate of a general manager, too.

But given Amaro's win-now moves in the last 4 years, and both ownership and the fan base's desire to see the team capitalize on the current core of the team (read: Utley, Howard, Hamels, Halladay, Rollins, etc), it would be surprising if the Phillies were not linked to big-ticket free-agent names this week. Names like Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn.

A report over the weekend linked the Phillies to another outfielder, former San Francisco Giants and New York Mets centerfielder Angel Pagan, but Amaro doesn't comment specifically on players or negotiations. And he has been known to surprise people in the past (welcome back, Cliff Lee).

The reality of the Phillies' payroll can't be ignored. When arbitration-eligible reliever Antonio Bastardo is signed (likely in the $1-$1.5 million range), the Phils will have a little more than $140 million committed to just 12 players, or less than half of a 25-man roster.

But Amaro has skated into this territory before.

When the Phils completed the free-agent deal for Lee, the contract had the former Cy Young Award winner making $11 million in 2011, the first year of the 5-year, $120 million deal. Lee made a team-high $21.5 million in 2012.

That kind of flexibility in putting together a contract (backloading money) is one way for the Phils to add another big name this winter. As it stands today, management will gain salary relief next winter, when Halladay, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz are all due to become free agents.

With younger teams in Washington and Atlanta not likely to go anywhere, the Phils reached a crossroads in a disappointing 2012 season. They finished with a .500 record and out of the postseason for the first time since 2006.

The higher-ups at One Citizens Bank Way don't want a rerun in 2013. So don't rule out a big splash-type move from Amaro before Christmas.

"We have to do what we can do," Amaro said. "Honestly, you have an eye on what other clubs are doing and how they're improving. But at the same time we have to put together the best club we can on the field to give ourselves a chance to contend. That's the goal every year, to contend to be a world champion. There's always urgency to that.

"But at the same time you have to do things intelligently and do things the right way. We're trying to explore and exhaust everything we can to do that."

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