Contract or not, Charlie's ready

Posted: January 25, 2013

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - On a cold winter night, in a casino that stands in the shadow of a once-proud steel mill, a tinge of defiance crept into Charlie Manuel's voice. His eyebrows danced and his hands waved and his gaze bounced at the semi-circle of bodies that had formed around his frontside. One by one, he rattled off the names. Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland, Joe Girardi, hell, even Charlie Manuel were among the managers who had entered the final season of a contract without an extension in place.

"Look, do I want to manage the Phillies?" he said, his voice rising an octave. "You're damn right. I ain't ready to leave."

Manuel is well aware that plenty of folks on the outside of the Phillies organization have already begun to turn the page on the greatest era in franchise history. Earlier in the day, well before he made the trek to the Lehigh Valley to appear at one of the annual banquets the team stages in its minor league cities, news broke that the Braves had acquired star rightfielder Justin Upton and third baseman Chris Johnson from the Diamondbacks for a five-player package fronted by veteran third baseman Martin Prado and promising young right-hander Randall Delgado.

For most of the offseason, the Phillies have watched as some of their top competitors for the National League crown made themselves even more formidable with headline-making deals. The Nationals, who last season ended the Phillies' 5-year reign as NL East champions, acquired a trio of All-Stars in centerfielder Denard Span, starter Dan Haren and closer Rafael Soriano. The Dodgers added former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, while the Braves out-bid the Phillies for centerfielder B.J. Upton before landing his brother. The Diamondbacks made a dizzying series of moves that will likely result in a payroll increase of around $20 million.

Meanwhile, the Phillies remained on the periphery of it all, a place they have not often been since Amaro took the reins from Pat Gillick after the club's 2008 World Series victory. While they engaged in talks for the services of both Upton brothers at varying points in the offseason, they ended up settling for a handful of complimentary parts, including outfielder Delmon Young, who once upon a time was a teammate of fellow can't-miss-prospect B.J. Upton with the Rays.

For the first time since 2010, the Phillies are set to open a season with a payroll under $160 million, their current salary load of about $157 million well shy of last year's $172 million figure. Amaro says the drop in payroll is not out of necessity, that he is open to adding depth in the bullpen and behind the plate. The pre-August trade market is also a consideration.

"We're leaving ourselves some flexibility in the hopes that we can, at some point, if we need to, maybe add" to the roster, Amaro said.

But he also acknowledged that the Phillies are at a juncture that seemed almost inevitable as they were doling out big-money contracts to players like Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. This was an offseason that called for prudence, as a looming influx of national television money helped drive prices for a lackluster free-agent crop skyward. The Phillies had already spent their money, leaving them with little to do but search for value at the low end of the market and hope that the players they have already paid end up earning those checks.

Fair or not, that puts the spotlight on Manuel, and he'll be damned if he's going to melt into the curtain. One might argue that the fate of this Phillies season rests on factors well outside his control: on the health of Chase Utley's knees and Roy Halladay's shoulder, on the return of Ryan Howard to pre-surgery form, on the ability of mercurial talents like Young and Antonio Bastardo to reward the people who have been waiting for them to fulfill their potential.

There are some legitimate wild cards in young players like Darin Ruf and Domonic Brown and Ben Revere, players whose physical peak is still in front of them. On Thursday night, the wild cards were the ones that prompted Manuel's voice to quicken as he rattled off all of the unknowns that will start to be decided when spring training begins in 3 weeks.

The prevailing feeling inside the organization seems to be that Brown, who missed time with a knee injury last year and a thumb injury the year before, needs to keep himself on the field in order to win a job. There are some differing opinions on lineup construction, particularly with regard to the leadoff spot. The Phillies acquired Revere because they envisioned him as a leadoff hitter in the Michael Bourn mode. But Manuel isn't sold yet, and for good reason: Jimmy Rollins has power, which can help clear the bases of any slower runners who get on base at the bottom of the order. Revere has yet to show himself to be anything more than a singles hitter with speed.

Manuel did say that he is not married to the Utley-Howard combination in the middle of the order, that the righthanded Michael Young could hit second or third in addition to fifth. He left the sense that if the Phillies lose, his refusal to tinker will not be to blame.

"I like our team," the 69-year-old manager said, the defiance back again.

In the shadow of Bethlehem Steel, the mindset seemed clear: I'll be fighting the whole way.

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