Inside the Phillies: Amaro's taking a chance with 'bold' offseason moves

Second baseman Chase Utley got a contract extension from general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., even though he turns 35 this month and has a chronic condition in both knees.
Second baseman Chase Utley got a contract extension from general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., even though he turns 35 this month and has a chronic condition in both knees. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 09, 2013

Bold best describes what Ruben Amaro Jr. has done so far in putting together the 2014 Phillies and it sure is appropriate that the word ends with the letters O-L-D.

The construction of this team essentially started in August, when the general manager decided the proper course of action was to extend the contract of second baseman Chase Utley, a man who turns 35 this month and missed huge chunks of time in 2011 and 2012 because of a chronic condition that has invaded both of his knees. That was the signal the Phillies would be moving forward by hanging on to the past.

You may not like the idea, you may be ready to move on, but you cannot argue that Amaro's approach is anything other than bold. It is, in fact, the very definition of the word.

Bold - (adjective) not afraid of danger or difficult situations; very confident in a way that may seem rude or foolish.

Going old at this stage of his tenure as Phillies general manager is as bold as it gets for one major reason. In case you had not noticed - rest assured Amaro has - the general manager's approval rating right now would make President Obama feel much better about his own dwindling popularity.

There were a few things Amaro could have done differently in putting together the 2014 Phillies that would have had better appeal to the masses. Instead of extending Utley, he could have tried to convince his bosses that Robinson Cano was the free agent the Phillies had to sign in order to resurrect the decaying offense. Sure, it cost Seattle $240 million over 10 years for this year's premier free agent, but that's the kind of deal big-time teams like the Phillies are supposed to be making.

The logical counterpoint is that the Los Angeles Angels have tried that approach the last two offseasons and still been left watching the postseason. Amaro also could have bid for centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury or catcher Brian McCann. Whether you think the Yankees spent too much on Ellsbury and McCann is irrelevant. They used their money muscle and got considerably better at two positions that were a serious weakness in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Phillies re-signed 35-year-old catcher Carlos Ruiz and added free agent Marlon Byrd, 36, to play right field. Adding old to old equals bold, especially when you factor in some of the recent marks on Byrd's resumé.

It's obvious that Amaro still believes in the guys who turned Citizens Bank Park into a special place. That allegiance could end up being the thing that brings him down, but give him credit in believing in the men who built the empire. If 2014 looks anything like 2013, the cacophony aimed at the general manager will likely reach Ed Wade decibel levels.

The other thing Amaro could have done differently is just go young. Instead of signing Byrd, he could have said he was going to take a chance on Darin Ruf as the rightfielder. Instead of Utley, he could have gone with Freddy Galvis or Cesar Hernandez at second base. If it didn't work, he at least had the built-in excuse that the Phillies are trying to build for a better tomorrow. You can't use that one when you're about to trot out a lineup with four guys who are 35 or older and a 34-year-old first baseman who has missed 193 games the last two seasons.

Amaro and the Phillies will spend this week at the winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and the rest of this offseason trying to tinker with the roster.

"We're trying to add pitching," Amaro said. "There are a couple of other things we'd like to improve like our bench and the versatility of our outfield, but I think pitching has to be our priority."

The hitting, as Cole Hamels so bluntly stated, also needs improvement, but that's going to happen only if the old guys can recapture the past. Amaro will no doubt try to do something creative, but that will require parting ways with Domonic Brown, one of the three players under the age of 30 that project to be in the opening-day lineup.

That, too, would be bold.

So would trading closer Jonathan Papelbon. Fox Sports reported on Friday that the Phils are "trying" to trade the veteran, who was mentioned in rumors near the trade deadline last season.

It seems likely that Amaro will add a starter and a couple of relievers before the new year and there is no reason the Phillies cannot or should not pursue Japan's Masahiro Tanaka, a 25-year-old righthander who went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season. Big-market teams make that kind of move, and when you have a bunch of 30-somethings this is no time to stop acting like a big-market team.

In fact, persuading his bosses to do whatever it takes to make that move would be Amaro's boldest and best move of the offseason. It would also be the best way for his aging team to become relevant again. With Tanaka and Cuban Miquel Alfredo Gonzalez joining Hamels, Cliff Lee, and the old-man lineup, there would be a real mystique about the 2014 Phillies heading into spring training.

At the moment, they're just an old team with a bold GM.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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