Inside the Phillies: Amaro has Phils stuck between rebuilding and contending

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is resigned to putting the onus on his team's aging core.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is resigned to putting the onus on his team's aging core. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: December 16, 2013

There is time for Ruben Amaro Jr. to make the following words trivial. Pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater on Feb. 12, so the Phillies have a little less than two months to amend the Winter of Indifference. Chatter among the baseball world at last week's winter meetings sounded like, "What, exactly, is the Phillies' plan?" Then again, this franchise has operated rudderless since July 31, 2012.

You remember that day, the day the Phillies traded two-thirds of their outfield in the name of "payroll flexibility" and "deeper inventory." Amaro sat in the dugout at Nationals Park that day to tout the positives about trading Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino. He was asked whether he possessed the resources to sign a major free agent that winter. "Maybe more than one," he said.

The most money the Phillies have spent on one player since that day was the $27 million used to re-sign Chase Utley last August. They were reluctant to pay Pence the $13.8 million he made in 2013, and they filled his spot with Delmon Young. They have spent $26 million on Carlos Ruiz, $16 million on Marlon Byrd, $12 million on Mike Adams, and $6 million to trade for Michael Young.

Last week, it was not difficult to see through Amaro's words. There is no realistic sum of money that can improve this team by 17 wins and make it a contending team. The Phillies had the worst run differential in the National League last season; they were outscored by 139 runs. They were lucky to win 73 games.

Amaro is resigned to putting the onus on his aging core, with the hope that those players somehow recapture their better days. The Phillies will not spend their way out of this mess because it is irresponsible spending that landed them here.

Gone are the days of fretting about the luxury tax. The Phillies will spend well below the new threshold of $189 million. Amaro said he does not expect his payroll to eclipse last season's figure of approximately $165 million. The two 2012 trades were billed as a vehicle for reinvesting money, but the team's payroll has dipped ever since.

The Phillies, as they have been since July 31, 2012, are stuck between rebuilding and contending. Amaro has spent $69 million on Utley, Ruiz, and Byrd, all of whom will play next season at 35 or older. But he wants to jettison his overpaid and malcontent closer, Jonathan Papelbon. At the same time, he listens to offers for Domonic Brown, his best player under 30.

Amaro is right: The Phillies should be able to win with a payroll of $165 or $170 million. Just not with a team constructed like his. The Phillies are negotiating a new TV rights deal with Comcast SportsNet that could infuse silly sums of money. That has not factored into Amaro's decision-making.

He signed Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona) for $4.5 million because mid-rotation types such as Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Matt Garza are demanding unthinkable sums of money. That is a defensible strategy, although Hernandez becomes the Phillies' third No. 5 starter after Kyle Kendrick and Jonathan Pettibone.

Santana was nearly non-tendered by the Angels last winter. Jimenez's fine second half of 2013 hardly outweighs his previous 21/2 seasons of mediocrity. Garza has not made more than 24 starts in a season since 2011.

The problem is Amaro put himself in this position, much like he did when he re-signed Ruiz for $26 million. The Phillies need pitching. They have not developed it - with the exception of Vance Worley or Jarred Cosart, who slots into Houston's rotation next season.

(An aside: With Seth Rosin's departure in the Rule 5 draft, the lone piece from the package acquired for Pence that remains in the organization is catcher Tommy Joseph. The Phillies turned three top prospects - Cosart, Jonathan Singleton, and Domingo Santana - into Joseph plus one year of Pence.)

Days before last season ended, Amaro put forth his doctrine in a lengthy interview at Turner Field in Atlanta. He spoke about filling holes internally, and did not predict lavish expenditures. It was suggested to Amaro he sounded more like a man crossing his fingers with hopes the current roster would be better in 2014.

"No, I think we have to be careful about that," Amaro said. "We have to try to be creative, maybe a little more creative if we can. Can we go into the season and hope that our health holds up? We could. Is that the right thing to do? It may not be. We have to get better. We have to get better in a lot of areas."


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb inquirer.com/phillieszone

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