Baseball's winter meetings start Monday at a San Diego waterfront hotel, and no man has a more unenviable position than Ruben Amaro Jr.
His 29 counterparts know the Phillies general manager is desperate to make a trade, to change his zombified roster. Teams looking for upgrades have prioritized non-Phillies players with better contract terms, more talent, or both. Their sound strategy is to lowball the Phillies.
And Amaro, who is under pressure to execute a transaction that jump-starts an arduous rebuilding process, has zero leverage. He will be criticized for not making a trade, and he will hear fury if the return on any deal is deemed inadequate.
The Phillies have no one else to blame. Amaro is in this position because of his miscalculations - and those by the executives and owners above him. The rest of baseball knows the situation, so good luck finding value.
There are trades that make sense for the Phillies. Marlon Byrd is righthanded. He has crushed 49 homers in the last two seasons, and righthanded power is the most sought-after commodity this winter. Yes, he is 37. Yes, his contract is hindered by an $8 million vesting option for 2016. Yes, the Phillies should still be able to flip him for something meaningful.
Carlos Ruiz will be a 36-year-old catcher next season, but he is a 36-year-old catcher with exemplary on-base skills. He has a good reputation with pitchers. There are few options for teams looking to upgrade at catcher. Antonio Bastardo can help a contender and is superfluous on a Phillies roster with five lefthanded relievers. Jonathan Papelbon and Ryan Howard are last-resort options for other teams.
Cole Hamels will be the rumor darling of these meetings, although the chatter will not be not legitimate until Jon Lester signs somewhere. The three clubs in the best position to engineer a Hamels trade - the Red Sox, Cubs, and Dodgers - are all interested in Lester, who is their priority because he will cost only dollars. Hamels will cost both money and prospects.
Two baseball sources said the Phillies are willing to assume money to facilitate trades - except for a Hamels deal. Hamels is owed $96 million. Team executives believe Hamels is an exceptional talent, one who should not be subsidized. That is a strategy that could require an adjustment, especially if it is money that prevents the Phillies from receiving the bounty of prospects they crave.
The teams that fail to sign Lester are under no obligation to meet the Phillies' demands. The trade market is saturated with pitchers, specifically ones with more favorable contract terms. Plus, Max Scherzer and James Shields are available to sign; each could command more money than what remains on Hamels' deal.
An active winter meetings, even if the Phillies are not involved, benefits Amaro. The teams who miss on their top targets can examine their third, fourth, and fifth options. (Read: Phillies.) With fewer players available through free agency, the pool of desperate teams grows beyond the Phillies. That could prompt a trade match.
"Yeah, I think so," Amaro said last week. "Most clubs are valuing their prospects very highly, which is understandable. As a result, they are more apt to sign players in free agency rather than give up talent for them. That's understandable. That's the day and age we live in now."
The general manager's tone has changed since July. Less than an hour after the trade deadline passed without a single Phillies transaction, Amaro blamed the rest of Major League Baseball for his inactivity.
"We were looking for players that would help us, but I think we were very reasonable in the discussions that we had," Amaro said July 31. "Frankly, I don't think the clubs were aggressive enough for the talent we have on our club."
Perhaps, Amaro decided, that was not the finest strategy for engaging future trade partners.
Still, various unnamed executives have groused to a national writer every few weeks about Amaro's unrealistic demands this offseason. Numerous teams have made trades - including ones that involve prospects - this winter, which either speaks to the flawed roster assembled by Amaro or his negotiating skills.
The question is whether Amaro capitulates, although the names Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and J.C. Ramirez provide a harsh reminder of what happens when a GM settles for a trade.