RUBEN AMARO JR. said it the day he was promoted to Phillies general manager. He has said it consistently since. And he said it again yesterday, on the verge of his first winter meetings running the team's baseball operations.

"Pitching continues to be the priority," is what he said.

Behind that familiar sentiment, though, is some solid thinking. Before last season, the Phillies had been a team that led the National League in runs scored . . . and either missed the playoffs entirely and made a hasty exit.

In 2008, they allowed 141 fewer runs than they did the previous year . . . and won the World Series for only the second time in franchise history.

Part of that almost-a-run-per-game differential can probably be attributed to improved defense, especially with Pedro Feliz taking over at third. But some of it simply underlined the adage that teams most often win with pitching.

So whether it's re-signing Jamie Moyer or courting free agent Derek Lowe or looking elsewhere, Amaro and his team of baseball people will look primarily for pitching after they check into the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas on Sunday.

"We have explored a variety of different ways to add pitching, especially starting pitching, and Jamie is not the only priority. So we've kept our options open as far as starting pitching is concerned," he amplified.

The fascinating subtext here is the growing impression that bringing back leftfielder Pat Burrell has been pushed far onto the back burner.

"I really couldn't put a percentage on it," Amaro said. "We haven't had a whole lot of substantive discussions with him. But that doesn't preclude us from bringing him back. It doesn't necessarily mean we won't bring him back. But, again, it's a slow-moving process. It's part of putting all the pieces together to have an improved product."

Fair enough. But the lack of serious talks seems to be a tipoff, since the new general manager also talked about how aggressive the Phillies have been and how he expects more of the same when the winter meetings officially get under way on Monday.

"I think it's going to be active, actually," he said. "We've had several trade discussions, we've had discussions with several free agents and their agents. It's been interesting. The last few years, the free-agent market hasn't really moved very quickly, and this is no exception.

"But I think teams start to feel like it's time to do what they need to do to improve their club as we get closer to Christmas. So there becomes maybe a little more urgency to move forward."

If Burrell doesn't return, Amaro is well aware that he'll be challenged to replace the 33 homers and 86 RBI that the former No. 1 draft choice and longest-tenured Phillie provided.

"It's obvious we have an outfield situation to deal with," he said, but declined to commit himself to any one approach, or even a righthanded bat to platoon with Greg Dobbs, Geoff Jenkins and/or Matt Stairs.

"It would be nice for [manager Charlie Manuel] to have that kind of balance in our lineup. Ideally, it would be nice," he said. "But as I've talked about in the bullpen, people say, 'You have to have a second lefthander.' Well, if that lefthander can't pitch, what's the point?"

This will be Amaro's 11th trip to the meetings as a Phillies executive, but his first as the man in charge.

"It's different, because the responsibility is different, obviously," he said. "But as I've said in the past, this is kind of a team effort. The final decisions fall on my plate, but certainly the support I'll get . . . it's certainly a team effort. So, hopefully, the decisions we make will be the right ones. They won't all be the right ones. But the goal remains the same, and that's to bring another championship to Philadelphia. That's the biggest goal we have, to do what we can to try and repeat."

Whether the Phillies can make the moves that will help make that happen is a question that will start being answered next week.

General hospital

Ruben Amaro Jr. said yesterday that the early indications on All-Star second baseman Chase Utley's recovery from hip surgery are positive.

"Chase has done quite well. We're really pleased with how things have progressed with Chase, even in the short time he's begun his rehab," he said.

He added, however, that the Phillies probably won't have a grip on how quickly Utley can return to the lineup until spring training.

"I think the doctor said it was right around 3 months [until] he's actually doing weight-bearing and baseball-type activities, where he can start running and those kinds of things," Amaro said.

"But it's a day-to-day process, it will be week-to-week and month-to-month. We'll monitor him and make sure he's rehabbing properly, and if we have to miss Chase for a couple weeks into the season or a month into the season, to know that he's going to be healthy for the next 5 months - or 6 months, hopefully - then we'll make sure that he's sound and cleared medically before he has to perform."

Amaro also said that third baseman Pedro Feliz (back surgery) is also making progress.

"Pedro should be fine," he said. "He's going to be rehabbing in San Francisco, at his home. We've got him set up there."

Phillers

Phillies minor leaguer Jason Donald is one of 24 players named to the Arizona Fall League's All-Prospect team after batting .407 with a .747 slugging percentage for the Mesa Solar Sox . . . Craig Colbert, who spent the last two seasons as bench coach for the San Diego Padres, was hired as the Phillies' advance scout. He replaces Hank King, who is now a pro scout . . . Tim Gradoville, who spent the last seven seasons in the Phillies' farm system, is the team's new bullpen catcher. *