THE LAST PLACE Ruben Amaro needs to be at his first winter meetings as Phillies GM is over a barrel. But Jamie Moyer has Junior spreadeagled over a gilded container befitting the pagan glitter of the Bellagio, a sinfully plush Las Vegas palace where card-shark agents are going all in while cautious general managers try to maintain a poker face.

As the new GM in town, Amaro needs to make a splash in a town where some fountains hold enough water to be reservoirs for medium-sized towns. And that is a need aimed at silencing the sharks who have never cared for the former batboy and reserve outfielder who served a 10-year apprenticeship at the feet of Ed Wade and Hall of Fame-bound Pat Gillick.

Now, he's more than the designated flak catcher sent out to the big rooms to comment on small news, to no-comment on trade rumors, to take questions on minor transactions, to provide updates on rehabbing players. Gillick was not comfortable as the point man - he's still at the top of the Phillies' speed dials as an adviser - and likes to do his work without close media scrutiny.

Amaro has learned the art of no-comment-but-I'll-say-a-few-words-just-to-make-you-happy. "We're here to try to improve our ballclub," is a generic staple of winter meeting-speak and if the 30 assembled GMs had card readers on their backs, media members could swipe a preprogrammed card and receive a menu of choices. "For rumor denials, press 1." "For club needs, press 2." "For a list of agent appointments, press 3." "To actually speak to the general manager, press 4." "For all other information, press 5 and a media-relations person will assist you."

Meanwhile, a 46-year-old lefthander holds the world champions hostage.

The Phillies would like to have him back. Exactly six NL pitchers won more than Moyer's 16 games. His 16-7, 3.71 ERA record pitching in a home bandbox is a remarkable feat for any pitcher of any era, any age. The last time Steve Carlton won more than 15 games was 1982. Lefty was 37 years old. By the time the Hall of Famer was Moyer's age, he was a memorabilia-show veteran. Jamie does his ball signing while in uniform.

In practical baseball necessity, Moyer represents the biggest winner on a staff that sliced through the postseason like the sword of Damocles (Psi Young Award winner in 350 BC). Everybody knows that Cole Hamels is the ace and will go to spring training with enough money in his contract to rebuild every school in Mumbai. But he was 14-10. The offense didn't back him the way it backs Moyer, for some reason. I am starting to believe that many offenses swoon when playing behind their No. 1 pitching stud for a simple reason: They are out in the field watching opposing hitters flail at their ace's excellent stuff. And it is human nature to say, "Man, this hitting is tough. How the hell could I hit a pitch like that changeup Hamels just threw?"

The proof the great ones provide about how tough it is to hit in the big leagues fills the lineup's heads with negative thoughts. Or, as Yogi Berra said, "Who can think and hit at the same time?" Moyer works fast. He pitches to contact, a pithy line the first 50 times Chris Wheeler said it. Moyer's ball is hit hard and often. But it is hit hard on the ground. Deep, but not quite deep enough, in the air. Then . . . Yaaaaaaaaaah . . . a hitter turns into a soft pretzel flailing at Moyer's changeup, which is thrown off a fastball that couldn't get ticketed in a school zone. Hey, his offense says, throw me some of that junk.

Whatever, Jamie is playing the winter game as well as he plays the summer game. Amaro is off balance. He saw the joy Moyer exuded in the clinching - was that champagne rolling down his craggy countenance, or tears? Rolling down Broad Street, into the Bank, the idol of millions, did he look like a free-agent hard-liner?

But here he is. Two years for $10 million a year seems to be the number. Me? I'd give him the guaranteed year, maybe for a few dollars more. So would Amaro. But the year when he will turn 48 becomes the rub. Not even the great Warren Spahn sailed into those uncharted waters. This is not some aging knuckleballer, flicking pitches up there with manicured fingernails while praying he's still quick enough to elude a 100 mph smash up the middle. Moyer has to throw four real pitches, maybe five when you factor in the different things he does with his fastball. And all of them must be thrown just out of the nitro zone. Branch Rickey used to devise drills where coaches set up strike zones framed by string; the object was for the pitcher to hit the string - in, out, up, down.

If Moyer wants to be part of an encore effort here, he will take the year and a club option. If not, Ruben Amaro will have to climb down off that barrel and try to replace those 16 wins with a contract far more costly than $20 million.

And, please, Junior, do not come home from Vegas with a 34-year-old utility man who cost you top prospects from a system thinner than beef jerky just so you can show us you have mastered the art of the deal. *

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