As Ruben Amaro Jr. stood behind the batting cage early yesterday evening, a picturesque late May sky hung overhead providing the perfect accompaniment to the familiar thwack of bat meeting ball, and of the increasingly familiar sound of shoes shuffling through the turnstiles and onto the cement concourses of Citizens Bank Park.

With a first-place team and an impressive string of sellout crowds - last night's gate was the 17th sellout in 23 home games - it is a good time to be general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Phillies entered the season with a payroll of $135.5 million, seventh highest in baseball, thanks to an offseason spending spree that landed early MVP contender Raul Ibanez and a host of long-term deals for incumbent stars, but Amaro said yesterday that number could creep higher if the team is successful in its quest to upgrade its roster before the July 31 trade deadline.

"We will not have unlimited spending - that's not how we operate, and I don't think we need it," Amaro said. "[But] the fact of the matter is, every year around trade-deadline time, it's been a rare moment that we have not been allowed to do what we felt is necessary to make our team better. How much flexibility, I could not tell you, but I do know that if we can improve the team, we think we will have a chance to do that."

There is no major-league Santa Claus, but if there was, Amaro's wish list would contain two key elements: more pitching, and a righthanded bat with either power or speed to fill out the bench.

Last year, the Phillies added righthander Joe Blanton in a trade prior to the July 31 deadline, then swung a deal for lefthanded slugger Matt Stairs prior to the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline.

It is still too early to tell how dire the need for a pitcher will be. The Phillies will already face a crowded situation in the bullpen once J.C. Romero returns from his 50-game suspension on June 3 and their rotation is coming off the most successful 5-day stint of the season. While the Phillies entered last night with a 5.09 ERA, second-worst in the National League, they had posted a 3.73 ERA and held opponents to a .264 average over the last eight games. Much of that improvement comes as a result of improved starting pitching. Phillies starters entered last night with a 3.00 ERA in their previous five games.

Bench help, particularly from the right side, is something the Phillies have sought since spring training. The team sent Miguel Cairo to the minors earlier this month after the veteran utility man managed just one hit in 13 pinch-hit at-bats. Combined, righthanded pinch-hitters were 6-for-35 with six RBI heading into last night. There figures to be plenty of names available, from the Rockies' Garrett Atkins to the Indians' Mark DeRosa to former Phillie and current Ranger Marlon Byrd. Amaro will have to weigh how much the organization is willing to give up in return for what, at this point, would be a complimentary role.

The Phillies pursued a litany of options over the offseason, including veterans Ty Wigginton, Nomar Garciaparra and, more recently, Gary Sheffield. But all landed in situations where playing time was more available.

Amaro agreed that the Phillies might have better luck trading for such a player.

"You may have a better opportunity to add on via trade rather than convincing a guy to play a role that he probably doesn't want to play," he said.

Every trade requires two willing partners. The Phillies will certainly be looking.

"I think pitching is always going to be an element that you can improve on," Amaro said. "I like our defense. I like our offense. Pitching and maybe adding pieces to the bench, either a speed element or a power element, if there is a way to improve in that area, in a perfect world those are some of the things we would like to do. But again, with the way we are set up, we basically have our starting nine guys and they are pretty much going out there and playing every day. I like our bench. I think we have versatility in our bench still. But if there are pieces that we can add that can help us in one way or another, we will still consider ways to improve it."

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