LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - In some ways, Ruben Amaro Jr. may have set expectations too high over the last couple seasons. With trades for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Joe Blanton, and signings of Raul Ibanez and Placido Polanco, the Phillies general manager has created an atmosphere in which high-profile acquisitions are the norm. Super-agent Scott Boras recently labeled the club a "Goliath," and most fans seem to agree, looking at Amaro not as a budget-constrained business executive, but a Biblical giant whose daily schedule should allow for nothing but pillage and plunder.
So after a winter meetings in which the Red Sox landed Carl Crawford for 7 years and $142 million, and the Yankees ramped up their pursuit of Cliff Lee, and the lowly Washington Nationals landed Jayson Werth by offering twice what Amaro was willing to pay, the familiar sound of discontent could be heard rumbling in the belly of the populace. Fresh off two offseasons in which the Phillies were one of the most generous teams in free agency, they enter this weekend having committed just $5.5 million toward new contracts, less than even financial lightweights like Florida, Pittsburgh and Arizona.
But Amaro knows that running a professional sports franchise is not a mythical endeavor, and so his response to such perception is a verbal shrug of the shoulders.
"We really didn't have as many holes as some of these clubs, as many needs," the general manager said as he stood in the back of a crowded conference room at the Swan and Dolphin resort. "Plus, our payroll is where it is, and we have less flexibility than most clubs."
Which, really, contributes to the lesson that has been taking shape this offseason. Given their budgetary limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, and the amount of resources they have doled out over the last few years, the Phillies have reached a point where it will be difficult to achieve significant improvement through personnel moves alone. Sure, they can add a complementary part like veteran lefty reliever Dennys Reyes, who on Wednesday night agreed to a $1.1 million deal with a $1.35 million club option for 2012. Sure, they can re-sign righthanded reliever Jose Contreras to a 2-year, $5.5 million deal, as they did earlier this offseason. Sure, they can explore a variety of low-cost, righthanded bats to help offset the loss of Werth.
But here is the fact of the matter: For this Phillies team to improve on what it accomplished last season - which, bear in mind, wasn't exactly failure - and return to a place that many fans seem to think is their promised land, their biggest dividends likely will need to come from the money they already have spent. The Red Sox may have signed Crawford, but the Phillies already have a $20 million man in Ryan Howard. The Nationals may have signed Werth, but the Phillies already have Chase Utley. Zack Greinke might be available for trade, but they've already swung deals for Halladay and Roy Oswalt. The Phillies might not have a righthanded-hitting outfield prospect who can compete with Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown, but they traded one away in the Halladay deal last December.
That's not to say the Phillies are out of bullets. Although Amaro's message for most of the offseason has stressed temperance, he admitted Wednesday that the team had explored dealing for "significant" players (he called the chances of such a deal "remote," but did not completely rule it out). Still, the Phillies say they are a team with finite resources. In such a situation, there comes a point where there is no more surplus of prospects to trade and no more surplus of money to spend, where one's value lies in the sum of the parts as they already exist.
Are the Phillies comfortable they are the most talented team in the National League?
"We'll figure that out on the field next year," Amaro said.
The offseason is not over. The Phillies still hope to come to an agreement with righthander Chad Durbin, who dropped by the winter meetings to meet with Amaro and assistant general manager Scott Proefrock on Wednesday. (Sources say both sides are optimistic about a deal.) The Reyes deal is still not official, although a physical is the only thing standing in the way. The potential for late-market bargains, a la Contreras last season, is always there.
"We're still working on the bullpen stuff, find out what happened after laying some groundwork with some things," Amaro said. "Right now, we're still kind of bullpen-intensive."
For what felt like the hundredth time this week, Amaro downplayed his urgency to add another righthanded bat, saying, "It's very possible that we could have that problem solved internally." An outside addition still seems likely, but the message is clear: With seven spots in the lineup locked up, four starters signed to hefty multiyear contracts and a bulging payroll, drastic improvement just might have to come from within.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.