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Next moves for Phillies GM Amaro will not be easy

The Phillies had four aces and still their season ended up being a royal flush.

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has kept quiet as the trade deadline approaches. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff file photo)
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has kept quiet as the trade deadline approaches. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff file photo)Read more

The Phillies had four aces and still their season ended up being a royal flush.

What's worse is that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is left holding a confusing hand as he contemplates the future of a franchise that is now three seasons removed from its joyous World Series celebration.

When the Phillies opened their five-game National League division series with the St. Louis Cardinals nine days ago, they looked like the team to beat.

When Ryan Howard grounded out to second base and collapsed 60 feet from the first-base bag at 11:06 p.m. Friday, they were clearly nothing more than a beaten team.

Shock and sadness were the ruling emotions inside the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park afterward. The plastic wrap still rolled up above the players lockers in anticipation of another champagne celebration was a cruel reminder of what could have been.

All that matters now is what's going to be and it's up to Amaro to perform a roster transformation of some sort in the coming months after some other team hoists the 2011 World Series trophy.

This figures to be the most difficult offseason of Amaro's tenure because of the aging core players, the relatively long list of free-agent issues he must sort through and a payroll that has hovered around the luxury-tax threshold that the Phillies would prefer not to cross.

Let's start with the aging core, an issue that may have become even more critical depending on the severity of Howard's left Achillies tendon injury. Howard, who will turn 32 next month, may not be ready to open the season and also may never be the same player he once was. That would be a stinging reality considering the team owes him $125 million over the next five seasons.

The Phillies have to hope that Howard can fully recover from this injury. To many Phillies fans, he will be considered the scapegoat for the offensive failures during the series against St. Louis after going hitless in his final 15 at-bats. But the foot that caused him to collapse after making the final out against the Cardinals had been troubling the first baseman for months and he played through the pain.

Third baseman Placido Polanco, who turns 36 Monday, has also played through an assortment of injuries the last two seasons, including a sports hernia this year. His desire to keep playing should be lauded, but his trips to the plate were rarely applauded after April. He had nine extra-base hits in the first month of the season and just 10 more the rest of the year. He went 2 for 19 with two singles against the Cardinals and has batted a combined .151 (8-for-53) in three playoff series with the Phillies.

Polanco will be paid $6.25 million next season, but relying on him as their starting third baseman would be more costly than his contract. The only potential attractive free-agent alternative is Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez. The Cubs have a $16 million team option on Ramirez, so even if he does become a free agent, he will be an expensive alternative and, at 33, not a young one. Maybe a trade for someone like the Mets' David Wright would be a better way to go, although it's hard to imagine New York general manager Sandy Alderson dealing one of his best players to the Phillies.

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins and closer Ryan Madson are the two most pressing issues confronting Amaro. Both are free agents and among the best at their positions.

Rollins will be 32 next month and has logged a lot of innings during his career. He has never been the perfect leadoff hitter, but he has been a driving force behind this team's success. He hit .450 in the division series with four doubles and scored six runs. He remains one of the best defensive shortstops in the game and certainly ranks among the top 10 overall at his position.

Whether he returns could depend entirely on how much another team values him. If some team is willing to give Rollins a five-year deal, it would be hard to imagine the Phillies, with their aging roster, matching that.

Freddy Galvis, who will turn 22 next month, is coming off his best minor-league season and figures to be the team's starting shortstop one day. Would the Phillies be willing to make that move right now? Or could they find a one-year solution with a veteran free agent like Rafael Furcal?

Madson, meanwhile, proved he could handle the pressure of being the closer in 2011 and was equally impressive during four postseason appearances. The wild card with him is that Scott Boras is his agent and the highest bidder usually wins the services of his clients.

The alternative is probably to turn over the reins to Antonio Bastardo, who was great for five months before fading in September. That's a risky decision.

It's a foregone conclusion that the Phillies will exercise the $1.5 million buyout that will make Brad Lidge a free agent. Leftfielder Raul Ibanez, another free agent, has likely played his last game here, too.

The left field situation is complicated because of Howard's injury and Domonic Brown's disappointing 2011 season with both the Phillies and triple-A Lehigh Valley. Once considered the organization's top prospect, Brown is now among the biggest question marks.

If John Mayberry Jr. has to replace Howard at first base to start next season, then Brown may get another shot early in the season to prove his worth in left field. Regardless, Mayberry figures to have a more prominent role on the roster next season.

One other key decision is whether to keep the four aces intact in 2012.

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels will be back, but Roy Oswalt may not. The veteran righthander has a $16 million mutual option for next season that includes a $2 million buyout. There were signs late in the season that he still had the stuff to be included among the four aces, but he is 34 years old with a history of back issues that are fresh in the mind of the Phillies' front office. Perhaps they exercise the buyout, then try to sign him for less than $16 million.

The feeling here is that you keep the aces together, sign Madson and Rollins and try to figure out a way to add a quality bat at third base.

Doing all those things could prove so costly that it drives the Phillies' payroll above the luxury-tax threshold. If that's the case, so be it.

The masses that have filled Citizens Bank Park to the brim the last three seasons and tried to will the Phillies to a victory Friday night in Game 5 deserve that kind of commitment.