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John Smallwood: Not much Amaro could have done different

I KNOW THAT I'm one of the few people outside of the Phillies front office who believes that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. played his hand wrong.

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has put a strong emphasis on stocking up top pitching talent. (David M Warren/Staff file photo)
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has put a strong emphasis on stocking up top pitching talent. (David M Warren/Staff file photo)Read more

I KNOW THAT I'm one of the few people outside of the Phillies front office who believes that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. played his hand wrong.

This isn't where anyone expected the Phillies to be - not 11-12 and a rung out of the cellar in the National League East.

But as frustrating as things presently are, I look at how the Phillies arrived here, and I ask myself, what could Amaro have realistically done differently?

I'll get hundreds of suggestions, and if change in real-life Major League Baseball were as easy as it is in Fantasy League Baseball or arm-chair general managing, 99 percent of them would be right. But in real-life baseball, you can't disregard things like existing contracts and payroll limitations that influence what you can do.

I factor in those kind of things and wonder what Amaro "realistically" could have done that would have the Phillies in a drastically different place.

Perhaps, as a couple of beat writers told me before the 6-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Monday, Amaro has put too many eggs in the basket labeled pitching.

But unless you can honestly tell me that you felt that way on Dec. 15, 2010, when Amaro announced he had signed Cliff Lee to a 5-year deal worth at least $120 million, I can't buy that hindsight-argument now.

Pitching has been the saving grace for this franchise.

As we've seen since Amaro took over as GM in 2009, pitching, by itself, has not won a World Series, but it has definitely kept the Phillies in contention for one.

All you can realistically expect is that your team does its best to position itself to win a championship.

So far, under Amaro, the Phillies have lost the 2009 World Series to a superior New York Yankees team, got outpitched by the eventual champion San Francisco Giants in the 2010 NLCS and lost in the 2011 wild card to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

I'm not dismissing the fact that Amaro has not brought home the ultimate prize, but his track record has been way more good than bad.

It's not that Phillies fans shouldn't be upset. A team that won a franchise record 102 games in 2011 is sub-.500 after 23 games.

But the undeniable extenuating circumstances are that Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have not had a major league at-bat since last October.

There is no way to make a reasoned evaluation of the Phillies until one or both of those players return. It is easy to say, as a lot of people have, that it won't make a difference.

It's easy to say that both of those players won't be the same players when they return.

The truth is we don't know whether or not the presence of Howard and/or Utley will change things. I know patience is a four-letter word concerning Philadelphia sports, but we have to wait and see.

April is done, but the phrase "it's still early" in baseball has the longest shelf life in sports.

Amaro can't make franchise-altering decisions based on unknowns when the team has played just 23 of 162 games.

Yes, the Phillies knew that Howard was going to miss a significant amount of time with his Achilles' injury and if you want, you can say that they should have anticipated Utley having knee issues based on his previous health history. That, however, gets us back to the question, what was Amaro supposed to do?

Despite Howard's injury and what some say is declining production, the 5-year, $100 million extension was a done deal.

Amaro didn't have the money available to sign the kind of player who could replace Howard's production.

The only real option was to hope that guys like John Mayberry Jr., Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix and Jim Thome could combine for adequate numbers until Howard returned.

As far as Utley, Amaro admitted that he made a mistake by trading utility infielder Wilson Valdez, but you can't convince me that the Phillies would be that much better with Valdez, a career .242 hitter who is currently batting .231 for Cincinnati.

You can say Amaro should not have re-signed 33-year-old shortstop Jimmy Rollins, but can you say what the better, more realistic option was?

A team built around pitching and defense needs the Gold Glove-caliber play in the field that Rollins still gives each game.

Lessening the defense up the middle to get a few more points on the batting average would've been more damaging than beneficial.

You can say that the $50 million contract Amaro committed to closer Jonathan Papelbon could have been utilized for hitting.

But if the majority of Phillies' games are going to be one- or two-run affairs like Monday's was with Chicago, then you better have a proven, big-time closer like Papelbon, not some guy you hope can get the job done.

In his ninth appearance, Papelbon picked up his eighth save in eight opportunities. It was his eighth consecutive scoreless appearance. He lowered his ERA to 0.90.

In hindsight, you always could have done something different. Under the existing circumstances, I just can't see what Amaro could have done differently that would have changed where the Phillies are right now.