PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - In his first four offseasons as a general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr. developed a reputation as one of the more aggressive executives in the game, wasting little time filling the needs that he and his staff had prioritized.
First came Raul Ibanez, then Placido Polanco and Roy Halladay, then Cliff Lee, then Jonathan Papelbon. All five deals were consummated before the Christmas holiday. Last year, Papelbon signed before Thanksgiving.
So if Amaro arrives at this year's general managers' meetings espousing patience as a virtue, your skepticism will be forgiven. The Phillies have some glaring holes on their roster, and they have some money to spend, which in the past has been a recipe for a top-of-the-market deal.
But the composition of this year's free-agent market might dictate an ounce or two of prudence. Centerfield is the Phillies' top priority, and it also happens to be one of the market's deepest positions, with players like Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan and old favorite Shane Victorino all looking for deals. Problem is, we do not have much in the way of precedent to value these players.
The biggest contract landed by a centerfielder last offseason was Coco Crisp's 2-year, $14 million deal with the Athletics. In 2009, Mike Cameron (Boston) signed for 2 years and $15.5 million. Really, Aaron Rowand's 5-year, $60 million deal with San Francisco in 2007 is the last blockbuster centerfield deal on the open market. Baltimore signed Adam Jones to a 7-year, $91.65 million extension in May, but the 27-year-old star was not scheduled for free agency until after 2013. Besides, his batting line of .283/.328/.469 and his 95 home runs over the last four seasons are much better than Bourn's .280/.348/.378 and 16 home runs and Upton's .242/.316/.420 and 80 home runs. Jones is also 1 year younger than Upton and 2 years younger than Bourn.
The Phillies view both Bourn and Upton as good defenders with above-average bats at a premium position, but both have enough flaws to merit serious second thoughts if their asking price sits in the $15 million-per-year range. The gut feeling here is that Amaro will look hard at the trade market, which could feature players like the Twins' Denard Span and the Rockies' Dexter Fowler, as well as a slew of relievers who would fill another obvious need. While the Phillies' system is short on blue-chip prospects, it does feature a number of pitchers with enough upside to warrant a place in a deal for a position of greater need.
Not that the Phillies are broke. They entered the offseason with about $134 million committed to nine players: Ryan Howard ($20.0 million), Chase Utley ($15.0 million), Laynce Nix ($1.35 million), Papelbon ($13.0 million), Jimmy Rollins ($11.0 million), Cliff Lee ($25.0 million), Roy Halladay ($20.0 million), Kyle Kendrick ($4.5 million) and Cole Hamels ($19.5 million). But they do have a number of cheap, viable options for the remaining spots: righthander Vance Worley (No. 5 starter), outfielder Darin Ruf (regular, bench or rotational), outfielder John Mayberry Jr. (bench) and infielder Freddy Galvis (starter or utility) will all make around $500,000. You can probably plan on four young relievers making the roster at about the same price (say, Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman, Mike Stutes and Jeremy Horst). A backup catcher like Erik Kratz shouldn't cost more than $800,000. Outfielder Nate Schierholtz, acquired from the world champion Giants in the Hunter Pence trade, should make around $2.75 million through arbitration.
At that point, the Phillies would be looking at about $151.5 million for 20 players, including the usual $10 million contribution for player benefits, which counts against the luxury-tax threshold. Like most teams, they are reluctant to identify the payroll budget they have targeted for the upcoming season, but we can make an educated guess that they will be hesitant to eclipse $189 million, which is what the luxury-tax threshold will be in 2014. The feeling among people who have spoken with the Phillies about potential moves this offseason is that they are resigned to going over this year's threshold of $178 million. If they are willing to push the 2014 threshold, that could leave them with around $37.5 million to spend on a centerfielder, third baseman, corner outfielder and a couple of setup men.
The hangup is that there might not be enough talent available to warrant the spending of that money. You can finagle the numbers to create a scenario in which they land both Upton and former Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis. But are those two players really worth those numbers? We are obligated to mention Josh Hamilton's name, but good luck projecting what his market price will be. He seems destined for a team with money to spend and tickets to sell (hello 2012 Marlins!).
Long story short, the Phillies probably are not going to be able to spend their way back to 100 wins. Patience and good scouting might matter more than any bank account.