INDIAN WELLS, Calif. - Spend enough time looking at the Phillies' current holes and their current options for filling them and you will end up convincing yourself that their best option - perhaps their only option - for returning to the top of the National League East involves a trade. It could be a blockbuster on the level of the Yankees' 2009 acquisition of Curtis Granderson, or a lesser move that adds a needed part while also rectifying an intriguing internal dilemma.
That doesn't mean that a trade is imminent, or even that one is likely. But it does mean your ears should perk up when you hear Ruben Amaro Jr. say he has had some "interesting discussions" during his first 2 days at the annual general managers' meetings.
There is a chance the Phillies' GM is playing coy, but if you look at his personnel situation pragmatically, you realize his best shot at another World Series title might come from the kind of bold move that has come to define his tenure.
If the season started tomorrow, Amaro would have four lineup spots occupied by a player or combination of players who have never proved they are legitimate everyday major leaguers. One of those spots is third base, where the only obvious option on the free-agent market is the aging Kevin Youkilis, whose health and production have diminished over the past couple of seasons. The other three spots are in the outfield, where the free-agent options are more numerous but where the Phillies have five players under club control.
The most significant variables in the equation are the upsides of corner outfielders Domonic Brown and Darin Ruf. Thursday, Amaro disputed the notion that the Phillies have reached a make-or-break point with either player, pointing out that both can be optioned to the minor leagues. But logic suggests those are the words of a GM intent on keeping all of his leverage intact. It makes no sense to spend significant money on a veteran corner outfielder if there is reason to believe Brown or Ruf can offer similar or better production for a fraction of the price.
While Brown has yet to fulfill his vast potential at the big-league level, he has close to 1,000 plate appearances combined at Double A and Triple A. Ruf, on the other hand, hit three home runs, two doubles and and a triple in 37 plate appearances in the majors in September, and he is hitting at a similar pace in the Venezuelan Winter League.
The only thing either has left to prove is whether he can play well enough against major league competition to merit an everyday job. Therein lies the catch-22. Given the situation at third base, the Phillies cannot afford to enter a season with question marks at two additional positions. But if they sign a veteran to fill one of those positions, it means relegating Ruf or Brown to the bench or the minors, which simply delays a question that needs answering.
In just about any situation you concoct, the obvious answer involves a trade. Acquiring a proven hitter at third base would lessen the need for a proven hitter in the outfield, but we've already mentioned the dearth of free-agent options, which leaves a trade as the likely method to add such a veteran.
Another possibility is signing a centerfielder and a corner outfielder as free agents. B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan, Shane Victorino, Torii Hunter, Nick Swisher, Cody Ross and Ryan Ludwick are among those available. But that could require a significant investment of money, which could impact Amaro's ability to fortify the back end of the bullpen or add depth at third base, and would leave Ruf or Brown without regular at-bats.
The Phillies already have a deep cross-section of platoon or rotation-type outfielders in Laynce Nix, Nate Schierholtz and John Mayberry Jr. Brown likely has more trade value than any of those three, yet he also has proved the least. Sure, you could non-tender Schierholtz and replace him with Brown, but that replaces a known commodity with a question mark, albeit one with greater upside.
The Phillies could choose to sign a centerfielder and a rightfielder and let Brown and Ruf compete, or platoon, in leftfield. Or, they could look to add a couple of pieces - or one big piece - via trade. While Brown's stock probably is not as high as it was a couple of years ago, he still could interest some teams.
Catcher Tommy Joseph, acquired in the Hunter Pence deal with San Francisco, is a well-regarded prospect at a premium position. The minor league system is extremely deep at starting pitcher, too. Amaro thinks the Phillies have enough chips to make a big play.
"We've got plenty of that," he said. "We have some desirable young fellows, based on conversations" with other teams.
Adding a third baseman or corner outfielder would make the most sense, given the number of centerfielders available as free agents. Arizona's Justin Upton and Cleveland's Shin-Soo Choo are two outfielders thought to be available. San Diego third baseman Chase Headley was thought to be available earlier this year. A player of that caliber could enable the Phillies to extend a longer leash to their unproven players, especially if combined with an above-average offensive centerfielder. Or, perhaps, the Phillies opt for something short of a blockbuster, using Brown to acquire a piece they think has a better chance to contribute this season.
The more you think about it, the more the Phillies' strategy hinges on their visions for Brown and Ruf. The two players are not mutually exclusive. But it wouldn't be surprising if the Phillies see it that way.