NASHVILLE, Tenn. - In his first four offseasons as a general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr. attacked the free-agent and trade markets like a man who believed he was in complete control of his team's destiny. He identified his targets, and then he acquired them: Raul Ibanez, Roy Halladay, Placido Polanco, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon. Amaro's track record is the biggest reason why the Phillies continue to be labeled by national pundits as a potential suitor for Josh Hamilton. People like to believe in legends, and Ruben the Conquerer has built himself into one.
But the GM who sank into a sofa in the Phillies' suite at the Opryland Hotel on Monday afternoon did not talk like a man with a secret plan. While Amaro has never made a habit of telegraphing his intentions, he has at times taken an almost devious delight in acting like a man who knows something that you don't. Before the Halladay and Lee deals, he downplayed the likelihood of acquiring the player to the point where you wondered if he was protesting a bit too much. While the specifics of both deals came as a surprise, at no point during the run-up did you doubt that he was working on something big.
This year, though, that confident demeanor was nowhere to be found. As reporters tested his defenses with inquisitive jabs, Amaro did not attempt to misdirect them with any of his usual rhetorical tricks. When he said that the Phillies entered the offseason with something like "10 Plan Bs" instead of one "Plan A," he sounded sincere. And while that may be frustrating to fans who thought the free-agent signing period would allay their fears of a repeat of 2012, it is also the wisest mind-set for Amaro to take.
Let's be clear: The only thing the front office can do to significantly enhance the Phillies' prospects in 2013 is get lucky. The blockbuster moves already have been made. The simple truth is that the Phillies are not going to acquire a player who can duplicate the .877 OPS and 36 home runs that Ryan Howard averaged from 2009-11. Howard himself has to do it. The Phillies are not going to acquire a player who can log 200-plus innings with a 2.40 ERA the way Halladay did in 2010 and 2011. Halladay himself has to do that. The Phillies are not going to acquire a player who can replace the offense they would miss if Chase Utley were to miss another long stretch of time. Utley has to be healthy.
When the story of the 2013 season is written, the outcomes of those three situations are likely to be the deciding factors. If all three players provide production commensurate with their price tags, chances are the Phillies will be a damn good baseball team. In the same vein, no amount of shrewd maneuvering will be able to make up the difference if all three suffer repeats of 2012. Only luck can do that. Darin Ruf or Domonic Brown might turn into a bona fide middle-of-the-order hitter. But the Phillies cannot control whether it happens. Kevin Youkilis could sign a contract that accounts for the risk that any team assumes when it hires an aging hitter with health issues. But the Phillies cannot control whether he reverts to the player who helped anchor the Red Sox for so many years.
Amaro said on Monday that the free-agent market is underwhelming, that there might only be one true "difference-maker" available (Hamilton, presumably). The only way B.J. Upton is a difference-maker is if he rediscovers the form he last displayed in 2008. The Phillies decided that it wasn't worth $75 million over 5 years to find out, and they were right. Angel Pagan has never been a difference-maker, and for the most part of the last three seasons he has been a league-average hitter. The Phillies decided that wasn't worth $40 million over 4 years, and they were right.
It is looking more and more like Amaro's strategy should be one that emphasizes pragmatism. That means acknowledging that the difference-makers are the players already on the roster. And that means acquiring a diverse supporting cast that will put the Phillies in a position to contend for a World Series if the aforementioned difference-makers end up making a positive difference. Because if those difference-makers don't come through, the Phillies probably aren't going to contend anyway.
So you should be heartened, not alarmed, that Amaro is acting like a man who is operating without a concrete plan. The Phillies have enough needs, and the market has enough breadth, that they can afford to be flexible. Already, three teams have acquired centerfielders, which could limit demand, and thus price, for a player like Michael Bourn.
"There are only so many chairs to sit in," Amaro said, not referring to Bourn specifically.
Maybe the Phillies can roll with John Mayberry Jr. or a platoon in centerfield if they upgrade in rightfield (Nick Swisher? Cody Ross? Justin Upton?) and third base (Youkilis? Jeff Keppinger? Jed Lowrie?). Maybe a blockbuster trade for somebody like Rockies centerfielder Dexter Fowler makes sense (Fox Sports reported the possibility). In other words, the Phillies might have to take what the market gives them.
Of the 10 richest contracts signed last offseason, only one helped result in a division-series berth. Of the 11 teams that were the biggest spenders last offseason, only Detroit and St. Louis made the division series. Meanwhile, the Giants, Nationals, Reds, Athletics and Yankees all ranked in the bottom half of the sport in free-agent spending.
As of Monday, the Phillies yielded little news to report. Maybe that's a good thing.