Hours after dealing away two-thirds of his starting outfield, Ruben Amaro Jr. emerged in the visitors dugout at Nationals Park and sat on the bench. He used the word flexibility four times that July afternoon, stressing the trades of Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino offered a chance to remake the Phillies outfield.
The general manager was asked if he possessed enough flexibility to obtain a major free agent.
"Maybe more than one," Amaro said.
He made his first foray into the market Saturday by signing pitchers Mike Adams and John Lannan for a total of $14.5 million. Both arms add depth and fill a need, but are far from "major" additions while questions persist in the outfield. Most of the top free agents have signed lucrative contracts in an exploding market. Amaro is a spectator and, in an extreme transformation of philosophy, preaching conservatism.
This winter, it is believed the Phillies have not made an offer of more than three years to a player older than 30. The lone lengthy offer was to B.J. Upton, 28, for five years and $55 million. Upton signed with Atlanta for $20 million more.
When the offseason began, Amaro was asked whether he viewed 2013 as a transition year or if there was an urgency to win with the current core.
"It's a little bit of both," Amaro said. That made it a no-win situation for the GM, given the market climate.
Had there been urgency, Amaro would have acted on a corner outfield bat. Had there been urgency, Amaro would have used his "flexibility" to make his annual winter splash.
That's not to say Amaro has failed to practice prudence. The market is flush with cash and teams paying a premium in the form of long-term contracts. The Phillies already have their share of those. There was but one "difference-maker" bat on the market, Amaro said, alluding to Josh Hamilton. He signed a five-year, $125 million contract with the Angels.
That leaves Amaro decidedly in the middle, leaning toward a transition season whether he likes it or not. Think about it: Chase Utley and Roy Halladay, bereft of injury concerns, are each in the final year of their contracts. Charlie Manuel is likely managing his last season. The organization's best prospects (what's left of them) are at least a year away from contributing.
One major free agent was not going to cure all that potentially ails this group of Phillies, mostly because there were few "major" players available. Nick Swisher, the top bat remaining on the market, could sign for at least four years and would cost the Phillies their first-round pick.
If anything, it should become apparent that winning through free agency is increasingly difficult. Teams are locking up their own stars before they hit the market, leaving fewer options and raising the prices for the mediocre ones. When their run of success started, the Phillies followed that model in negotiating extensions for Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard prior to free agency. Cole Hamels, the most recent example, surely took less money to stay in Philadelphia.
Even if Amaro spends frugally this winter, the future market is just as unimpressive. The top outfielders available (barring extensions) are Pence, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz, Corey Hart, Curtis Granderson and Carlos Gomez. All but Gomez will be over 30.
The Phillies would not commit long-term to a third baseman because they are enamored of Cody Asche, the 22-year-old who hit .324 in the minors. Like any prospect, he is far from a sure thing, especially considering his success is contained in one season. But Phillies executives see him as a possibility for 2014. That factored into decision-making for 2013, reinforcing the idea of a transition year.
So Michael Young, for $6 million and two relievers, was Amaro's solution. It comes with risk, but the Phillies believe it's minimal compared to a long-term deal with someone else.
Similar tactics could follow to fill the corner outfield spots. Amaro could stick with Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf, John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix. He could find a role player, like Scott Hairston, on a shorter term.
Whatever the case, the Phillies are exhausting backup scenarios because of their conservatism, and it will take time to know if it is justified.