For 20 minutes, Ruben Amaro Jr. explained his inactivity. He engineered major deals in each of his first four Julys as Phillies general manager until Wednesday's 4 p.m. trade deadline passed without a single move. His expensive, underachieving team stretched a few yards away while Amaro provided scant answers to pressing queries about the future of this franchise.

"In my mind," Amaro said, "sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make."

These Phillies could look quite the same when they arrive in Florida for spring training next February. Amaro said he did not think that any of the proposed trades provided enough talent to upgrade his club, which revealed either how other teams view the current Phillies or that Amaro stuck to his demands.

When asked if he viewed this winter's free agency as his best chance at improving the Phillies, Amaro said: "Possibly. I don't like the free-agent market, right now, as we look forward."

He is reluctant to jettison any promising young prospect because the system contains so few.

So, how exactly, will the Phillies return to contention?

Amaro pointed to his core players under contract for 2014 - Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Jonathan Papelbon. The average age of those five will be 33.4 years old on the next opening day.

"We can add to them," Amaro said. "We need their production. It's the reason why they are big-salaried players. We need their production. When they are paid big money, you'd like them to produce. Whether they can do that at the same level as we anticipated, that remains to be seen."

Amaro, in fact, will soon commit to another aging player. The Phillies have engaged Chase Utley in extensive negotiations for an extension. Utley will turn 35 in December and plays on chronically injured knees.

An agreement, expected to be for at least two seasons, should happen in August.

"I have to be cognizant that the man is out there playing like a 28-year-old right now," Amaro said. "So for me, it's about producing. I'm not sure he's a guy you can replace at second base with the kind of production that he can get us."

The Phillies have seven players - including Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez - under contract for 2014. They total $109 million in average annual value. The luxury tax threshold increases from $178 million to $189 million in 2014, and money from a massive television rights contract will arrive after 2015. There is cash to spend.

The best chance to infuse youth was by trading Lee, but Amaro admitted that the pitcher would be "difficult to replace" and demanded a bounty. The interest on Papelbon was "slow," Amaro said. Utley was not available. Michael Young would have fetched little. Rollins refused to waive his no-trade clause. A major deal in August is unlikely.

The team's best position-player prospect is 20-year-old third baseman Maikel Franco. The Phillies are not aggressive with their young players. So it was interesting when Amaro did not reject the idea of Franco's winning a job next spring.

"He's made extraordinary process," Amaro said. "Obviously he's doing it at the double-A level, but he's a very advanced hitter at age 20. We'll have a lot of debates on how quickly we want to move him along. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he could be here sooner rather than later."

The Phillies stood 81/2 games out of a playoff spot entering Wednesday's game. Even then, Amaro refused to surrender.

"I have to be realistic," Amaro said. "We could be looking more toward 2014 than 2013 at this point. But that can change with a winning streak. That can change with us playing better."