LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The two men spoke loudly enough in the ninth-floor hallway so everyone could hear. A day's worth of trade rumors at these winter meetings spiraled around the Phillies, and team executives found them humorous. They planned a skit.
"We can't trade Cole," Ruben Amaro Jr. said to Scott Proefrock, his top lieutenant. They both smirked.
"No," Proefrock said, "we're trading Lee!"
The Phillies do not possess many tradeable assets in their quest to remedy a 73-win team; Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are two of the game's best lefthanded pitchers and would interest many teams. Hamels and Lee surfaced in Tuesday morning rumors from various national outlets, who spoke to rival executives.
Amaro derided that hearsay as "silly." He insisted he wants to add starting pitching, not subtract from it. The Phillies crave a No. 3 starter. Current prices are prohibitive, and Amaro intends to wait. He said his payroll will not increase from its roughly $165 million figure in 2013.
"We're built to win," Amaro said. "I like our lineup. I'd like to add some pitching to it."
The volume of trade rumors surrounding the Phillies suggests that could be their vehicle for adding pitching. Domonic Brown and Jonathan Papelbon have been mentioned as possible trade chips. Those rumors are not as silly as Hamels and Lee.
If the Phillies use free agency to procure a starter, they have approximately $10 million to $15 million in 2014 salary to spend. Major League Baseball's luxury tax limit will rise from $178 million to $189 million this season, but the Phillies are not inclined to raise expenditures.
They drew 553,315 fewer fans to Citizens Bank Park in 2013, which represented the second-worst decline in baseball. They are in negotiations with Comcast SportsNet on a massive TV rights contract, but that money, apparently, will not factor into this winter's decisions.
"We should be contending with this kind of payroll, at $165 or $170 million, wherever it shakes out to be," Amaro said. "I think we have some flexibility to add. A lot of it depends on what makes sense for us."
Amaro believes he can sign his third starter for a contract of no more than three years, although he admitted people are "shell-shocked" at some of the prices for pitching.
Ricky Nolasco signed with Minnesota for an average salary of $12.25 million over four seasons. Scott Feldman, a pitcher who interested the Phillies, signed with Houston for three years and $30 million. Scott Kazmir will receive $11 million per season from Oakland. Phil Hughes netted a three-year deal and Jason Vargas four years.
The market has slowed, Amaro said, because of the sticker shock. He implied that he is patient to watch the market unfold, but the aggressive GM rarely operates that way.
"It's just a matter of trying to match up what we're able to do and what we want to do," Amaro said. "The asks are astronomical right now. Rightfully so, because we've seen the market do some crazy things. We'll see."
The Phillies could free up money and acquire talent by requiring any team interested in Brown to also assume Papelbon's $26 million contract. But they must be overwhelmed to deal Brown.
Rival scouts have wondered this week what the Phillies' plan is. At this point, the team is entertaining various scenarios with no clear path from a fourth-place finish to contention.
"We are built to contend," Amaro said. "That's our job, to try and win."
Manager Ryne Sandberg said top pitching prospect Jesse Biddle is a "back-burner type of possibility" for next season. He could come to big-league camp in spring training. . . . Amaro said the team has yet to decide whether it will select a player in Thursday's Rule 5 draft. The team has two picks but can use only one unless it releases a player from its 40-man roster.