LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Believe me, Ruben Amaro Jr. was saying, I like hitting home runs.
He was sitting in the hotel suite that the Phillies front office is using as its headquarters here at baseball's winter meetings. He was speaking figuratively, and he was not lying. Since inheriting the reins of the organization 5 years ago, Amaro has swung for plenty of home runs in the month of December. Raul Ibanez, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee.
In some respects, each was a luxury, a gratuitous addition to a roster that was already teeming with talent at the position in question. Now, there are no luxuries. Only necessities. And, yesterday, Amaro acknowledged that he might not find them.
"It may be best just to give ourselves some depth on the pitching side rather than going for the home run," the general manager said.
If that's the truth, it is concerning. Of course, there is plenty of reason to think that it is not the truth. Amaro is a GM at the winter meetings, a combination that often leads to something short of transparency. Plus, the Phillies have created enough smoke here to suggest that they are desperately attempting to start a fire.
A name like Domonic Brown does not surface in the rumor mill because media members are bored. But the Phillies have known for a long time that they need to address their rotation, and they have yet to find a way to do it. The winter meetings end today. Yesterday, another group of potential upgrades went off the board, at prices that continued to make it clear that there will be no easy outs for a team starved for pitching.
Bartolo Colon, 40 years old, agreed to a 2-year, $20 million deal with the Mets, according to ESPN. The Pirates agreed to a 1-year, $5 million deal with Edinson Volquez, according to Fox Sports.
The supply of pitchers who even have the potential to slot into the middle of a contender's rotation is dwindling.
A.J. Burnett, Paul Maholm, Jason Hammel and Bronson Arroyo are all that remains in the pool in which the Phillies figured to be fishing. After them, it is a top of the market that will have an overabundance of bidders for an under abundance of supply (Masahiro Tanaka, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Matt Garza), and a bottom of the market that features a slew of Hail Marys (Jeff Niemann, Erik Bedard, Chris Capuano, Tommy Hanson, Aaron Harang, Roberto Hernandez, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jeff Niemann, Clayton Richard, Johan Santana).
There is a strong argument to be made that the Phillies need to be thinking big if they hope to enter 2014 with the postseason as anything other than a figment of their wishful imagination. After all, they boasted one of the best rotations in the majors in 2010 and 2011, plus a bullpen that was better than it is right now, plus an offense that was younger, healthier, and, arguably, more talented than it is right now, and they still failed to reach the World Series.
Much of that can be attributed to the whimsical nature of a playoff series. But the point remains: How can the Phillies expect to improve 15 to 20 games in the standings if the roster that they carry into the season does not first markedly improve? Is Marlon Byrd that good?
One thing we know about Byrd is that he can't pitch, and the possibility still exists that we end up saying the same thing about one of the guys who the Phillies are currently projecting into their Opening Day rotation.
Maybe Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez will turn into this season's Hisashi Iwakuma or Hyun-Jin Ryu. But given the concerns about Gonzalez' health and his lack of mound time in competitive situations over the last three seasons, he could instead become this year's Tsuyoshi Wada or Junichi Tazawa.
On the flip side, the Phillies know exactly what to expect out of Kyle Kendrick, and that's the production of a No. 5 starter, some middle ground between his numbers in 2012 (159 1/3 innings, 3.90 ERA, 6.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9) and 2013 (182 innings, 4.70 ERA, 5.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9).
Somewhere between the uncertainty of Gonzalez and the certainty of Kendrick, there exists a huge void that can only be filled adequately with a clear middle-of-the-rotation or top-of-the-rotation starter. Again, we know Kendrick is a No. 5. We know Gonzalez might end up being a No. 5 (if that). And we know that the Phillies' most recent attempt to make it through a season with a rotation that essentially included three No. 5 starters resulted in them finishing 16 games below .500. We know this because it was last year.
"I like going for the home run a lot, but it may be best for us to maintain some flexibility and add depth," Amaro said. "Again, it's a fine line. Should we try to hit a home run or should we hit a couple of doubles and try to get better?"
Do they have the assets to add a middle-of-the-rotation or top-of-the-rotation starter?
"I think we have plenty of assets to do it," Amaro said. "It's whether or not we want to utilize them or whether we want to keep the depth for ourselves, just in case. That's what we kind of have to weigh."
December could be an interesting month. Again.