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Let the wheeling, dealing begin

Baseball’s general managers meet this week, with the Phillies looking for ways to improve their declining team.

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. (Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. (Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)Read more

PHOENIX - Whether by striking early or by reeling in an pre-Christmas gift, the Phillies under general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. have never lacked for drama during baseball's hot-stove season.

In an attempt to extend (and later, pry open) the window of contending in the National League, Amaro has often gone all-in, whether it was pulling off the Roy Halladay trade, surprising the industry by swiping Cliff Lee off the free-agent market or wasting no time awarding Jonathan Papelbon with the richest contract for a reliever in baseball history.

All of those moves - and the ones that brought others, like Raul Ibanez, Jim Thome, Placido Polanco, etc. - were additions. Times have changed for Amaro and Co. after seeing the team finish with 89 losses for a second consecutive year and out of the postseason for a third straight season, despite sporting one of the sport's top three payrolls.

The general managers' meetings begin in Phoenix today. It's the unofficial beginning of baseball's offseason.

Amaro was one of the first to make a move at the meetings last November, when he signed free agent outfielder Marlon Byrd.

After 6 weeks when his team has been largely inactive since playing its last game, Amaro is expected to begin a different chapter of his GM career by selling off veteran parts in an attempt to revitalize the rebuilding of the Phillies. As the meetings begin, here are the most intriguing story lines to keep an eye on in Phoenix this week (and beyond):

* The curious case of Cole Hamels: Last week, Amaro told the Daily News the Phillies were in a "sweet spot" with Hamels, that they could "go either way" in actively shopping him and eventually trading him this winter, or by making the 30-year-old lefthander the centerpiece to build around for the future. So if you're looking for odds on the likelihood that Hamels takes the ball on Opening Day for the Phillies on April 6 at Citizens Bank Park, sorry, but there doesn't appear to be a good bet either way.

Here's what you can definitely expect with Hamels this winter: constant chatter, sound and fury . . . that may actually signify nothing. With plenty of competition for elite pitching this winter (Jon Lester and Max Scherzer lead the free agent market), there will be plenty of posturing from agents, teams, owners, players, etc. So don't believe everything you read in the coming months.

Even if they are actively listening on Hamels offers, the Phillies are not in any rush to move the former World Series MVP. They could just as easily hold on to him in the winter and revisit the issue at the trade deadline.

* Filling the rotation: Whether Hamels is back or not, the Phillies will need to put together a five-man rotation between today and Feb. 19, when pitchers and catchers hold their first workout in Clearwater. Adding (young) pitching will be a priority this winter.

A.J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick, two of the three starters in the rotation for the duration of 2014, are free agents. Cliff Lee, who made just 13 starts and had two lengthy stays on the disabled list in 2013, isn't expected to begin throwing until later this month. Although the Phils expect Lee to be ready by February, his future health is questionable at best.

Beyond Hamels and Lee, the Phillies have David Buchanan (who has made all of 20 major league starts) and Jerome Williams (who was with three different organizations in 2014). Williams, who has pitched both as a starter and reliever in his career, may end up being a long man or swing man in 2015.

So, once again, the Phillies need pitchers. What kind of pitching are they seeking?

"We're looking at 1- 2-year deals, bounce-back candidates, guys trying to re-establish themselves," said Amaro, who could also fill pitching through trades.

Brandon Morrow (formerly of Toronto) and Justin Masterson (St. Louis) would make some sense or even the perenially injured Josh Johnson, who is as talented as anyone when he is healthy.

* The Ryan Howard saga: The former MVP is more than 3 years removed from undergoing left Achilles' surgery. Although Howard's skills may have been deteriorating before the injury, the it, robbed the former slugger of his ability to drive the ball regularly with his lower half, hindered his ability to move around the bases at an acceptable speed, and has limited his mobility at first base, where he was never a Gold Glove defender in the first place.

Go back and reread that last sentence and add in that Howard is owed a minimum of $60 million over the next 2 years.

The Phillies would love to begin the rebuilding process by moving on from Howard and replacing him with a younger, cheaper, more athletic first baseman (Darin Ruf or Maikel Franco). But given his steep decline in ability and sizable salary, Howard is almost impossible to trade.

Even if the Phillies eat, say, $50 million of the money Howard is owed, they still need to find an American League team with a designated-hitter vacancy willing to take a shot on a declining player. If a trade doesn't present itself, the Phillies could consider buying out Howard and releasing him, something reported the front office had already began discussing this summer.

No matter how it plays out, what began with an awkward, poorly handled, three-game benching 3 1/2 months ago is likely to end with Howard playing elsewhere in 2015. The Phillies, embracing a rebuild, are motivated to move on.

Amaro and Co. will surely be shopping Howard aggressively this week in Phoenix. While the Phils will be a better team in 2015 and beyond without Howard, it certainly will be a sad ending for a player who helped keep Citizens Bank Park full for a half decade and led the team's offense during the most successful 5-year run in franchise history.

In addition to Howard, closer Jonathan Papelbon, outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher Carlos Ruiz are other aging veterans who are likely to be shopped. Antonio Bastardo and Domonic Brown, both arbitration-eligible, could be had, too.

* Cleaning up with Tomas: While rebuilding is often imperfect and messy, the Phillies could have a seamless transition in the cleanup spot if they're able to move on from Howard and sign 23-year-old Cuban free-agent corner outfielder Yasmany Tomas.

The Phils, with clear need for young power and outfield help, and the necessary financial wherewithal to make that happen, have been labeled the favorites by many media prognosticators. Amaro flew to the Dominican Republic 2 months ago when the Phillies held a private workout for Tomas.

But given the success of recent Cuban defectors - Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig, among others - Tomas will not lack for suitors. The Padres have held two private workouts for the slugger, and the Mariners, Rangers and Giants, among others, are expected to be in the running, too.

If Amaro wants to continue his reputation as a winter headline maker - while also infusing interest (read: ticket sales) in a franchise in dire need - perhaps he'll strike quickly on Tomas. Other international free agents worth pursuing include 26-year-old Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda and 19-year-old Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada.

"We're taking the same approach in the international market as we are in the major league market: We're looking to improve," Amaro said. "We're seeing how things fit with what our plan is. We're exploring things, communicating, scouting, and going from there."