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Amaro: Talks active, kept quiet

Entering baseball's winter meetings, Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is optimistic that moves finally will be made.

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro. (Bill Streicher/USA Today)
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro. (Bill Streicher/USA Today)Read more

SAN DIEGO - Baseball's regular season - and thus, the final chapter on the 2014 Phillies - came to an end 71 days ago.

Two months of inactivity has followed for a franchise in near-desperate need of activity, in the form of change. The product on the field has gone bad and is more than stale, too.

But general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s own call for change in September, and his admission in October that the club would be rebuilding, was followed by a November when the front office made nary a move. The theme continued in the first week of December.

Perhaps the arrival of baseball's winter meetings will set the Phillies' offseason plans into motion. In the next 4 days, a who's who of major league movers and shakers - GMs, managers, agents, scouts - will do business at the Grand Hyatt in San Diego.

Amaro and his top lieutenants sat through meetings on Friday at Citizens Bank Park in preparation. Has the GM grown as antsy and eager for change as the Phillies' fan base?

"I'm actually probably optimistic about what's been going on, dialogue-wise, some of the things we've discussed externally and internally," Amaro said over the weekend. "It's been a very, very active communication market so far. Starting with the [GM] meetings [last month], and even before that, there's been a lot of dialogue in a variety of areas.

"It's fortunate we've stayed out of the rumor mill, because I prefer to do things quietly. And it doesn't do anybody any good when it's out there. I like when it's quiet. I like the dialogue we've had in the last several weeks."

Sure, pitchers and catchers won't hold their first official workout in Clearwater, Fla., for 10 more weeks. But, eventually, the talk will be cheap if it doesn't directly lead to action.

If Amaro is playing the equivalent of a poker game with his peers as he mulls over possible trades, he also doesn't want to be the one left holding a losing hand. And it was a losing hand the embattled GM was unequivocally in control of when his heavy-salaried team finished its third consecutive season without a winning record.

Even if the end product wasn't a good one, Amaro said it's clear from his discussions with other teams that the 2014 Phillies had winning pieces that other teams would like to have in 2015.

"The fact of the matter is we've had dialogue on a lot of players, a lot of veterans," Amaro said. "A lot of our players out there are being depicted as not as able commodities, but we've got some guys that still are. And it's clear in dialogue with other clubs that there is interest, and that bodes well for us. We'll see if it turns out."

So what's Amaro's No. 1 agenda this week in San Diego? To acquire pitching, particularly starting pitching, he said.

Here are other items to watch:

Byrd on a wire

Although he's not the easiest player on the roster to trade - that distinction would go to Antonio Bastardo, a useful, youngish, lefthander a year away from free agency - Marlon Byrd might be the most likely to be traded this week among Phillies veterans because of the way the market has played out in the first 5 weeks of the free-agent season.

Free-agent bats have flown off the shelves, with the Blue Jays (Russell Martin) and Red Sox (Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval) leading the charge. More than a couple of once-available outfield bats are also no longer available (Yasmany Tomas signed with Arizona, ex-Orioles Nelson Cruz with Seattle and Nick Markakis with Atlanta, and the Braves traded Jason Heyward to St. Louis).

Although Byrd is hardly the only one left (Matt Kemp has been a hot name in the last week), the simple fact of the matter is there is suddenly less for the buyers of the world; the sellers, like the Phillies with Byrd, would figure to be in good shape.

A team like the Orioles could use both a righthanded bat and an outfielder. Perhaps they'd be interested in a lefthanded reliever as well, after Andrew Miller signed with the Yankees on Friday.

No matter where he lands, it feels like a foregone conclusion that Byrd will be playing somewhere other than Philly in 2015. And don't bet against him having a new ballpark mailing address before the end of the week.

Pap goes the weasel

A year ago, when the winter meetings were in Orlando, Jonathan Papelbon was reportedly being shopped to anyone who might be interested. The reality is the Phillies have been looking to move the big-mouthed and big-moneyed closer almost since signing him to a record contract three winters ago.

This winter, the hot-stove league rumor mill has barely churned out a whisper of Papelbon's name, despite the All-Star reliever coming off a year in which he converted 39 of 43 save chances.

Here's why: More and more teams are realizing you don't have to invest massive, multiyear deals in pitchers who account for about a third of the innings a quality starting pitcher racks up in a given season (although the Andrew Miller contract shows that such deals are not gone from the game for good). The San Francisco Giants have won three World Series in the last 5 years, with a different pitcher in the closing role in each of those three title seasons.

Papelbon is owed $13 million this season and can earn another $13 million in 2016 if he finishes 48 games this year; he has never finished fewer than 49 games in nine big-league seasons.

Factor in Papelbon's declining skill set - he has converted saves, but his declining strikeout rate means relying more on the luck of balls batted into play - and his well-known personality issues - suspended for bumping an umpire, and his "equipment adjustment" as fans booed him in September - makes him even less attractive. But don't think the Phillies won't still try with all their might to find a suitor this week . . . and every week that follows, too.

Howard's end?

Aside from the personality issues - Ryan Howard is a model citizen who has continually carried himself with class, even as his career has disintegrated - much of what can be said of Papelbon can be repeated for the beleaguered Phillies first baseman.

Howard has a heavy paycheck, his skills have all but vanished, and he plays a position that is arguably the easiest to fill on the diamond. And that's if you still consider Howard a first baseman, a position at which he's never excelled, and not a designated hitter, a position he probably should be playing at this point of his career to ease the burden on his well-worn legs.

Howard's supporters will point to his RBI total last season: 95, fourth in the National League - as a reason to believe he's still a productive run producer. But the RBI is a heavily flawed stat, one born out of RBI opportunities: only three players in baseball had more at-bats with runners on base than Howard had in 2014.

Among the 72 big-leaguers with at least 150 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Howard's .243 batting average ranked 59th. Howard's overall .223 average ranked 18th of 20 qualifying major league first basemen; his .690 OPS ranked 20th among the same 20 first basemen.

The previous two paragraphs have been written before, but they bear repeating for those who still have a glimmer of hope regarding Howard. It's difficult to have hope now that he's 35 and more than 3 years removed from Achilles' surgery without any signs of his former self re-emerging.

If Bastardo is the easiest to trade and Byrd is the player who has the most interest among other teams, Howard is the polar opposite: difficult to trade, difficult to see any team interested. When you factor in the $60 million he's owed for the next two seasons - and the complicated mess that is the Phils' current ownership, with team president David Montgomery on medical leave and loud rumors that he might not return to his role in 2015 - Howard may very well be back at first base for the Phillies next spring.

Although, this weekend, Amaro repeated what he has said countless times before this winter: Money will not get in the way of any deals with his veterans. If a trade is right, Amaro said, the Phillies won't "shy away from subsidizing some of the contracts."

Cole's town

Twenty-four miles northeast of San Diego's Grand Hyatt is Rancho Bernardo High School, which has seen 18 players selected in the amateur draft in the last 15 years, beginning with former Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock. Blalock was a two-time All-Star and hit the winning homer in the 2003 game, but he is not the school's most decorated baseball alum.

Cole Hamels arrived in Philadelphia by way of Rancho Bernardo a dozen years ago. A World Series MVP who represents the only still-in-his prime piece from that World Series, a certifiable ace coming off a career-best 2.46 ERA, Hamels is the darling of the trade market.

When free agent and fellow soon-to-be-31-year-old lefthander Jon Lester finally finds a new home, which could come any day, the Hamels rumors will intensify. Among the Red Sox, Cubs and Dodgers, whichever team does not land Lester will almost surely make a strong push with a package of prospects in an attempt to pry Hamels from the Phillies.

This doesn't guarantee that Hamels will find a new home this week - or even this winter. The Phillies could just as easily hold onto Hamels and visit the market again before the trade deadline. But many others, including 2015 free agents David Price, Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto, could be available then, too.

If Lester signs this week, the Hamels talk will grow louder in Philadelphia. On the eve of the winter meetings, where does the man who could ultimately pull the trigger believe Hamels will be pitching come April?

"I really can't speculate," Amaro said. "I don't believe in speculation. I believe in reality."

Perhaps the speculation will subside and the reality will come better into focus this week.