Amaro wary of demands of top free-agent pitchers

Amaro wary of demands of top free-agent pitchers
December 19, 2013, 11:30 am
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Matt Garza (left) hasn't pitched a full season since 2011, while Ubaldo Jimenez (right) is one year removed from 17 losses and a 5.40 ERA. (USA Today Images)

Six years for Cole Hamels. Five years for Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee. More than $50 million for Jonathan Papelbon. Three-year contracts worth between $18 million and $60 million to Roy Halladay, Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, Joe Blanton and Brad Lidge.

Ruben Amaro Jr. has proved in his five years as Phillies general manager that he isn't afraid of making big, bold signings and trades.

But undeveloped young talent combined with spending, spending and more spending has gotten the Phils to this point, where they head into a second straight season hoping everything goes right just so they can contend for a wild-card spot.

Most of the fan base has clamored this offseason for a top-tier free-agent starting pitcher like Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez. Others have asked why the Phils didn't make aggressive offers for Doug Fister, who was stolen by the Nationals from the Tigers, or Dexter Fowler, who was seemingly pilfered from the Rockies by the Astros.

Why not throw the farm at the Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton, even if Miami keeps repeating he's unavailable? Why not send Billy Beane all the young talent he wants for Yoenis Cespedes?

It's abundantly clear that the Phillies' plan this offseason -- wise or unwise -- was to supplement their aging core with low-risk, middling-reward players on short-term deals. Marlon Byrd, Roberto Hernandez, a slight overpay for Carlos Ruiz and a no-risk trade for Brad Lincoln. Hardly the splashy offseason Phillies fans have become accustomed to.

“I listen on everything," Amaro told reporters Wednesday, shortly after the Hernandez signing became official. "It’s my job to be a listener if a team has interest in a player. So far I haven’t seen anything or offered anything that we think is going to be better for us long-term or short-term."

That's why we haven't seen Domonic Brown, Papelbon, Lee, Hamels or Jimmy Rollins dealt. It's why Amaro hasn't further stripped the minor-league system of young talent to acquire a powerful, young corner outfielder or a starting pitcher with top-of-the-rotation stuff/potential.

Perhaps in a different free-agent year, the Phillies would have spent more. Their holes in the rotation behind Lee and Hamels remain glaring, as Kyle Kendrick and Hernandez are nothing more than No. 4 starters at best, and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is still an unknown.

But that top crop of starting pitchers -- Garza, Jimenez, Ervin Santana -- are all either injury risks, candidates to regress back to their previous levels after strong 2013 campaigns, or both. Five years for one of those guys?

“It’s about spending the money wisely," Amaro said when asked about the Phillies' plan to hover around $165 million in payroll. "Trying to spend it intelligently. Why would we spend money that we think is going to be money not well spent? That’s the important part. With the way the market is set up right now, I’m not real comfortable with going the extra mile for some of the guys that are still out there still that may improve us a little bit, but in the long run may be detrimental to us.”

The latter years of almost every modern long-term free-agent contract turn out poorly for the team. Albert Pujols' contract is already a disaster. The Phils would love their money back on Papelbon and Howard. The Mariners will likely regret the Robinson Cano deal by Year 6 or 7. The Tigers got out from under the Prince Fielder albatross after two years. Don't get the Angels started on Josh Hamilton; same goes for the Braves and B.J. Upton.

In a market where Ricky Nolasco is worth $50 million and Jason Vargas gets four guaranteed years, it's hard to fault Amaro for letting another GM pay the premium price for solid-but-not-spectacular pitching. It doesn't change the fact that the Phillies are still several pieces away from contention, or that every other team in the division has made more substantial improvements. But throwing $90 million or five years to pitchers who in another offseason might find only three-year offers isn't the way to rectify a situation that got stale in a hurry.

"I think there’s some other pitchers that are out there as a result of them waiting for that market to continue to grow for them," Amaro conceded. "It’s part of the landscape that we live in.

“We’re looking at some other possibilities but I would say that the guys that we have in-house are probably the guys that we’ll go to spring training with. It’s possible that could change. We’ll continue to see if there’s ways we can add to it or improve.

"We may be looking at some guys, some six-year free agents (who just finished their arbitration years) and those type of pitchers who could come in and compete for a job. I don’t think we can necessarily lock down [Jonathan] Pettibone and/or Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez as lock-down guys in our rotation. We’d like to add some depth in case they’re not able to step up and do that."

Depth is a word we've heard Amaro use often since the World Series ended. And for good reason -- the Phillies are dangerously thin at every position.

They're again relying on Howard to live up to his contract, stay healthy and provide power. If he can, maybe that will make up for a shaky rotation and a bullpen that lacks a true setup man.

Howard had a .307 on-base percentage in 2012 and 2013, averaged 12 homers and 50 RBIs and struck out more than four times as much as he walked. He missed 173 games. The numbers can't possibly get worse.

“We came off two seasons which we felt were sub-par seasons," Amaro admitted. "I absolutely understand. I’m not happy about it. I’m embarrassed by it myself. I do believe that we have players that will get back there. Our prospects of health are very good right now. … Things look very good. Can we rely on that? I don’t know. I feel optimistic that these guys will get on the field and Ryan will push the right buttons and we’ll get back into contention.”