No rebuilding for Amaro, Phillies -- yet

No rebuilding for Amaro, Phillies -- yet

December 17, 2013, 10:00 am
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The Phillies' projected 2014 payroll will fall in the same range as last season's $165 million. (USA Today Images)

Cole Hamels recently indicated that Phillies management was slow to embrace a rebuilding effort.

“You have to know when to start over,” he was quoted as saying in a Philadelphia magazine story earlier this month.

Hamels displayed some sound baseball sense with the comment. After all, the aging Phillies have struggled the last two seasons and expectations for 2014 are, well, not all that high.

Hamels’ comment, made in September as the Phils’ first losing season since 2002 was coming to a close, also illustrated that the pitcher has a bit of a short memory.

Just about 14 months earlier, the pitcher signed the richest contract in Philadelphia sports history, a six-year, $144 million megadeal that prevented him from hitting the free-agent market.

On the day the deal was announced, Hamels sat in a news conference at Citizens Bank Park and listed his reasons for wanting to stay in Philadelphia.

He mentioned that Philadelphia had become home for him and his family.

He mentioned the support of the fans and how the loud ovations at Citizens Bank Park fueled his competitive fire.

That competitive fire, that desire to win, was so strong -- still is -- that Hamels sought assurances from top club officials that they intended to continue to try to field championship-caliber clubs over the life his contract. In other words, he didn’t want to be stuck on the roster of a rebuilding club.

Playing for a team that would make winning a priority was a prerequisite for his signing.

Hamels received the assurances he looked for. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. talked about them publicly on the day the pitcher signed.

So if the Phillies are guilty of being too slow to embrace a rebuilding effort, well, maybe they are just being mindful of the assurances they gave Hamels when they signed his contract.

Alas, if rebuilding is something that Hamels now legitimately desires, he could get his wish in the not too distant future.

With three players (Hamels, Cliff Lee and Ryan Howard) making $24 million or more per season, a middle-infield combination (Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley) combining for $26 million, and a late-game bullpen tandem of Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon combining for $20 million, it’s not easy for Amaro and his bosses to embark on a full-blown rebuilding effort. They’d rather patch around the edges with guys like Marlon Byrd, Brad Lincoln and Roberto Hernandez and try to coax one more playoff berth out of their aging nucleus. But one more bad season -- heck, it probably would only take a bad half-season -- and Amaro and his bosses will probably have no trouble speaking the word rebuild.

That was one of the things we learned at the winter meetings last week in Orlando.

Amaro drew a lot of attention at the meetings when he said, “We’re built to win.” The comment left some shaking their heads, wondering if Amaro were delusional. Yeah, the Phils have a contender’s payroll, but is this a contender’s roster?

While the “Built to win” comment caught drew a lot attention, it was not Amaro’s most interesting comment at the meetings.

That came moments later.

“We’re built to contend. We’re built to win. That’s our job -- to try to win,” he said.

He was quickly asked if there might come a time when the Phils transition to a rebuilding effort.

“At some point we might have to do that,” Amaro said. “But not right now. We’re not there.”

The first part of that quote was remarkable because it was the first time Amaro has ever conceded that a rebuilding effort might one day be necessary.

“We’re not there,” Amaro said of rebuilding, but a poor first half to the 2014 season might put the Phillies “there.” A poor first half would probably lead the Phils to stick a For Sale sign on Cliff Lee. And after a couple of years of rumors, this might actually be the time the Phils moved him. Trading Lee would be more than a sign that the transition to rebuilding has begun. It would be an admission by management that rebuilding is necessary. For a club that has long clung to the idea of the “championship window” still being open, this would be a dramatic step.

So far, management has had trouble making the transition to rebuilding. It just has too much remaining hope, and too many expensive dollars, tied up in an old core to commit. It also has that promise it made Cole Hamels two summers ago, the one where it resolved to keep trying to put a winner on the field so that Hamels would stay in red pinstripes.

But one bad half-season in 2014 and all promises will be off. The Phillies will be able to look Cole Hamels in the eye and say, “We do know when to start over.”