Ruben Amaro Jr.'s job is going to get a lot harder before it gets any easier. If it ever gets easier.
Amaro's Phillies parted with some veteran pieces Tuesday, undergoing a modest roster reworking rather than a drastic overhaul. It's really all Amaro can do, given the constraints and demands of his job, but that doesn't mean he's in a great spot going forward.
Over the past decade, Amaro and Pat Gillick before him, along with an aggressive ownership group, built the Phillies into one of the true behemoths in baseball. They spend big and they win big. And that's great, as long as the winning continues. But when you're playing at that level, even a single season to reload is unacceptable.
So Amaro, who has an aging lineup, a massively expensive starting rotation, and a shaky bullpen, must keep Philadelphia competitive while also laying the groundwork for a transition to the next run of Phillies powerhouses. Even Amaro's boss, team president Dave Montgomery, laid it out plainly last week.
"There's no question," Montgomery said in light of Cole Hamels signing an extension, "that Ruben has his work cut out for him."
Prospect acquired from Dodgers
Ethan Martin, RHP: Martin was the No. 7 prospect on the Dodgers' Top 20 at the time of the trade. A 2008 first-round pick, Martin has been a little slow to develop, but patience can be a virtue when it comes to high-ceiling, strong young arms. Martin still has the raw stuff that made him a hot commodity coming out of the Georgia high school ranks four years ago. He has a plus fastball and curve and his changeup is continuing to improve. In his second taste of Double-A, it does appear like things are starting to come together. His command has improved, though he still needs to refine that to be a starter at the highest level. His power stuff would play well coming out of the bullpen, but at age 23, it might be too early to give up on him as a starter, especially given his improvement this season.
The changes got under way Tuesday, and to his credit, Amaro did a fine job in getting talent back for the veteran players he dealt. The added payroll flexibility helps, too. When you adjust for the degree of difficulty -- after all, he's never done this before -- it was a very solid day. If there's a criticism, it's that Amaro may not have gone far enough.
"We have some holes to fill and some things to improve on, obviously," Amaro said. "I think this gives us a better chance to do that."
Outfielder Hunter Pence, in line for a hefty arbitration-based payday in 2013 and free agency the year after that, brought a potential starting catcher in Tommy Joseph and a power bullpen arm in Seth Rosin, as well as a potential replacement in Nate Schierholtz. Outfielder Shane Victorino, bound for free agency this winter, fetched solid reliever Josh Lindblom and big-armed right-handed prospect Ethan Martin.
That's two established players who are under team control for at least three more years, and three prospects whom MLB.com ranked in the top-20 in their previous organizations. The first part is key for a team like the Phillies. For, say, the Cubs or Astros, pieces who help right away have less value. For the Phillies, who expect to contend in 2013, cost-controlled complementary players are absolutely essential.
And then there are the prospects, headlined by Joseph. Catcher is one of several positions where the Phillies will have questions in the coming years. Third base and center field will be the most pressing concerns, this coming winter. But in a year, Carlos Ruiz will be eligible for free agency -- and entering his age-35 season.
Chase Utley will also be eligible to walk after 2013, and he'll also be entering his age-35 season. Ryan Howard is under contract through 2016, but he's already 32 and his numbers are trending in the wrong direction.
Prospects acquired from Giants
Tommy Joseph, C: The 2012 Futures Gamer was ranked No. 5 on the Giants' Top 20 at the time of the trade. Drafted in 2009 out of the Arizona high school ranks, his calling card was his bat, with many feeling he wouldn't be able to stay behind the plate long-term. The bat was on display in 2011 as he broke out as a power-hitting run producer. He hasn't been as dangerous in Double-A, but he still has solid hitting skills. His defensive game has improved tremendously -- a strong arm in particular helps control the running game -- and questions about him staying behind the plate have ended.
Seth Rosin, RHP: Rosin was the No. 19 prospect on the Giants' Top 20 at the time of the trade. Taken out of the University of Minnesota in 2010, he began his first full season as a starter, but moved to the bullpen. Out of the 'pen, his fastball hits the upper 90s in shorter stints, and he commands it well. He has a very good changeup to go along with it. His breaking ball isn't as good, but he can thrive with two pitches in relief.
Even in 2013, it's going to be tough. Philadelphia has nearly $124 million committed to seven players next year, a sum that goes up by another $5 million when Ruiz's club option is exercised (as seems a virtual certainty). That's before spending a penny on third base or center field. It still leaves another $50 million or so before reaching the luxury tax threshold, but you'd prefer not to bump up against that if it can be avoided.
Thus, Amaro can do more, and he should. He would be wise to find a way to make a deal work for Joe Blanton, to continue restocking the farm system. If there are takers for Placido Polanco and Juan Pierre, the Phils should at least entertain ways to make those deals work while still fielding a representative roster in 2012.
Then there's the big question: Should the club deal Cliff Lee? The former Cy Young winner has roughly $95 million still owed him through the 2015 season, and the Phillies must decide whether his frustrating season is merely a blip or the start of a trend. Putting aside his misleading won-lost record, some of Lee's peripheral numbers have declined a bit this year, though not so much that it would be a big story if he weren't 1-6.
That's the position they're in, though. The question must at least be asked, whether paying Lee the remainder of his contract is the best use of the Phillies resources. Maybe it is, but it can't go unexplored. If the Phils could plug multiple holes with the financial savings and talent return, they'd be foolish not to examine that.
This is the nature of building around stars: Even with a large payroll, you have to cut costs somewhere. Every prospect the Phillies bring in now offers at least some potential of filling a hole at a reasonable rate in the future. They'll hope that Domonic Brown can do that too, after he was seemingly ticketed for stardom two years ago. Then maybe Joseph, and maybe Martin down the road. The work has already started. And it won't be easy.
"I know we have a lot of talent on this field and I know we can't control the injuries that happened," Amaro said. "But what I do and believe in my heart of hearts is that we have the core and the nucleus of players to be a championship-caliber club. I could be wrong. I've been wrong before. But I think with some of the flexibility we have now, and the base of talent we have out here, I think we still have championship-caliber talent."