Hard to know which way Phils will go under Gillick

Interim team president mentions 'imagination and creativity' when talking roster changes

ATLANTA -- Pat Gillick answered questions from reporters for nearly 15 minutes Tuesday afternoon at Turner Field, and for a brief moment, it felt like 2008 again. If only.

The Phillies are headed to a third consecutive season without a winning record, and this one comes with the highest payroll in franchise history and the third-highest payroll in Major League Baseball this year. An already difficult season became more difficult last week when Phils president David Montgomery took a leave of absence to recover from jaw bone cancer surgery.

Gillick, 77, has assumed control as interim president, although his focus will be on baseball operations.

It is impossible to know exactly how things will work with Gillick in charge. Tuesday's session with reporters left just as many questions as Gillick offered answers. On one hand, he said, "A tweak here or a tweak there might make you a little more competitive." On the other hand, Gillick said, "I'm not saying we'll get better completely overnight. I think it's going to take a little while."

On one hand, Gillick said, "Maybe we pushed them a little too far," referring to the core of the 2008 World Series championship team, an acknowledgement the Phillies stuck with those players too long. On the other hand, he said injuries played a factor in the team's slide.

On one hand, Gillick acknowledged a lack of talent in the Minor League system. On the other hand, he expressed faith in the pro and amateur scouting and player development staffs.

So what gives?

Gillick often spoke in a back-and-forth manner when he served as the Phillies' general manager from 2005-08. He wasn't afraid to give an honest assessment, either. Once asked if he might add or subtract before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, Gillick said, "Both." Asked in July 2006 about the team's chances to contend in the future, he said, "Realistically, I think it would be a stretch to think we're going to be there in '07." That riled up fans and offended players in the clubhouse, but the Phils won the National League East championship the following season.

Some folks see things in black and white and demand similar answers, but Gillick sees a multitude of possibilities when he considers the Phillies' future. He sees few dominant teams in the NL, so he believes the proper move or two could get the Phils back into NL Wild Card contention sooner rather than later. But Gillick also looks at an offense lacking middle-of-the-lineup punch, as well as holes in the rotation, and he knows those fixes will not be easy. And because those fixes will not be easy, it might take longer than expected to return to postseason form.

"We're going to have to be a little creative, we're going to have to be a little imaginative, we're going to have to take a chance here and there," Gillick said. "We're going to have to do things that are going to get us better, and I have every confidence that [GM] Ruben [Amaro Jr. is] that kind of guy. He's got imagination and creativity."

Gillick said Amaro and manager Ryne Sandberg are "absolutely" safe in their jobs. The interim team president mentioned a couple of times Tuesday that he and Amaro regularly agreed on baseball matters. That might or might not be true, but it is important to remember Gillick served only as a senior advisor to Montgomery and Amaro since 2008. Gillick offered his opinions and expertise, although he sometimes used his Hall of Fame resume to help Amaro's cause. He notably helped Amaro convince Montgomery to re-sign Cliff Lee in December 2010.

But Gillick never had final say. He will this time. And the belief here is Gillick's philosophies will come through. He once described himself as a shopper and Amaro as a buyer. Buyers are aggressive. Shoppers look around before they make a purchase.

"If there's something I might have a different opinion on, I'll certainly voice that opinion and we'll talk it through and try to make what we think is the correct decision," Gillick said.

It seems likely that Gillick will be less inclined to stick with the 2008 core, or at least hold onto the belief those players should continue to be the centerpiece of the organization. He alluded to that a couple of times Tuesday.

"Sometimes you think you've got another shot at it," Gillick said. "The old story, you're a year late rather than a year early, something of that nature."

But again, there are no simple answers and quick fixes. Gillick made mistakes, too. He traded for Freddy Garcia and signed Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins to lucrative deals that did not pan out. But Gillick also traded Jim Thome to make room for Ryan Howard. He traded Bobby Abreu to change the culture in the clubhouse.

"We haven't won with this group, so consequently, I think you've got to change the mix," Gillick said at the time.

Gillick trusted his baseball instincts and signed Jayson Werth, whose career had almost ended because of a bum wrist. He acquired Brad Lidge, Jamie Moyer, Aaron Rowand, Joe Blanton, J.C. Romero, Scott Eyre, Kyle Lohse, Greg Dobbs and others to help resurrect the franchise.

The man has a resume.

"One of the more difficult things to do in professional sports -- and not only baseball, but all sports -- is to be patient," Gillick said. "It's very difficult. It's very difficult for the fans to be patient. It's difficult for the media to be patient. It's difficult for ownership to be patient. These are basically the same people that made the decisions when we won five division championships from 2007 through 2011. These are the same people making the decisions.

"Ryne wasn't here, but Ruben was here. All of a sudden he didn't get dumb overnight. It's just right now, we're in a situation where we know where we're headed, and it's going to take some time to get us where we want to go."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.