Look around and it won't be hard to find hints of the Phillies' overarching plans this winter. For instance, our own Jon Heyman recently reported that they may target a frontline outfielder like Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury or the putatively frontline Nelson Cruz. In other words, the Phillies will almost certainly go through the motions of a contender.
The problem is that the Phillies will almost certainly not contend in 2014. This, after all, is a team that finished with a 73-89 record last season. Actually, that poor record undersells how bad they were. Further consider that according to their NL-worst run differential of -139 (yes, worse than that of the lowly Marlins), the Phillies should have had a record of 66-96. That was despite their ranking 19th in strength of schedule and seemingly despite their having one of the oldest rosters in the league.
The upshot of all that is that it would take a minor miracle for the Phillies to contend next season. Sure, the success of the worst-to-first Red Sox has put us in a general all-things-are-possible mindset, but that remains a very rare feat. Moreover, positioning the team to take a great leap forward would require a serious investment on the part of ownership. This remains a team with almost $100 million in payroll commitments for 2015 and roughly $60 million for 2016. A team whose contending window has closed but with lots of guaranteed outlays still on the books is typically one ready for the rebuilding process. And that brings us to GM Ruben Amaro Jr., author of the team's current straits.
Amaro has presided over the Phillies since before the 2009 season, when they went on to fall to the Yankees in the World Series. Seasons of 97 and 102 wins followed, but then, thanks mostly to an aging core, the downturn begin. They were .500 in 2012, and then the previously detailed 2013 happened. Along the way, Amaro handed out a few self-defeating contracts (Ryan Howard's and Jonathan Papelbon's chief among them), while the farm system muddled along. In August of this year, Amaro fired longtime manager Charlie Manuel, and that's usually a sure sign that the GM himself is feeling the vice tightened.
Indeed, given Amaro's underwhelming stewardship of what Pat Gillick built in Philly, no one would be surprised if Amaro doesn't survive the 2014 season. Amaro surely knows this, and when a GM fears for his employment he becomes motivated by rational self-interest: i.e., he buys that lottery ticket. For these purposes, the lottery ticket is that unlikely-in-the-extreme, job-salvaging return to the postseason.
Sure, it would be in the best interest of the Phillies to undertake a rebuild, pawn off veterans like Cliff Lee, ratchet down the payroll and focus on patching up the farm system. Amaro, though, would not make it through such a long-range process. Only GMs with the catchet and circumstances of, say, a Billy Beane can cycle through tear-downs and rebuilds and not lose his job. Amaro, inheritor of a large-market winner, doesn't have that going for him.
Therein lies the dilemma of having a GM who's on the brink but not "lame duck" enough to prioritize the organization's future. Behaving like a contender is his only shot at keeping his job, but going young is what his franchise truly needs. Every organization at some point runs into this kind of plight, and now it's Amaro who's at cross purposes with what's really in order for his team.
Bear all this in mind as the Phillies almost certainly add payroll this winter and chase unlikely contention. If you're Ruben Amaro Jr., what else can you do?