On top of a bookcase in one corner of Ruben Amaro Jr.'s office, there is an arrangement of champagne bottles, with cork and foil in place and commemorative labels marking the occasions. They are lined up like soldiers in silent formation, offering a salute to division titles and playoff clinches and pennant winners and one amazing run to a World Series championship.
The bottles aren't dusty - that would be too easy a metaphor - but they haven't gotten recent company, either, something that Amaro and the Phillies spend every day at Citizens Bank Park working to change. Locally, there isn't much optimism that a new bottle or two will be added to the shelf in 2014 and Amaro, the general manager during the team's recent struggles, gets the brunt of the blame.
"I'm a human being and, yes, it [ticks] me off because I know our players are better than the perception," Amaro said Tuesday as a misty rain fell on Pattison Avenue outside his office window. "The team we fielded the last third of the season was not our club. That wasn't the expectation when we started the season last year."
No general manager is perfect, and there are recent moves Amaro would probably take back, but what he and the organization are experiencing is in some ways the natural order of things in baseball. Teams that enjoy sustained success, as the Phillies did during their run of five straight division championships, usually tether themselves financially to the players who provided that success. Then it becomes a matter of whether those contracts become lifelines to the next generation of winning or anchor ropes to the past. In other words, does the organization get lucky?
"For better or worse, we invested in these guys because they were some of the best players in the game. And we felt that if they stayed healthy, that core of players could sustain our ability to contend," Amaro said. "If they weren't going to be healthy, that's what would cause problems."
The core of everyday players is Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins, and the major financial investments of the last few years have also included among others Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee. The Phils saw a dip in production but reasonable return from Rollins, encouraging but sporadic output from Utley, and very limited availability from Howard.
Without consistency from that core, and with the pitching linchpin of Halladay gone missing, the Phillies struggled to compete as they went 73-89 in 2013. For the coming season, Amaro has worked to rebuild the starting rotation and to stabilize a shaky outfield, but he still needs Howard, Utley, and Rollins to be there this time.
"If the club we believe is going to break camp is able to stay on the field, we're a contending team," Amaro said. "My job is for us to try to be a contending team every year. Our payroll should allow us to do that. We had a couple of crappy years because we couldn't get guys on the field and couldn't get the performances we're accustomed to. Doc Halladay not being healthy crushed us. It's not his fault. It's just part of the game. When it happens to guys you are counting on with huge contracts, you can't just buy your way out with mediocre players."
The Phils are still paying for the party that ran from 2007-11. Their payroll is going to be close to $170 million this season, with much of it clumped among the small group of players who were costly to keep around. Howard, Utley, Lee, and Hamels will make a combined $88.5 million. Again, that's the nature of things. Other teams keep their own free agents around, too, and those contracts drive up the market price of the few who do get away.
"Ultimately, there's such a lack of real impact players, you have to try to hold on to them as long as you can. You lock 'em up so they don't get on the market, and you overpay them, and the market goes nuts," Amaro said. "Is [new rightfielder] Marlon Byrd a superstar? Absolutely not. Is he a decent role player for us? Yeah. I have to take a chance on Marlon Byrd because there's so many other things I've got to do. If I go get [premier free-agent outfielder] Carlos Beltran, then I can't take a chance on [pitcher] Roberto Hernandez. We've got a lot of holes to fill, and our job is to try to make the right decision 70 percent of the time, not the wrong decision 70 percent of the time."
Pat Gillick, the GM before Amaro, always said a team would never win anything unless it had two or three big mistakes on its roster. Only teams that take chances and attempt to put together a great roster will ever win, and that means mistakes are inevitable. Gillick's team won the World Series in 2008 despite the unproductive signings of Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins, among others. Gillick wasn't perfect, but he did have more maneuverability than Amaro.
"There are only so many chances to be a champion, and I will never stop believing that if you have a chance, you take the opportunity," Amaro said. "If you don't take a chance on Adam Eaton, then maybe you don't take a chance on Jayson Werth. You have to take your swings."
This season, Amaro needs the core to be healthy, and that includes catcher Carlos Ruiz and centerfielder Ben Revere. He needs Byrd to replicate his comeback year of 2013. He needs Hamels and Lee to be excellent, the bullpen to be steady again, and some help at the bottom of the starting rotation. He also needs a little luck.
"We signed [Cuban pitcher] Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, a guy with a tremendous ceiling. I don't know what he's going to be, but we took a swing. For various reasons, he hasn't really pitched in two years," Amaro said. "Is it a risk? Sure, but we took a swing."
The Phillies are due to connect again, if only because it has been a while. The clubhouse has been quiet in October and the arrangement of bottles on the bookcase hasn't grown. Ruben Amaro Jr. knows that better than anyone. He was at the last party. Now he has the task of cleaning up and preparing for the next one, but nobody knows when it will begin.