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There Is No Really Good Plan for the Phillies

Do the Phillies spend big this off-season, or do they work around the edges? No matter what Ruben Amaro and Co. decide to do, there is no really good plan for the Phils this off-season.

The Phillies appear to have interest in Carlos Beltran. Is this a good thing?
The Phillies appear to have interest in Carlos Beltran. Is this a good thing?

Every day I change my mind.

On Monday, I think it's wise for the Phillies to make a big splash in free agency in order to compete for a wild card spot in 2014. That means signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a big, long-term deal, being aggressive on Ubaldo Jimenez and trading valuable prospects away for a Matt Kemp-type player.

Then on Tuesday, I think that the Phils should be cautious and work around the edges. Maybe sign Curtis Granderson, Carlos Beltran or Nelson Cruz.

On Wednesday, I think, nah, let's go after someone under the radar like Michael Morse or Corey Hart. Add a Tim Hudson or Bronson Arroyo to the starting rotation. Buy a quality reliever.

Then on Thursday, I waffle on everything, and by Friday, I want to jump in a lake.

Because the Phillies are relying so heavily on a core of high-priced, aging veterans, 2014 will be a huge question mark, no matter what they do in the next few weeks and months.

If the Phils get bounce back years from Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, if Chase Utley can continue to stay healthy and produce like he did last year, if Domonic Brown's 2013 wasn't a fluke and he can become more consistent in 2014, if Cody Asche develops into the type of player most people think he can be, if Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee remain healthy and effective, and if the Phils can finally get one or two of their young bullpen arms to finally emerge, then they just might have a shot to compete next year.

But that's a lot of "ifs," perhaps too many to justify a big splash in free agency.

On Monday night, CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury noted that Amaro may be thinking the same thing, and that adding one of the marquee free agents isn't in the cards for the Phils this off-season.

The answers to how Amaro addresses these needs will play out over the coming weeks. For now, one thing seems sure: The Phillies will not be players for the biggest names on the free-agent market, players like Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury, both outfielders. Catcher Brian McCann does not appear to be a target, either.

A number of people with knowledge of the Phillies’ offseason plan say the club will pursue mid-level free agents. The team has three players (Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Ryan Howard) making more than $20 million per season and, at least for this year, does not have an appetite for more.

A big part of me understands this. It makes sense not to give Ellsbury or Choo, two left-handed hitters who do not meet the Phils' need for additional power, a six or seven-year deal worth well over $100 million. The Phils already have a bunch of 30-year-olds with big contracts. They don't need to be adding more.

However, as fellow TGP writers Joe Catz and Lindros noted yesterday, the Phils are a big-budget team. If they are going to have a big budget, they should stop making small-market team decisions. If they're going to spend, there's no reason they shouldn't be blowing past the luxury tax, much as the Yankees have done in recent years, in order to field a team that can compete for a playoff spot.

There really is no reason the Phillies can't be a $200 million payroll team.

Salisbury did note, however, that Amaro appears to be targeting the mid-level free agent class, which is wrought with its own problems...

Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran and Curtis Granderson represent the next tier of free-agent outfielders after Choo and Ellsbury. All three have rejected qualifying offers of $14.1 million for next season and all three come with risks -- Cruz a PED suspension in 2013 and health issues for Beltran and Granderson. The Phillies like all three players, but may have reservations about spending what it might take in years and dollars to sign one of these players.

Cruz, Granderson and Beltran can all be had for two or three-year deals, probably. However, all three players are older than Ellsbury and Choo, and will also require a substantial payout, if for fewer years. All three players come with defensive deficiencies as well, and have had trouble staying healthy in recent years. The argument would be, if the Phils are going to overpay AND give up a valuable second-round draft pick (which is actually closer to a compensatory pick than anything else), why not spend that money on a real difference-maker?

While Cruz, Granderson and Beltran would certainly be upgrades over Darin Ruf and/or Delmon Young, are they really players on whom you want to spend $15-20 million a year and for whom you would give up a valuable draft pick?

The other option is to try and unearth another Jayson Werth-like miracle by signing Corey Hart or Michael Morse to a one or two-year deal at a fraction of the cost of Cruz, Granderson or Beltran, with the hopes that they bounce back from injury and a lack of production.

But seeing as how the Phillies have been reluctant to spend any resources on a true analytics department and Pat Gillick isn't running the show anymore, can we really trust that Amaro would be making an informed decision on any of the low-risk, high-reward gambits that failed so dramatically last year?

This is the problem. No matter what avenue the Phillies decide, there really is no good plan.

If the Phils back up the Brinks truck, they're potentially wasting money on players who may not be enough to help them win in 2014 anyway, while also crippling themselves financially years down the road. If they go with a mid-level free agent, they will still be overpaying for players who aren't terribly productive, while at the same time giving up a second round pick. And if they go the ultra-cheap route, they're hoping to strike it rich in much the same way they did with Werth, which is a feat that will be very hard to duplicate given the resources they choose to use to make personnel decisions.

And what about a trade for someone like Matt Kemp? While I would love to bring the Dodgers' right-handed slugger on board, worries about his injury problems, his salary, and the prospects one would have to give up in order to land him may not be worth the player himself. That holds true with pretty much every other trade candidate out there as well. Do the Phillies really want to give up more of their future in order to land a player with an uncertain track record?

One piece of good news from Salisbury's piece is the recognition by Amaro that the international market may be an area in which the team is finally deciding to spend some real money. The trend may have started last year when the team appeared ready to give $60 million to Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez before finally settling on a smaller figure. Could this mean a serious run at Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka?

"We have to be as open-minded as we can," Amaro said. "We can’t cut off any markets. I don’t know how realistic some of the markets are, but we’ll keep our eyes open."

No matter what the Phillies decide to do, their moves will have their critics and their detractors. Some intelligent Phillies fans are calling for the Phils to spend big. Some are calling for a quieter off-season, one built around players like Marlon Byrd, Franklin Gutierrez, Joe Smith and Joaquin Benoit.

Frankly, my opinion on this changes by the day. Today, trading prospects (Asche, Jesse Biddle, Cesar Hernandez?) for Kemp, buying Tanaka, and re-signing Chooch feels like the way to go. By tomorrow, I'll probably have completely changed my mind.

That's because there really is no good plan for the Phillies this off-season.