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Tough decisions ahead for Amaro

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels arrived for his big news conference looking like the quintessential franchise mainstay. His hair was neatly coiffed. He looked resplendent in his dark blue suit. And he passionately pledged his allegiance to the city of Philadelphia as his wife looked on with their two little boys.

"I wanted to give the Phillies every opportunity," Hamels said. "It's very hard to leave a place where you've had so many great memories and been able to enjoy so much good -- and you know there's so much more good to come."

In this case, the positive long-term outlook might come with some short-term austerity measures. There's Cole Hamels' paycheck, and an accompanying reality check.

The Phillies dispensed with a major piece of business when they agreed to terms with Hamels on a six-year, $144 million deal Wednesday. The move allows them to maintain their core of Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay in the rotation and the hallowed but aging infield nucleus of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins through at least the end of Utley's contract next season.

The financial math is daunting: Those six players and closer Jonathan Papelbon will earn about $123 million combined in 2013 -- which is more than all but four teams' Opening Day payrolls this season. That doesn't leave much wiggle room for the other 18 spots on the roster.

The view from the bottom of the NL East standings is even less scenic. Even with an extra wild-card spot helping to prop up their ambitions, the Phillies will probably have to go 44-19, or thereabouts, the rest of the way to have a realistic chance at a sixth straight postseason berth. The bullpen is still a crapshoot; it's painful to watch Howard run in the aftermath of his Achilles injury; and scouts are skeptical that Halladay has been anywhere close to full health since he arrived at spring training in February.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. basked in the glow of his latest big transaction, but he has some difficult decisions to make between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. While the Phillies continue to stress their commitment to winning, Amaro might be forced to sell off some veteran pieces to reduce payroll and replenish the farm system. The Phillies aren't exactly waving the white flag, but it's one jumbo-sized handkerchief.

Amaro, not surprisingly, is resorting to the old GM standby that his goal is to keep "improving the club" for 2012 and beyond. As he left the Hamels news conference and boarded an elevator upstairs, he vowed to take as much time as possible before determining his trade-deadline course of action.

"We're going to consider ourselves contenders until we don't think that's realistic anymore," Amaro said. "We'll have to take every situation individually and kind of go from there."

Contrary to speculation, it appears unlikely that Amaro will aggressively shop Lee over the next few days. The Phillies plan to contend again behind their starting rotation in 2013, and the lure of pitching alongside Halladay and Lee contributed heavily to Hamels' decision to re-sign with the team. Lee is guaranteed $87.5 million from the 2013 through 2016 seasons, and that's a big nugget for any acquiring club. Lee also has a list of eight teams for which he'll accept a trade, and that clause significantly limits the universe of suitors.

Amaro's other potential trade chips are more realistic, but that doesn't necessarily make them easy to move. Joe Blanton has to wait in line behind Zack Greinke, Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster. Placido Polanco is a great team player and clubhouse guy, but he's 36 years old and has a .628 OPS and a variety of health issues. He's not exactly a hot commodity at the moment.

Shane Victorino, who'll be a free agent this winter, is probably the Phillies' most readily movable commodity. Even though the New York Yankees dropped off the board as a Victorino destination when they acquired Ichiro Suzuki, Victorino still has appeal to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers and some other contenders as an energy guy and pennant race-tested veteran.

Hunter Pence is an intriguing case. He can be exasperating to watch at times because of his hyper-aggressive, free-swinging approach. "He runs into walls and swings the bat like he's chipping out of a sand trap," said a scout. Pence is also likely to earn in excess of $13 million next season via arbitration, but he's Philadelphia's only real right-handed threat other than catcher Carlos Ruiz, and Pence would leave a big void in the lineup that John Mayberry Jr. can't fill.

It seemed only appropriate that a day before Hamels celebrated staying in Philadelphia, Pence entertained a small group of reporters at his locker and said he's not going to obsess over speculation that he might be going.

"I want to play here, period," Pence said. "I want to win this year. I still believe in us, and that's what I'm focused on. What if I die tomorrow? I'm not guaranteed another breath. So I'm going to go out and play as hard as I can today with what I've got."

As an executive in a competitive market with a rabid fan base, Amaro doesn't have the luxury of punting. The Phillies are working on a streak of 254 consecutive sellouts. Those Citizens Bank Park ticket buyers are long on passion, but not so big on patience.
Yes, there's a chance the Phillies could stage a miracle run and make the playoffs. The Colorado Rockies went 15-1 down the stretch to earn a wild-card berth in 2007, and the Rays and Cardinals made the playoffs last year because of epic collapses by the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves. But the reason those late-season flip-flops are so memorable is because they're so rare.

For what it's worth, Philadelphia's newest gazillionaire is hopeful that the Phillies' recent tradition and devoted following will produce something special over the next two months.

"The motto is the Fightin' Phils," Hamels said. "You never count them out until the very end. That's ultimately the best part about this organization. They're going to fight until the very end no matter what."

That's easy for Hamels to say: All he has to do is pitch. Amaro, the man in charge of spending the money and formulating the vision, has a more complicated balancing act in front of him. He might soon discover that it's necessary to declare surrender on occasion for the sake of winning the war.