ATLANTA -- This is a time for evaluation.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. sat on a couch in the manager's office inside the visitors' clubhouse Wednesday at Turner Field and discussed some of the assessments and discussions that are taking place these days. The Phils are headed toward their first losing season since 2002, which would be a terribly disappointing result for a team with one of the highest payrolls in baseball.
"We have some things to address," Amaro said. "It's pretty simple. We have to address our bullpen and we have to address our catching situation. Those are two pretty important ones. Those are priorities for me."
Interestingly, Amaro did not mention third base or right field. Rookies Cody Asche and Darin Ruf are manning those positions, respectively. It is clear the Phillies are high on Asche, and Ruf has produced in right, a position he had never played before Aug. 6.
If that pair opens next season at those positions and if everybody else returns as expected, Philadelphia will have a lineup featuring at least five left-handed hitters: first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, left fielder Domonic Brown, center fielder Ben Revere and Asche.
Ruf would be the only right-handed bat in the lineup, unless the Phils bring back Carlos Ruiz or find a right-handed-hitting catcher to replace him.
Jimmy Rollins, who will be back, is a switch-hitter.
"If our left-handers can hit right-handers, then we don't combat it," Amaro said. "We let it happen. But if we don't feel like our left-handers are going to be able to handle the left-handers consistently ... then we'll have to see what we can do."
One big issue is Howard, whose .604 OPS against left-handed pitchers from 2011-13 ranks 237th out of 251 qualifying hitters in baseball. Amaro thinks a healthier Howard will bounce back offensively.
If Ruf opens the season in right field, he might not be in the top half of the lineup, at least to start the season. That means not only would the Phillies be left-handed heavy, they would be particularly left-handed heavy at the top.
"We can think about things, but making trades and making moves for certain guys are very difficult," Amaro said.
Clearly the bullpen is an issue, as it had a 4.18 ERA entering Friday, 26th in baseball. The majority of relievers Philadelphia was counting on have faltered this season.
"We have to learn from some of the things we've done," Amaro said. "One of the beauties of what we have this offseason is we basically have an open competition. It gives us a lot of flexibility to do certain things. There's going to be some availability in our bullpen. Whether we have that open competition with our internal guys -- sixth-year free agents, Major League free agents -- we're going to have to try to find the right pieces. Again, it's a crapshoot, some of them. I'd like to think that we'll do a better job of adding to our club."
Finding the right bullpen pieces has been a hazardous venture for the Phils in recent years.
They found success with right-hander Chan Ho Park in 2009, but since then, the bullpen signings have been mostly disappointments. Danys Baez signed a two-year deal in January 2010, but he was released in '11. Jose Contreras pitched well in '10, but the Phillies signed him to a two-year extension, and he spent most of those seasons injured.
Philadelphia released Jason Grilli from its Triple-A roster in July 2011, and it signed Chad Qualls to a one-year deal in February 2012, only to release him midseason. Mike Adams signed a two-year deal in December 2012, but he just had right shoulder surgery. And the Phillies signed Chad Durbin to a one-year deal in January, only to release him in May.
"The bullpen is a tough one," Amaro said. "It's one of the toughest things to put together. We have to try to evaluate and bring guys in here that we think will be able to do the job.
"It's weird about some of the guys we've had. Qualls is a really good example. He goes and pitches somewhere else [Miami this season], and he's much better. A lot of it depends how comfortable that guy is, what situation he's in. ... Maybe some guys aren't prepared to do the role we've asked them to do. Durbin got off to a slow start. He's been one of those every-other-year guys. He did a nice job pitching in the middle for Atlanta [last season], then struggled with us. He got behind the eight-ball early and struggled. We thought he would be a good piece to help us in the middle. As I said, the bullpen is a real difficult one to evaluate, because you just don't know which guy you're going to get from year to year. That's why you've got to try to take chances and hope those things work."
Amaro said he is OK with the recommendations he is receiving from his advisors and scouts.
"We're in the production business," Amaro said. "We have to make sure that we try to make better decisions as we go forward. We have to also look ourselves in the mirror and make sure we're doing a better job of evaluating the guys that we think that can help us. The players also have to step up and do their jobs. Again, we're talking about human beings. They're not robots. They're going to have good years and they're going to have bad years. And unfortunately, we haven't gotten guys to pitch on the good years."
With the Phils coming off a franchise-record 102 victories in 2011, Amaro signed closer Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million deal. Papelbon has been an unhappy camper lately, but the club found scant interest in him before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline because of his recent struggles and dip in velocity.
Amaro said acquiring Papelbon was the right move to make at the time, and he probably would make it again.
"Oh, yeah, I think so," Amaro said. "The choices that we had out there with the people that were available, I'm happy with the decision. I'm not happy with the way we've played."
That is the trick going forward, isn't it? The Phillies need Asche, Ruf and relievers like Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman and Luis Garcia to continue to develop, while the front office needs to find the right catcher and the right pitchers in the right seasons to fill holes.
Then they need everybody to stay healthy and produce.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.