If the Philadelphia Phillies, led by general manager Ruben Amaro, have a legitimate plan of attack this offseason, it’s time to explain it to a puzzled group of baseball insiders.

According to Buster Olney of ESPN, the Phillies are willing to chat about their aces, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, in trade talks. On Monday, Domonic Brown, the franchise’s only young building block, was floated in rumors at the winter meetings. Jonathan Papelbon, an overpaid closer on a 73-win team, is also rumored to be available, per CSN Philly.

On the surface, this all makes sense. In reality, the Phillies should be in full-scale rebuilding mode. After winning 102 games in 2011, the franchise has fallen on hard times. Over the past two seasons, the Phillies have lost 81 and 89 games, respectively, while becoming one of the least watchable products in baseball.

If Amaro, with the blessing of ownership, scaled back the payroll, traded stars like Hamels and Lee for a group of future impact players and scoured the market for ways to upgrade from Brown, few intelligent fans would be upset.

Instead, the team has sent dangerously mixed signals.  

Philadelphia’s offseason began with additions, not subtractions. By setting the outfield market with a two-year, $16 million deal for 36-year-old Marlon Byrd, the Phillies signaled a need for power in their lineup and protection for Ryan Howard. By re-signing veteran catcher Carlos Ruiz, the team refused to part with a leader, despite a poor 2013, because of a lack of major league-ready catching in the farm system.

On the surface, both deals were debatable, but made sense through the prism of trying to compete for a postseason spot in 2014. With a rotation led by Lee and Hamels, the Phillies, assuming healthy seasons from the core of Chase Utley, Brown and Howard, had a chance to compete on the outskirts of the National League wild-card picture.

As the winter meetings progress, the Phillies need to commit to a direction. If they don’t, the franchise will be left among competing, rebuilding and looking for both short- and long-term answers. As of now, the team is wading between both realms, unable to choose a direction.

The best general managers can juggle multiple scenarios, choose the right path and ultimately take their franchise in a direction that leads to long-term success. In July, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford wrote a piece about Amaro‘s trade-deadline plight, but the same words can be reshaped for the present moment. Per Ford’s column:

“Amaro will have to juggle all those considerations two weeks from now, whether the team perks up in the interim or whether it doesn’t.” 

Amazingly, due to a hot streak near the All-Star break, the Philadelphia media was contemplating Amaro‘s buy-or-sell strategy at the trade deadline. After the team limped to a 73-89 finish, including the removal of Charlie Manuel from the dugout, such thinking seems ridiculous in retrospect. Yet, it was there then the way it is now. 

To be fair, there’s a chance, albeit small, that Amaro has a grand plan.

If he can shed payroll by trading Papelbon or Lee, there’s a possibility that the money could be reinvested in a major bat like Shin-Soo Choo and arm like Masahiro Tanaka

If the embattled general manager can flip Brown or Hamels for major prospects, the team could finally engage the Miami Marlins in legitimate trade conversation for star slugger Giancarlo Stanton. 

Juggling multiple scenarios in December won’t derail success in May and June, but there has to be a clear, united vision in the front office. Right now, it doesn’t feel that way in Philadelphia. If these same rumors centered around Dave Dombrowski in Detroit or Brian Cashman in New York, the benefit of the doubt would be awarded. 

Amaro, through his own fault, doesn’t garner that respect in the game. During his tenure, he’s made mistake after mistake. From handing Howard a five-year, $125 million deal two years before he hit free agency, to signing a closer to a $52 million deal, to trading Lee for nonimpact prospects, Amaro hasn’t proven worthy of faith.

Right now, with Byrd and Ruiz on board, Papelbon poised to close games, Lee and Hamels at the top of the rotation and Brown ready to build upon a breakout 2013, the Phillies are a few moves from fielding a competitive team. While they’ll likely be closer to .500 than a postseason berth, relevance could return to Citizens Bank Park next summer.

Moving any of their veteran pieces, especially stars like Lee and Hamels, would change that plan, possibly for the better. It would, however, turn 2014 into a rebuilding season and make the contracts handed out to Byrd and Ruiz look ridiculous to everyone in baseball.

In the National League East, every team outside of Philadelphia seems to have a plan. Washington is attempting to win big now, Atlanta has a core of proven youth, New York is inching closer toward contention and Miami is attempting to cultivate a team of inexpensive future stars.

Only one remains a mystery. Until the Phillies show their hand, skepticism will remain. Juggling multiple scenarios and possibilities remains fine for now, but the clock is ticking toward Opening Day and another season with an aging, veteran roster and shallow talent base in the farm system.

Amaro may be poised to fix his past mistakes, but it’s becoming harder and harder to imagine a winning team emerging from his disorganized offseason plan.

Do you have faith in Ruben Amaro?

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